A strange thing happened at the office today. I got a call from the Powell Hall box office. Thinking they were going to put the squeeze on me to decide on next year's season ticket, I asked my secretary to take a message. As it turned out, they wanted to 'upgrade' my seat. In hindsight, I think 'upgrade' was code for "we can sell a pair of seats if we move you somewhere else". I think my original seat would have been better.
Tonight, the St. Louis Symphony performed with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. So, I figured, no problem, they'll scoot the orchestra back and dance up front. Nope. They built a stage extension and 'wings' out of convention center partitioning--lots of black burlap and a touch of red velvet for style. My seat looked right into a wall of black. I couldn't see the orchestra at all, and only about two thirds of the stage. The orchestra was on a raised platform behind the dance floor.
The performance, or what I could see of it, was stunning. The opening piece was a post-modern rendition of Bach, using movements from the Brandenburg Concerti and cello and harp solos from some other suites. It was my least favorite of the four pieces in the concert. Boys in fey little doublets and girls in flouncy skirts pranced around the stage with rather militaristic gestures. There was some kind of story about the court jester being shunned then accepted by the courtesans and an interesting, tho chaste, strip tease in which one of the girls lost her sleeves and skirts. In one impressive move, the boys lifted her and spun her head over heels in a sort of slow-motion back flip as they carried her downstage. You'd have to see it. She floated as if defying gravity.
The second part of the concert featured Stravinsky and Bernstein. The dancers didn't participate in the Stravinsky, but the orchestra nailed it like the pros they are. 'Three Pieces for Clarinet' showcased the remarkable skill of Scott Andrews, who awed a restless audience into silence; 'Symphonies of Wind Instruments' showcased the Symphony's greatly improved horn section delivering a great performance. But all this paled as Hubbard Street took back the stage for Bernstein's 'Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs'. First let me say that I haven't explored much of Bernstein's music due to a fear of the atonal, but this piece was astounding--lively and timeless, showing the best potential of Jazz. The dancers, though, brought it to life in a kind of jitterbug on crack. It was synchronized hopping, or Irish dance without the kicking, that framed some dynamic choreography that truly expressed the character of the music. All dressed in identical business suits, the cast came alive for this piece much more than they had for the Bach.
Bolero. We've all heard it, many of us are preternaturally fascinated with it. I'm one of those. I almost jumped out of my shoes when I saw the poster proclaiming 'Hubbard Street Dance Chicago/ Bolero'. I thought, OMG! they're going to dance Bolero! No such luck. It was a heartbreak to read nothing following 'RAVEL: Bolero (1928)' at the end of the program; no dancers, no choreographers, no lighting designers. I was faced the with prospect of staring at black burlap while sound wafted from the mysterious hidden platform where the chorus usually sits. It brought back memories from earlier in the season when a great mezzo performed on a bill that included the Liebestod, only she didn't sing the Liebestod, it was the abominable and useless orchestral version--just like the prospect of Hubbard Street dancing Bolero, it was a tease.
But, alas, they moved the chairs forward and I got to watch a second violinist toy with her neighbor, teasing him about not being able to see the conductor, trying to steal his bow, kicking his shoe. It was cute. It was virtually all I could see; but I don't want to dwell on my bad seat.
The audience was incredibly rude, coughing and fidgeting as David Roberson presided over the first muted bars of Bolero. The air conditioning was louder than the snare drum. I could barely hear the opening rendition of the melody. Bolero droned on. But this was not your garden variety Bolero. This was a Bolero that built slowly and steadily, with a subtlety you wouldn't think an orchestra of this size could achieve. You know how the rhythm shifts from instrument to instrument? And you know how on every recording you've ever heard, you know exactly when that shift takes place? None of that was audible in Powell Hall tonight. The rhythm and melody alike snuck around the orchestra and popped up in surprising places. Yes, this is Bolero, possibly the most over-played piece of classical music ever, and it sounded like I have never heard it before or ever dreamt it could sound. Those pesky transitions that mar every performance I've ever heard were gone. By the time my second violinist had to pick up her instrument and leave her stud muffin alone in favor of teasing out the rhythm, the audience was rapt. Everybody knew they were hearing the best performance they'd ever hear of this piece.