IN: Reviews

CSO and Company Unbridled


by  Nora Paul

Ruth Whitney as Juliet and Sabi Varga as Romeo  (Sam Brewer photo)

The Cambridge Symphony Orchestra presented Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet in collaboration with the City Youth Ballet of Boston at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium in the latest of a series of semi-staged ballets. The ensemble’s highly regarded stagings of Stravinsky’s Firebird (2016), Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (2018), and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty (in the 2020-21 season) preceded this one.  Conductor Cynthia Woods led Prokofiev’s Soviet Realist score, relishing in his unbridled neo-Romanticism.

Former principal dancer with the Boston Ballet, Gianni Gino Di Marco choreographed this reduced-scale version of a work originally promoted for the Kirov Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia, but first premiered in full in 1938 at the Mahen Theater, Brno (in modern-day Czechia).

The Mosfilm  version with  Galina Ulanova And Konstantin Sergeyev won the Palme d’Or at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. It had its American premiere in 1969. Since then, the ballet has been ubiquitous, with choreography by Rudolph Nureyev for London Festival Ballet, Peter Martins for New York City Ballet, and many more. According to Wikipedia, “IN 2008, musicologist Simon Morrison, author of The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years, unearthed the original materials in the Moscow archives, obtained permissions, and reconstructed the entire score. Mark Morris created the choreography for the production. The Mark Morris Dance Group premiered the work at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in New York state. The production subsequently began a year-long tour to include Berkeley, Norfolk, London, New York, and Chicago.” A solo piano version and, of course, many orchestral suites and extractions have enjoyed tremendous popularity on concert stages. YouTube hosts dozens of examples.

Di Marco and the movement artists made familiar the Montagues and the Capulets, in a Verona the audience could recognize. Mixed gestural and codified ballet, but even amongst the full-bodied ballet phrases was an expressiveness that surpassed the capacities of technique. Facial expressions and legible body language were woven into the movement, which itself sometimes veered in form from the traditional ballet in which Di Marco was trained.

Ruth Whitney, who studied at the Boston Ballet and danced in Stravinsky’s The Firebird in a Cambridge Symphony Orchestra performance in 2016, was Juliet; and Sabi Varga, whose repertory includes among the likes of George Balanchine. The dancers traveled within a narrow strip of marley at the front of the stage, foregrounding the orchestra. Their movements and stillnesses fused with the darting elbows of string musicians behind them.

Sabi Varga as Romeo, Gianni Gino Di Marco as The Priest and Ruth Whitney as Juliet (Sam Brewer photo).

Whitney’s costumes, like the animated gestures that made the plot more legible, created an exciting, contemporary feel.

The bombshell Juliet Brown left nothing to be wanted in her role as Mercutio. She brought an unrelenting fire to the role of Romeo’s close friend—in fact, upon being stabbed, it took Mercutio a few minutes, and about five tour jetés, to finally die. Choreographically, she danced a man’s ballet role as such, executing the turns a la seconde, triumphant turning jumps, cabrioles, and more, which are normally reserved for male dancers in ballet.

The devotion of the immortal couple proved affectively striking. In the scene where Romeo visits his beloved in the night, Juliet’s port de bras expressed the covalent emotions of desperation and tender hope; swaying motions of her back and shoulder trailed her head in the waves of its gravity before the lovers embraced.

The Boston City Youth Ballet appeared alongside the principal dancers in a few episodes, invigorating the village scenes with vibrancy and bold colors.

There being no pit at Kresge, the players sat behind the dancers, filling that back half of the stage, and communicating the equality of music and movement in Prokofiev’s masterpiece. Miracle-working conductor Cynthia Woods led the admittedly ‘community’ ensemble as they provided music for the star-studded troupe of dancers. The premonition I felt at the erroneously named ‘tuning tone’ was born out in passages of questionable intonation. However, Wood’s disciplined, rock-solid direction guided the group’s more aware players to some moments of genuine refinement. The second violins mustered some real lyricism that blended beautifully with the rich sound of the lower stings. At some dramatic moments, all of the string players executed tight runs and arpeggios that seemed to fly off the string like a dancer’s jeté.

