Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Emotional Roller Coaster Ride

In the last half-century or so, the art of the "story ballet" has evolved out of all recognition.  The purely decorative and entertaining stories of the nineteenth century -- which usually showed only "what happened" -- have been bypassed in favour of powerful, gritty works which explore all aspects of characters and their motivations.

Even amidst such a stunning sea change with all that it implies, John Neumeier's A Streetcar Named Desire stands out as one of the toughest, most wrenching of its kind.  It recently received its Canadian premiere with the National Ballet of Canada.  I saw it over a week ago, but it has taken me this long to absorb it all and then set my thoughts in order.

Neumeier's work was created in Frankfurt in 1983, based (of course) on the 1947 play by Tennessee Williams -- one of the truly great classics of the twentieth-century theatre.  The power of Neumeier's work arises specifically from the fact that he doesn't try to retell the story as given in the play.  A smart decision, given that the two theatrical disciplines of drama and dance are so different in their range of possibilities.  Indeed, Neumeier's first act is entirely devoted to Blanche Dubois' back story -- the earlier events of her life which only emerge, in bits and pieces, throughout the original play.

This choice opens up the tremendous scope in dance to express emotions and deep inward thoughts which can only haltingly be presented in spoken words.

The first act, then, begins with Blanche in the asylum (i.e. at the end of the play).  We get taken through memory pictures of Blanche's sterile emotionless encounters with various men at the Flamingo Hotel.  The heart of this act is the stylized scene of her disastrous wedding day, and the act ends with the metaphorical "collapse" of Belle Reve.  The second act presents a series of vignettes drawn from the play, and Neumeier does not scruple to present sexuality and brutality forthrightly, albeit still in dance terms -- not in raw physical action.   This is not a ballet for the squeamish.

Neumeier's choice of music, then, is intriguing because on the surface there appears to be no connection at all with the material of the ballet.  Prokofiev's Visions fugitives for piano accompany the first act, and the second is set to Alfred Schnittke's Symphony No. 1.  Since the entire ballet is seen through Blanche's eyes, the Schnittke with its almost nightmarish mixtures of conflicting musical elements serves as an ideal musical metaphor for the slow collapse of her world which helps to precipitate her withdrawal from sanity.  Curiously, the choreographer has required that the music all be presented in recorded form.

In this performance the central role of Blanche was danced by Svetlana Lunkina with an apt mixture of strength and fragility underscoring her movements in many key scenes.  Expressive gestures and facial expressions clearly reminded us that this was the world as she saw it.  Particularly striking was the tentative air she assumed on her arrival into New Orleans at the beginning of the second act -- a compounding of uncertainty and fear with distaste and displeasure.  Lunkina apparently made light of the complexities of Neumeier's choreography.

In Act One, the other key role is her husband-to-be, Allan Grey, danced by Robert Stephen.

Conflict of Interest Alert:  My nephew.

One of the strongest scenes of the ballet is the dance sequence at the wedding, in which Grey continually finds himself facing another man (danced by Nan Wang) who obviously attracts and excites him.  The result is a kind of two-tiered choreography: the guests are dancing together in a kind of genteel square dance while Allan and his friend, within that group dance, are also having a private encounter -- without leaving their places in the group.  Neumeier has them edge towards each other, then away, then a little closer, and away again, several times. Stephen and Wang built the tension within this extended sequence into a powerful force that began to feel as if they were magnetically locked onto each other -- which, in terms of human desire, they were.


At last they get close enough to touch hands, and from there matters move more swiftly to the moment when they kiss each other -- and the crowd opens to allow Blanche to see them.  Allan then swiftly kills himself, leading us to another dramatic moment concluding the first act, a strong visual metaphor for the end of the plantation life at Belle Reve.  In the play, Blanche is compelled to surrender the estate to creditors.  Here, though, the loss turns into a physical catastrophe with the black-gowned and black-suited figures of her ancestors collapsing one by one on the floor as Lunkina raced desperately from one to another, trying to prop them up.  The apparently solid walls slowly dissolved downwards as slackening curtains in the final moments.

