The Merce Cunningham Dance Company brought its namesake's signature style to Harman Hall.
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company brought its namesake's signature style to Harman Hall. (By Anna Finke)
Saturday, March 29, 2008

Merce Cunningham Dance

Merce Cunningham, now 88, surprised everyone by speed-rolling his wheelchair onstage Thursday for the curtain call after the local premiere of his most recent work, "eyeSpace." His shoulders are rounded now, but his hair still sticks up impishly and his gaze is commanding.

This latest work was as instantly recognizable for the choreographer's singular vision and sensibility as his older works on the program at Sidney Harman Hall, performed by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Amazingly, "eyeSpace" feels fresh and packs a visual wallop even though many of the elements, such as its random pairing of soundtrack and movement, have been in the Cunningham canon for decades.

The score of "eyeSpace" is programmed on iPods distributed to audience members before the performance. An additional "environmental score" of city sounds is performed live. You can layer the sound if you want by listening to both, or turn off your iPod altogether. Either way, the soundscape is dense and surrounds the dancers like wet, heavy air.

The setting is Henry Samelson's 3-D painting "Blues Arrive Not Anticipating What Transpires Even Between Themselves." Underfoot is a sea of diagonal lines. Above are massive blue and red triangles. The proportions make the 14 dancers look small. All is bathed in blue light and clouds of mist. The simple trios, a quartet and a duet don't grab your attention. Neither do they offend. And that is the odd secret of the work's visual wallop. For "eyeSpace" creates a fabulous space for the eye to wander; the nebulous choreography allows that to happen.

Also gracing the program was "Crwdspcr" from 1993 and the revival of the 1970 ensemble work "Second Hand," itself adapted from a Cunningham solo from two decades earlier, which was the last work created to specific music before Cunningham changed to more random pairings of music and movement.

The program's three-evening run concludes tonight at 8 at Sidney Harman Hall.

-- Pamela Squires

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Marin Alsop has used her first season with the Baltimore Symphony to establish her credentials as an interpreter of core repertoire. About to conclude performances of the complete Beethoven symphonies, the BSO is recording the next installment in its three-CD Dvorak project this weekend at Meyerhoff Hall. The Ninth Symphony, just released on disc, yielded better results than the less familiar Sixth, at least during the concert on Thursday night.

Alsop steamrollered through the first movement, the agitated pace at odds with the composer's call for a relatively moderate tempo. Sections marked tranquillo, grandioso and pesante ("heavy") flew by with little differentiation, creating a harried feeling, although the trombones and tuba helped to amass thrilling swells of sound. The second movement was lush but strictly metered, with the horns, oboe and clarinet stalwart at clutch moments. The third movement was a brisk and folklike furiant, but some of its accented metric shifts were less than natural. Here and later in the concert, some crucial piccolo notes cracked. Judging by the flute section's conference afterward, a bad spring or sticky key was to blame.

Dvorak's B Major Nocturne was offered as a frothy, strings-only aperitif, held at a contained dynamic by Alsop, highlighting the luminous E strings of her violin section. After intermission, Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 2 showcased popular soloist Andr¿ Watts, who, like Alsop, got his start under Leonard Bernstein. Now in his 60s, Watts showed solid technique, with a brassy command of the work's large-handed chords. Watts more than made up for a lack of nuance in the first movement and a tendency to rush in the second with a gossamer-smooth third movement. This was Brahms of private emotions, kept under the vest, most plaintive in the hushed dialogues between the piano and the warm cello solos of Ilya Finkelshteyn.

This concert will be repeated at 8 tonight at Strathmore.

-- Charles T. Downey

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