MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Dancing to the John Adams Violin Concerto

I was delighted to be able to catch the last of the three New Moves programs at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The series involved an innovative collaboration between the National Symphony Orchestra — playing music by American composers, each program featuring works by living artists — and various dance companies.

The choreographer commissioned for this final program was Jessica Lang, who brought along the nine members of her New York-based company to perform her new piece Scape. Lang explained that of the works on the program, she chose the Violin Concerto from 1993 by John Adams without hesitation as the piece she wanted to choreograph. (The concert’s first half was presented as a standard orchestral performance.)

Both the Sinfonia No. 4 by George Walker, on the first half, and the Adams were the obvious highlights, in my opinion. Michael Daugherty’s Red Cape Tango seemed especially weak and awkward in this company (better suited for a pops concert), while conductor Thomas Wilkins led an auto-pilot reading of Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite.

Still a creative force at 91, George Walker wrote his single-movement Sinfonia No. 4 a couple years ago; the New Jersey Symphony gave the premiere in March 2012. It’s a tightly constructed score that Walker has titled “Strands,” as he told me, because of the “interplay of several melodic and motivic elements that are fused into a mosaic-like texture.” Because the commission was for a relatively short piece, Walker realized he could make a maximal impact by composing a concise one-movement work featuring the density of symphonic thought. The alternative of a “concert opener” or fanfare-type piece held no appeal. Walker adds that “the entire tradition of a one-movement ‘sinfonia’ goes back to the Baroque era, though there’s nothing neoclassical about my writing.”

Several audience members in the post-concert QA wondered whether the violin soloist Leila Josefowicz hadn’t felt upstaged, facing competition, with the dancers carrying on throughout the length of this complex, expansive score. Leila said she was grateful to experience this new dimension of a work she’s played so many times now and in fact envied the audience’s perspective of being able to take in the entirety of the interaction.

Both she and Jessica Lang were beautifully attuned to the Concerto’s many emotional layers. Lang decided at the last minute to make use of the chorister loft space for the opening movement, bringing her dancers down to an extended stage lip in front of the orchestra during the haunting second-movement Chaconne (“Body through which the dream flows”) and cranking up the physical energy to a breathless level to match the music of Adams’s “Toccare.” Especially effective, I thought, was Lang’s focus on abstract interaction with the music, with just a suggestive minimum of narrative clues for the audience to tease out if and as they wished.

(Afterward, Leila spoke a bit about Adams’s upcoming violin-orchestra project, Scheherazade .2 which will be a BIG musical event to look forward to next year.)

Kudos to the NSO and director of artistic planning Nigel Boon for putting together this programming innovation. I hope this won’t end up being a one-off but will inspire similar efforts by the NSO and other institutions.

Filed under: American music, commissions, dance, John Adams

One Response - Comments are closed.

  1. Donald Byrd says:

    Glad to read about this… Christophe Chagnard’s Northwest Sinfonietta and I (with the dancers from Spectrum Dance Theater) did a similar collaboration several years ago. The program was all Stravinsky. There were four pieces on the program, Suite from “Pulchinella”, Suites No 1 and No. 2 for Small Orchestra, and I created new choreography for “Ragtime” and “Danses Concertantes”. Especially interesting for me was “Danses Concertantes” where I had the dancers moved not only in front of the orchestra but also between and behind it. What a thrilling and wonderful experience it was.


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