by Robert Rollin
The Cleveland Chamber Symphony conducted by Stephen Smith resumed its Verb Ballets collaboration last Thursday evening, June 13, in Baldwin Wallace University’s Gamble Auditorium. The concert, titled “Music that Dares to Explore,” presented four interesting and relatively new pieces, one of which was a world premiere. Two of the performances involved the Verb Ballets.
The most ingratiating piece was BW composer-in residence, Clint Needham’s Urban Sprawl. The only piece utilizing the full ensemble complement, Urban Sprawl is, in the words of the composer, “a funky, jazzy, kitschy, and hopefully fun ode to suburban life.” Needham got the idea for the piece when he and his wife were house hunting and viewed the insides of strange houses with crazy wallpaper, hideous paint colors, abortive do-it-yourself projects, and oddball tobacco smells. He wrote his piece visualizing the inhabitants dancing a quirky new dance he called the “Urban Sprawl.”
The raucous, yet transparently-bright textures using intervals and harmonies evoking Copland’s Americana works, proved a fertile mine for the six Verb Ballets dancers’ talents. At times hinting at paired square dance, and at others having a tall male dancer engage a similarly statuesque female in a suggestive pas de deux, the seven-minute performance successively displayed the brightest colors of the woodwind, brass, and string sections, accompanied all the while by flashy percussion.
Paired instrumental colors seemed to combine with paired dancers to suggest both physical and almost amorous competition. The pairings floated in and out of larger ensemble combinations. A fertile imagination and orchestrational skill were evident. The dance was imaginative and well adapted to the music.
Steven Smith’s three-movement string quartet provided fodder for the second dance collaboration. Unfortunately the monochromatic texture and ensemble placement well towards the stage rear made the sound generally a bit soft and unfocused.
The first movement, marked Allegro deciso, began oddly with a sustained sound mass texture that that gave no sense of tempo at all. The “slow introduction” mentioned in the program never seemed to end. Paired antiphonal instrumental harmonics, pizzicatos and other pointillistic experimental techniques gradually began to suggest a moderato tempo, but never displayed the sonata-form structure indicated in the program notes. Nor was there a true sense of Allegro tempo.
It was not surprising, therefore, that the dance did not begin until the middle of the second movement. This movement, marked Adagio cantabile, was more successful and had lovely solos in the cello and viola. Having no program to portray, the Verb Ballets’ four dancers, in male/female pairs, floated in and out of full ensemble and paired groupings. The dynamic range was more interesting as the music and dancers flowed into a few somewhat climactic moments.
The third movement, Allegro vivace, was more motoric and involved mixed asymmetrical metric groupings of twos and threes. The faster tempo helped, but again the lack of program seemed to attenuate the connection between music and dance. The dancers again had movements evolving between full ensemble and the two pairings.
James Hirt’s Chromatophores, another atonal work, received its premiere at the concert. Though not listed on the program, the notes delineated three movements containing synesthetic musical allusions: Twilight Blue; Grey Echo; and Liquid Red. The slow sonorous second movement had some nice high bassoon solos, and the more-rapid third, some intriguing coloristic blendings.
The late Michael Leese’s Music for Harp, Percussion and Strings was a charming single movement piece divided into two large sections named by the composer “The Exuberance of Youth,” and “The Understanding of Maturity.” Scored for solo harp, string quartet, piano and two percussionists, this interesting octet elicited some beautiful colors from the small ensemble. Talented harpist Julia Jamison brilliantly displayed the arresting solo part. Colorful suspended cymbal, subdued marimba, and softly delicate drum parts enlivened an early climactic moment, and, indeed, much of the piece. Several lovely cello solos played by principal Heidi Albert, and another solo played by principal violinist Susan Britton, provided musical highlights. The piece stood well on its own, without the benefit of dancers.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com June 15, 2013
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