Strong as it is, this first act is nowhere close to the dramatic force of the second act.  Key to that dramatic force is the darkly threatening performance of Piotr Stanczyk as Stanley Kowalski.  You wouldn't have to know much at all about the story to know the instant he appeared that here was the embodiment of brute animal force without any hindrance of conscience.  Throughout the act, Stanczyk's face projected a kind of sneering disdain for everyone around him -- even for his wife, Stella.  Chelsy Meiss as Stella quickly and clearly delineated the key difference of positive energy which made her the polar opposite of her lacklustre and fading sister Blanche.

Donald Thom made a very good thing out of Stanley's friend, Mitch, his movements projecting a softer-edged approach to life that contrasted vividly with Stanczyk's edgier harshness. 

The ballet reaches its ultimate climax in the rape of Blanche by Stanley.  Neumeier asks a lot of his dancers, never more so than in this scene.  The choreography is anything but sexual in nature, and the message that rape is about power and not sexuality comes across loud and clear.  It's high-stakes physical motion through angular, awkward poses and movements succeeding each other with what is, and has to be, a sense of inevitability.  Kudos to both Stanczyk and Lunkina for superb execution of one of the most difficult dance scenes I've ever witnessed.

The denouement follows quickly, with Blanche being taken away to the sanatorium by a matron and a doctor.  As in the play, it's the doctor's kindness that wins her attention but more than that -- and this is another of Neumeier's flashes of genius -- the doctor is portrayed by the same dancer as Allan Grey (Robert Stephen) and this likeness is what truly persuades her to go, showing better than any words just how far her grasp of reality has slipped.  Lunkina beautifully portrayed Blanche's air of bewilderment in these final moments.

I know it wasn't just my reaction.  Several audience members I heard afterwards were expressing the same feeling, that this was an incredibly exhausting and intense ballet to watch.  All of us too wondered, I'm sure, how much more so it must be for the dancers.  John Neumeier's ballets are always dramatic and powerful, but with A Streetcar Named Desire he has reached new heights of intensity.  In that respect alone, he has been more than faithful to his source material.  And the National Ballet has been more than faithful in matching his vision with powerful dancing and staging.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Uncommon Modernity

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra's commitment to the music of our time is amply demonstrated by the annual New Creations Festival, a series of concerts devoted entirely to contemporary music.

Outside of that annual mini-festival, it's very unusual to find a concert like the one this week, in which the entire programme was composed within the last century.  However, the TSO has another unique programming initiative up its sleeve: the yearly Decades Project, in which a series of concerts highlight music from one decade of the last century in conjunction with exhibits, displays, and talks on other related arts of that decade.  This year, it's the 1930s.

The concert opened, though, with a new commission: Hero's Fanfare by Luc Martin, another in the series of "Sesquie" commissioned by the TSO for Canada's 150th anniversary.  Martin's music struck me as rather cryptic, and I believe he felt constrained by the request for the commissioned pieces to last approximately two minutes.  I had the distinct impression that his ideas, in this case, needed more room to breathe and expand.

Paul Hindemith's Concert Music for Strings and Brass is not a work I've ever heard before.  It was composed in the mid-phase of Hindemith's career, in between his nose-tweaking avant-garde early works and his later, more Romantic sounding music.  This two-movement work builds upon the contrasts between a brass choir of 12 and a large string section.  Some of the effects that appear in the music are very dissonant and a good performance depends on embracing and enjoying the dissonance.

Certainly the orchestra did that, in the passage so aptly described beforehand by Maestro Davis as "a rich string melody which the brass interrupt with rude discords."  Or take the section of the first movement in which the strings play what sounds like a major key melody while the brass "harmonize" it with chords that are emphatically not in C major. 

As played, this work left me with a slightly ambiguous feeling.  Even if Hindemith was dead-serious about that he was doing, the music came across with a sense that legs were being pulled.  I wonder if that satirical undertone was also intentional?

At any rate, the music certainly gave the string section opportunities to display their quality, and only once or twice were they in danger of being swamped by the brass.  An interesting work, but not one that I feel any strong urge to revisit.

That was not true of the next piece.  I'll be on the hunt for a good recording!

