(Costa Mesa, CA) March, 2014 – An amalgam of tradition and contemporary styles made their presence known during the middle of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ 2014 chamber music and dance season. The St. Lawrence String Quartet not only performed two popular string quartets by Joseph Hayden, as well as the last chamber work composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, but also a world premiere by Brooklyn-based composer James Matheson. For the Les Ballet de Monte-Carlo, Director-Choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot adapts the 1917 classic of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake into LAC, whose American premiere also takes place at the Segerstrom. For this cultural duet of music and dance, does this marriage of tradition and contemporary styles succeed? For the most part, it does. But the flaws are not due to these talented artists. Both the chamber music quartet and the prestigious ballet company exude passionate energy and classical grace.
Besides debuting a new string quartet by a modern composer, the St. Lawrence String Quartet—whose core members include first violinist Geoff Nuttall, violist Lesley Robertson, and cellist Christopher Costanza—also show a significant change with their second violinist, Mark Frewer, who replaced Scott St. John this past January. But this replacement doesn’t hamper the overall harmony and chemistry of the quartet. Nuttall’s dynamically animated performance during all four works is a pure treat, displaying pure enjoyment and a boyish grin that was reminiscent of character actor William Russ (“Wiseguy,” “Boy Meets World”). But Nuttal’s “Ying” is calmed and balanced by the “Yang” of his fellow artists: Costanza lays a nice, solid foundation with his cello; Robertson’s viola displays a type of wise stability that grounds the violins; and Frewer especially matches Nuttal in terms of pacing, harmony, and precision, never being overshadowed.
With regard to the selected pieces, Haydn was the true star of the evening. The quartet began with Haydn’s popular String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 20, No. 1. The rhythm and theme for all four movements was reminiscent of a traveler walking at different speeds. For the Allegro moderato, it was a leisurely stroll through a park, while the Minuet: Un poco allegretto picks up the walker’s speed to a patterned skipping or jog. Then Hayden slows the action with the patient Affetuosso e sostenuto, where the notes become tranquil and airy…the visualization of the traveler just allowing himself to float in the wind. But with Finale: Presto, it’s a fast, full sprint, ending with a powerful finish.
The next piece was Matheson’s String Quartet, which was wisely moved from the third presented selection—post intermission—to the second. This is the only flaw of the entire performance, not due to the quartet, but to Matheson’s lack of thematic context. Any kind of classical work should conjure two reactions within the listener: an emotional response and a visualization of a mental picture being created from within. Lasting just over 30 minutes, the work seems to be more about causing only an emotional response. Although Matheson did note that the work was inspired by a combination of his experiences in an Italian castle in Umbria (Civitella Ranieri), as well as the opening lines from Dante’s Inferno, the final results doesn’t reflect those inspirations. For example, for “All Leap and No Faith,” the music seemed to be a series of eerie, creepy notes that go on and on, rising and falling, pushing the quartet to the limits in terms of the speed involved. The best comparison would be Bernard Herrmann’s scores of Alfred Hitchcock films, most notably Psycho, played for 15 to 20 minutes, without any sense of rest or resolution. The second movement, “Y ‘heart’ X,” does posses that kind of respite, but it’s all ominous dread without providing any kind of recognizable structure, very similar to Howard Shore’s musical work on The Silence of the Lambs, specifically the famously pivotal piece titled “The Moth,” where Jodie Foster discovers that Jame Gumb (Ted Levine) is in fact the killer she’s hunting. And then Matheson goes full speed and off-kilter once again with “Pure Chocolate Energy.” The flow and transitions are considerably rough whose purpose is just to create emotional response within the listeners, not to transport them into another realm or frame of mind. Matheson is talented, but his quartet is in much need of serious revision before it should be performed again.
However, Matheson’s quartet does provide a nice transition to the third selection of the evening: Korngold’s String Quartet No. 3 in D, Op. 34. A composer of Hollywood film scores, including winning an Oscar for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Korngold’s chamber work has many elements of a cinematic score. Allegro moderato is similar to Matheson’s method regarding the use of sweeping up and down musical swings of the notes, creating a hyper sense of dread. But in Scherzo: Allegro molto, Korngold accomplishes what Matheson fails to do: he takes the listeners from the world of dread and places them in a thematic foundation of fast-paced purpose. The quickness and the background themes of the second movement provide an escape to an unknown destination, which leads to the profound Sostenuto. This section is the most powerful of the entire work; it’s languid, patient pacing is very reminiscent of films directed by Akira Kurosawa, not only in terms of Asian elements, but also how it seems to reveal the pain of a lonely soul, especially in the movement’s heartbreaking coda. And then Korngold transports the listeners from pain to pleasure as the fourth movement provides the final release that possesses elements of joy and regality, very similar to the evening’s fourth selection—Hayden’s String Quartet in C major, Op. 76, No. 3. Aptly titled “The Emperor,” this work was a perfect segue from Korngold’s quartet and, with its second movement that inspired the national anthem of Germany, served as an ideal end to an evening that demonstrates the skill of the St. Lawrence String Quartet.
