(Costa Mesa, CA) February, 2014 – The Segerstrom Center for the Arts was graced by two cultural institutions during this chilly early 2014 winter: The Emerson String Quartet and the Hamburg Ballet. Both groups were in a type of experimental mode during their appearances. The Emerson String Quartet has a new cellist for the first time since 1979 when they first formed, and the Hamburg Ballet willperform the North American premiere of Liliom, a 2011 ballet interpretation of the 1909 Feneric Molnar play, which was later adapted to the 1945 musical Carousel. Do these two “musical experiments” succeed? Indeed they do. Both the chamber music and dance programs surpass expectations as they begin 2014 with a bang.
The Emerson String Quartet were originally composed (no pun intended) of violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finkel. When Finkel left the ensemble to focus more on his duties as co-artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, British cellist and conductor Paul Watkins took over. The “new” quartet performed all three of Beethoven’s Op. 59 quartets, which (with the intermission) was a two hour journey into the composer’s genius.
Has Watkins’s entry into the Ensemble maintained the high quality of the group, or is he a hindrance? Since this is the first time I have ever seen the Emerson String Quartet, I cannot provide a “compare and contrast;” I can only review what I saw that night. And what I was witness to was four talented artists demonstrating not only a phenomenal skill and energy in maintaining the fluidity of the three works, but almost an artistic “chemistry” of how they perform with each other in perfect synchronicity. Not one artist stole the show; all four had their moment to shine.
For the first two quartets, both Drucker and Setzer changed places as first violin, setting the tone for the rest of the ensemble to shine. Dutton’s technique with the viola created additional harmony to all three works. And then there was Watkins, the most physically animated of the group, whose cello laid a nice, deep foundation during the soft moments of the first quartet, and then when the rising actions started to come into being, especially in the last quartet, the cello served as a passionate heartbeat of Beethoven’s music, so much so that his fellow artists all hit the remaining, frenetic notes with such gusto that it delivered an “impact” that could be felt to the very back of Samueli Theatre. The performance not only served Beethoven’s work, but it showed that Watkins will maintain the status of the Emerson String Quartet as being one of the most prominent, skilled quartets in the world.
For the ballet production of Liliom—adapted by choreographer John Neumeier and Oscar, Grammy, and Emmy award winning composer Michel Legrand—the story begins with a simple Balloon Man (a wonderfully enigmatic Sasha Riva), who moves and acts as the ultimate everyman that would have made Shakespeare proud: the wise fool, the chorus, and the guardian angel for the former carousel barker Liliom (Carsten Jung), who has been floating in Purgatory for 16 years until he was released to repent for the sins of his past life. As he reaches Earth, he approaches the teenage son he never knew, Louis (a dynamically raw Aleix Martinez). Louis doesn’t know the strange man is his late father, but they soon bond and discover they both are similar in many ways in terms of behavior and especially movement. Liliom grabs a shining star and gives it to his son as a gift. He tries to embrace him, but the son pulls away in confusion. After many attempts of trying to reconcile, Liliom loses patience and his temper and strikes his son. He then hides in shame as Louis’s mother and Liliom’s true love, Julie (Alina Cojocaru), appears. She can feel this troubled spirit around her, reminding her the time she first met and fell in love with the one-time prideful Liliom at a carnival, setting up the stage of how their love blossomed, withered, and was reborn once again.
There are very few productions—ballets, opera, plays, films—which perfectly capture the innocent purity of a spiritual diamond called unconditional love in all its brilliant facets: passion, awe, tenderness, heartbreak, playfulness, and that subtle click that you can only feel with your soul mate. Ballet Artistic Director Neumeier not only accomplishes this in profound ways, he balances the love story with elements of supernatural fantasy and historical nostalgia with such astonishing delicacy that the ballet delivers the emotional punch of a romantic epic poem. Instead of text, Neumeier, composer Legrand, and their talented cast use subtext through 1) updating the story to 1930s Depression era America, 2) using an amalgam of recorded symphony music and live jazz that alternate back and forth as though the music itself were dancing as well, and 3) the incredible choreography that is performed by the dancers. All blend together in absolute harmony.
All the sets, brilliantly designed by Ferdinand Wogerbauer, capture the magical mystery of the carnival, the sultry 1930s jazz club, and the ethereal divinity of the purgatory and heaven scenes. With regard to the music, Legrand amazingly utilizes different styles and themes that not only reflect each ballet scene, but also the emotional ranges of the leads. The recorded symphony themes—which don’t sound recorded at all—are reminiscent of the fantasy films composed by Jerry Goldsmith (especially the Liliom/Julie love theme, which interestingly enough, is similar to the airy, haunted score during the quietest moments of Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien). Goldsmith also came to mind during the jazz sequences of Liliom, which combine noirish world-weariness with snazzy decadence the same way the late film composer did in Curtis Hanson’s Academy award winning masterpiece LA Confidential. And the carnival scenes which included the trademark accordion music had a subtle flavor of Yann Tiersen (Amelie). The music and sets enhanced the performances even more, successfully transporting the audience to Neumeier’s world of magical-realism.
All the dancers were flawless in technique and emotion, but Jung’s Liliom and Cojocaru’s Julie are the heart and soul of this period love story. Jung is an amalgam of different personas wrapped together into a complete tragic hero: the rock star presence of Jim Morrison, the playful boyishness of Heath Ledger, and the rugged, masculine charm of a young Charles Bronson. Jung’s emotional and physical expressivness was phenomenal in terms of potency and range. Cojocaru beautifully combined undying loyalty, gentle waifish innocence and loving compassion during her solos. But when these two artists dance together, the sparks were flying. During Scene Two, each of them perform an individual, loving romantic “courting” dance, which gives the other person, as well as the audience, a glimpse into that dancer’s soul. (When Jung performs his dance, the music alternates between the tranquil symphony music symbolizing unconditional love and the chaotic jazz music symbolizing his lust for empty pleasure during his years at the carnival). This courting dance was done with such perfection that it was the only scene that drew unexpected, but well-deserved, applause, which was only matched by the curtain call. The incredible chemistry these two possessed was pure magic, so much so that it is a shame that this truly sublime dance production called Liliom is only scheduled for four performances. But without a shadow of doubt, this North American premiere at the Segerstrom Center or the Arts is a phenomenal addition to its 2103/2014 season.
Peter A. Balaskas is a journalist, fiction writer, editor, and voice over artist.
Check out these performances occurring during the 2014 Season
The Wizard of Oz: Segerstrom Hall---2/11-23/2014
Peter Gallagher: Samueli Theater---2/13-15/2014
St. Lawrence String Quartet: Samueli Theater---2/19/2014---reviewed by me
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Samueli Theater---2/21-22/2014
Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo: Swan Lake: Segerstrom Hall---3/7-9/2014---reviewed by me
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 “Liliom” (Holger Badekow) and the Emerson String Quartet (Lisa-Marie Mazzuco)