Performing arts: Lesole's Dance Project, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Moscow Virtuosi

Monday, November 22, 2010

Lesole's Dance Project

What is it like to be homeless, and what should government and society be doing to make sure fewer people have to live this way? These are the questions choreographer Lesole Maine and his dancers sought to tackle in their performance of "Without a Home" at Dance Place on Saturday.

The first bright spot in this concert had nothing to do with the action onstage, but rather came from what was happening beside it: A quartet comprising a guitarist, a violinist, a banjo player and a drummer provided accompaniment for this evening-length work. It is an increasingly rare treat to hear live music at a dance performance, and these musicians brought an urgency and intimacy to the work that greatly enhanced it.

Maine, a native of South Africa, has developed a rich and distinctive movement idiom that draws from both modern and traditional African dance. Light, lofty jumps with outstretched limbs give way to slow, swooping arches of the back or fast, scuttling footwork.

If only his choreographic concept were as well developed as his movement style. For much of the dance, the steps didn't congeal into any clear narrative or message about homelessness. And given the heart-rending subject matter, the dance's emotional undercurrent was oddly stagnant. In a post-performance discussion with the audience, Maine said that the work was supposed to include video footage of interviews with homeless people, but Maine axed it at the last minute because he felt it wasn't ready. Perhaps that multimedia element is the missing link that would help "Without a Home" make more sense.

- Sarah Halzack

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Shostakovich's 10th Symphony - one of the peaks in his mighty cycle of 15 symphonies - received a performance of great concentration and tonal beauty from the Baltimore Symphony under veteran conductor Gunther Herbig at Strathmore Hall on Saturday. Much of this alternately brooding and tenderly lyrical work sounds as if it's emerging from one of the introspective slow movements in Mahler's late symphonies, and Herbig was careful to take his time with the music and layer its many gradations of quiet expression to draw out the considerable power it contains.

But, Shostakovich being Shostakovich, there can't be too much quiet time to think without the Soviet Army breaking down the door to the sound of threatening lower brass, hectoring drums and violins that seem to be shrieking under the assault. Happily, Herbig's skillful grading of sound during these militaristic climaxes - aided by Strathmore's acoustics aerating the instrumental textures - insured sonic punch without ear-strafing stridency.

The conductor brought an almost impressionistic delicacy to Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1, partnering the gifted young Chinese violinist Tianwa Yang. Yang found a way to make the obstacle course Prokofiev lays out for the soloist sound easy, knocking off the trenchant lower-string chords and rapid-fire pizzicatos with crisp execution and an infectious brio. In Ravel's "Mother Goose" Suite, Herbig drew playing of diaphanous magic from the BSO strings, in a delicate and expansive reading that didn't over-freight the Oriental color in the "Empress of the Pagodas" movement, or the lumbering woodwinds in "Beauty and the Beast."

- Joe Banno

Moscow Virtuosi

For more than 30 years, the Russian violin master Vladimir Spivakov has led the Moscow Virtuosi, a small, hand-picked chamber orchestra, in tours and acclaimed recordings. Violinist/conductors are thick on the ground, since most soloists lead classical concertos by themselves at one point or another; some then get delusions of grandeur and take on actual conducting roles in other repertoire. But very few project more than an amateur's skill at it, and Spivakov is one of the elect: a real conductor, with real ideas and the technical means to express them.

In a highly appealing program of Russian and classical works Friday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, Spivakov & Co. displayed extraordinarily high musical polish. In Boccherini's Symphony No. 4, every phrase had a shape, a color, and a concept behind it. The dynamic range was startlingly wide, with stinging accents and caressing lyrical sections. Pianist Alexander Ghindin offered a graceful rendition of Mozart's Concerto No. 9, but over-the-top rubato in a Chopin encore, the hands rarely lining up. Frothy encores by Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Piazzolla were high points, the group letting its hair down in lighter fare while still maintaining the strictest ensemble.

There were oddities, though. Placing the violin sections together (still common in large orchestras) blurs the many antiphonal effects carefully planned out by classical composers. And for some reason, the violinists had to squeeze in three to a stand, something I've never seen before. This certainly worked to ensure precision alignment of bowing! And finally, while the corporate sound was certainly well-blended, the various solos did not display the very highest tonal beauty. Still, this is unquestionably a world-class group, whose visits here are too rare.

- Robert Battey

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