For The American premiere of LAC (after Swan Lake) by Les Ballets De Monte-Carlo (3/7-9. 2014), Jean-Christophe Maillot’s adaptation from Piotr llyich Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet follows the same paradigm, but he adds his own creative touches right at the very beginning. The prologue starts first as a silent black and white movie, feeling very much as though the audience was viewing a dream, or perhaps a nightmare. In the vision, there is a king and queen (Alvaro Prieto and Mimoza Koike) having a picnic with their son, the prince. The family meets an innocent girl and the prince experiences love for the first time. But their joy is soiled by the presence of Her Majesty of the Night (Maude Sabourin) and her two Archangels of Darkness (Asier Edeso and Bruno Roque), adorned in black and filled with animalistic rage and hunger. The evil witch wants to pair the young prince with her own daughter, whom he refuses. Out of vengeful spite, she kidnaps the young innocent girl and flees into the woods with her daughter and minions.
Many years pass and the prince has grown up (Stephan Bourgond). His parents want him to marry, but he refuses all the pretentious courtesans, and in frustration, flees into a darkened forest. There, he meets a white swan who turns into a beautiful young woman (Anja Behrend) during the nighttime. When he discovers that she is his long, lost love from his youth, he proclaims his love for her. But the Majesty of the Night has other plans for him, involving her own adult daughter, the Black Swan (April Bell) that might result in his doom.
All the key performers shine in terms of their physical grace and their emotional ranges. Bourgond and Behrend possess a compatible innocence and sweetness that is endearing during their scenes together. Prieto’s King is arrogantly regal and Koike’s Queen shows a dignified sympathy through the trials that she has to face regarding the questionable fidelity of her husband. But Sabourin’s Majesty is a dynamo of a villainess, combining human malevolence and primal ferocity. Edesto, Roque, and especially Ball beautifully fluctuate from human to avian monstrosities and back again with incredible fluidity. Behrend’s White Swan and all the dancers who play the other swans show that magnificent transformation as well, but with less malevolence, which works with those characters. Their collective ability to dance with an amalgam of human/animal movements is a true testament of their craft and their discipline.
But the true star is Maillot’s choreography and critical story changes to LAC. The dance styles and pacing is ongoing without any sense of drag whatsoever. And the fact that he shows the conflict and contrast between human and animal/avian choreography really enhances the overall beauty of the work. The two key changes he made to the story involve changing the villain from a male to a female and adding the prologue. In the original story, the villain is a human sorcerer named Von Rothbart. In Maillot’s adaptation, the antagonist is a supernatural hybrid human/animal witch who has strong elements and similarities to the Arthurian demoness Morgan le Fey. This enhances the supernatural facets of the story even more. But Maillot adding the movie prologue gives the story much needed context in terms of why the prince doesn’t feel right being near the courtesans that want to marry him: They are not his first, true innocent love. By showing the young prince and the princess connect in the beginning, that makes their courtship scenes more poignant, adding to the drama and conflict of the overall piece. Maillot’s experimental adaption of Swan Lake is a creative coup for the director that will hopefully result in a successful world tour.
Peter A. Balaskas is a journalist, fiction writer, editor, and voice over artist.
Check out these performances occurring during the 2014 Season
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis: Segerstrom Hall---3/14/2014
Philharmonia Baroque Chamber Players: Samueli Theater---3/16/14---reviewed by me
I Love Lucy: Live on Stage: Segerstrom Hall---3/18-23/2014
Patti LuPone: Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall---3/22/2014
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Segerstrom Hall---3/27-30/2014---reviewed by me
Diana Krall: Segerstrom Hall ---4/5/2014
Cre8ion—Fluff: Samueli Theater---4/5-6/2014
Mamma Mia!: Segerstrom Hall ---4/8-13/2014
Jimmy Webb and Maureen McGovern: Samueli Theater---4/11-13/2014
RAIN: A Tribute to the Beatles: Segerstrom Hall ---4/25-26/2014
Snowflake: Samueli Theater---4/26-27/2014
Fred Hersch Trio: Samueli Theater---5/2-3/2014
The Book of Mormon: Segerstrom Hall ---5/13-25/2014
Lightwire Theater: The Ugly Duckling and the Tortoise and the Hare: Samueli Theater---5/17-18/2014
LA Opera in Concert: Thais: Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall---5/27/2014
Jersey Boys: Segerstrom Hall---6/24-7/13/2014
Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev: Segerstrom Hall---7/25-27/2014---reviewed by me
Ghost: The Musical: Segerstrom Hall---7/29-8/10/2014
ONCE: Segerstrom Hall---8/19-31/2014
600 Town Center Drive,
Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197
Photos by “LAC” (Laurent Philippe and Alice Blangero) and the St. Lawrence String Quartet (Marco Borggreve)