Principal cellist Rupert Hunz’s silvery tone melded beautifully with high winds in The Young Girl Juliet. It may be best to say little about the brass, other than that players should be advised to stick to their principal instruments when delivering difficult solos, but the team of percussionists brought a colorful layer, like sprinkles on a cake, to finish out the ensemble. The audience broke out into applause at several points in the evening, encouraging the performers to dance and play on.

Ed. Note: The last two paragraphs were edited after publication.

A musicology PhD student at Boston University, Christopher Hodges earned a M.M. in organ performance with Peter Sykes.
Nora Paul,  an arts journalist in Chicago, is currently studying dance in Boston.


5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Any community group that tackles a difficult work such as Prokofiev’s R&J deserves respect. Any reviewer going to a community concert should expect that the rendering will not be of BSO quality. The last two paragraphs are just mean and they were edited! Did the orchestra or the dance company request this review? Where should the line be drawn when reviewing community groups vs professional ones? Curious what others think .

    Comment by MLevin — June 25, 2023 at 8:13 am

  2. The orchestra’s publicist requested a review. It’s fair to let readers know what to expect from an all-volunteer, non-auditioned, pay-to-play ensemble. And FWIW, much of the “last two paragraphs” praised aspects of the playing.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — June 25, 2023 at 9:15 am

    As music reviewers, we strive to use our writing skills to communicate thoughts and opinions about both musical works and performances of them. To this end, you will see a blend of evaluations of musical works and evaluations of the ways performers bring them to life – sometimes good, sometimes bad.

    Since theater and music can be effective avenues for creating empathy and shared understanding, I always appreciate when a reviewer goes out of his/her way to commend those special aspects of a performance that are exceptional and unusual. But it’s not realistic to expect reviews to all be raves. And nor should we.

    There must be room for just criticism, both in a humorous vein (see Nicholas Slonimsky’s “A Lexicon of Musical Invective”) and a concerned one (see “Shaw’s Music: The Complete Musical Criticism of George Bernard Shaw”). Writers hope that editors will not take out justified evaluative comments, just as he/she would not take out specific praise, if warranted. I think this balance of negative and positive makes each review stronger; otherwise, reviews just devolve into a reprinted press releases.

    Some critics hail from families of artists, and so must also modulate their criticism (and praise) when discussing the sonic contributions of musicians they know more deeply than simply “as performers” (i.e., composer Matt Aucoin in the son of the Globe’s longtime drama critic Dan Aucoin, and many local reviewers are able to calmly assess the voices/playing of musicians they know personally). Critical comments of performances are especially crucial in these situations (see James Prichard’s recent review “The Parapet Jump in Concord” which mentions his son briefly).

    Comment by Laura Prichard — July 2, 2023 at 10:15 am

  4. >> Some critics hail from families of artists, and so must also modulate their criticism (and praise) when discussing the sonic contributions of musicians they know more deeply than simply “as performers” ….

    ? Do you (does anyone) know of any professional publication where a parent is or has been allowed to review one of their children?

    Comment by David Moran — July 3, 2023 at 5:57 pm

  5. ? Do you (does anyone) know of any professional publication where a parent is or has been allowed to review one of their children?

    Viennese music critic Julius Korngold both wrote about his son Erich’s music and also collaborated with his son on operatic libretti. Some critics hail from families of artists, and so must also modulate their criticism (and praise) when discussing the sonic contributions of musicians they know more deeply than simply “as performers” ….

    This novel wrestles with a related critical issue, from the perspective of a daughter struggling with her father’s musical legacy.

    Similarly, the history podcast Mother Country Radicals features Zayd Ayers Dohrn discussing and evaluating his parent’s political and historical legacy.

    and more below

    Comment by Laura Prichard — July 4, 2023 at 8:07 pm

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