Alban Berg's Violin Concerto, his final completed work, was also a new encounter for me.  I've tended to fight shy of the music of the "Second Viennese School" altogether; the rigorous intellectualism of Schoenberg's twelve-tone system doesn't appeal to me.

But Berg successfully fused the system with the lush sounds of the late Romantic era, and this gives his music an entirely different cast from that of his colleagues.  There's no mistaking the depth of feeling that lies inside this work, written for a commission but devoted to a musical memorial to young Manon Gropius.

The orchestra's concertmaster, Jonathan Crow, gave the most rewarding concerto performance I have yet heard from him, encompassing the moods of the score and playing with both strength and clarity.  His playing was particularly moving in the slow, quiet ending of the concerto.

Even at a first hearing, it was obvious that the sometimes-heavy orchestral writing could easily overwhelm the soloist, but Maestro Davis for the most part preserved the balance.  His reading of the score was shaped with great affection and understanding, and I would certainly rate these as very necessary qualities in this music.  

The largest work on the programme, Sir William Walton's Belshazzar's Feast, definitely broke a whole series of molds when it was premiered in 1931.  It's still a repertoire staple in the United Kingdom, the composer's homeland, but has rather fallen from public view on this side of the ocean.  The number of performances in Toronto in my 63-year lifetime still can be counted on the fingers of one hand.  This, to my mind, truly qualifies it as a rarity, and I discussed the music in more detail in my rare music blog, at this link:  Brazen and Dissolute Splendour.

Part of the difficulty is the sheer size of the work, with its requirement for a huge double chorus, large orchestra, extra brass bands, and a very large percussion section.  This fact, as well as the music's intense demands on the skills of the performers, puts it beyond the reach of any but the largest choral and orchestral organizations.  In this performance, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir was joined by the Huddersfield Choral Society from England, a choir which has always stood among the very highest of choirs in England, the land of large choirs and choral festivals.

There's a famous story about the Huddersfield Choral Society performing Belshazzar's Feast in Vienna, many years ago, and the bass section of the choir singing the furious and hard-to-tune unaccompanied prophecy at the outset without even opening their scores -- which gives a good indication of their familiarity with Walton's dramatic music!

Conductor Sir Andrew Davis has a long history with this work, and has conducted it in many places.  He led it at the official opening of Roy Thomson Hall in 1982, and again at the re-opening (after extensive renovations) in 2002 -- the last time I heard it.  He also directed -- "whipped up" might be a better term -- the most hair-raising performance I've ever heard (on a recording), at the 100th anniversary of the Last Night of the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall, London.

The combined singers of the two choirs were magnificent.  The several unaccompanied passages, including that notorious opening, were all spot-on-pitch as far as I could tell.  Rhythmic precision and diction throughout were admirable, making it easy to follow the text at all times.  The choral sound remained rich and warm even in quieter passages such as the final words of the first section, "shall be found no more at all."  Then the whole choir in full cry nearly lifted the roof off of the hall when they sang "Thou, O King, art King of Kings.  O King, live forever!"  And precision reached its ultimate, as it must, in the single staccato shout of the word "Slain!" 

Sadly, baritone Alexander Dobson fell well below that standard in the solo role.  I've heard him before, and in much finer voice than here.  From his first notes, he seemed to be straining for volume and his voice developed an ugly vibrato under pressure.  Worse still, he dramatized to a ridiculous extent, reducing Walton's powerful inspiration into merely melodramatic kitsch. 

The orchestra took the honours of the night, playing with immense verve and power.  For many of the TSO's players, this could well have been a first encounter with Walton's jazzy and frenetic music, but they performed it with as much assurance as if they perform it every year.  The section describing the feast is loaded with traps for the unwary, with cross-rhythms and time signature changes flying thick and fast.  I'm sure there was plenty of careful counting going on, but I didn't detect any false entries.

Andrew Davis plainly was enjoying himself -- and why not?  From my seat on one side I could see that he still conducts the singers as much as the orchestra, an essential balancing act in this score.  If his tempi were a shade slower than some conductors might use, there was definitely nothing relaxed about the performance -- and the slightly slower speeds were all gain for clarity.

Aside from my doubts about the baritone soloist, a splendid performance affirming the work's status as a great masterpiece of the twentieth century.