Tristan Reynolds

Arts

Scene&Heard: The Vocal Firepower of the Lexington Singers

There are plenty of ways to sing that sound interesting. There are, while admittedly fewer, still many ways of singing that sound pretty, or powerful, or pure. There is no way of singing yet invented that can match a fully developed bel canto voice.

Bel Canto, a vocal technique developed in Italy from the sixteenth century onward, is the open and clear sound, usually sung with a quaver in the voice called vibrato, and that’s stereotypical of the opera, and of classical music in general. It takes years for a singer to develop a proper bel canto voice, and singing with it, drawing breath from the diaphragm and propelling to the back of an often massive concert hall, is not just technically demanding but physically exhausting. It’s a way of singing that makes you sweat.

When the young bass-baritone Reginald Smith, Jr. dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief, midway through the first act of the oratorio that he sang on Friday night, that exhaustion was beginning to show. He didn’t let it phase him in the slightest. The oratorio—a kind of long vocal work that incorporates orchestra, chorus, and solo voices—was Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah, one of the most famous, and famously demanding, examples of the genre.

Reginald Smith, Jr. (publicity photo, from reginaldsmithjr.com).

The Lexington Singers had invited Smith, along with several other soloists and the UK Chorale, another choral group, to join them in a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Performing in UK’s Singletary Center for the Arts (like many classical groups in Lexington), the Singers set themselves the challenge of filling up a concert hall that could swallow most bars or clubs without losing half of the seats.

When the Lexington Singer’s Chamber Orchestra joined the vocalists on the stage, the entire scale of the enterprise became hard to ignore—there were over one hundred singers, and nearly fifty instrumentalists, assembled for the sole purpose of creating over two hours worth of almost continuous music. The piece they were set to perform would require nothing less.

Felix Mendelssohn composed Elijah for an 1846 premiere; he died less than a year afterward, at only thirty-eight years of age. The oratorio, therefore, is the closest thing to a mature work that the young composer and former child prodigy left to the world.

Stylistically, Mendelssohn always made a habit of looking back to the delicate and precise music of the Bach and Haydn, as opposed to the radical innovations of contemporaries like Liszt or Wagner. While the early Romantic period that he lived through was in many ways defined by composers challenging the harmonic and structural components of the classical tradition, Mendelssohn would never push the boundaries of what harmony and traditional musical forms could convey—his chords are always clean, and they always lead exactly where you expect them to.

Nevertheless, Elijah strikes a balance between the old and the new of Mendelssohn’s time: while the overture has a formally complicated fugue motion that’s reminiscent of Bach, the thick orchestral textures and propulsive rhythmic intensity of the music point to an unmistakable Beethoven influence on Mendelssohn’s style. Creating those complex forms and textures requires not only a choir that can sing up to eight voice parts at once but a full orchestra to back them up.

Coordinating such a large number of people for a performance is a task that’s almost entirely reserved to the world of classical music (imagine a rock band with more than six or seven members at the most, and you understand why), and classical groups have a unique figure devoted solely to the task of keeping everyone on the same page of the score: the conductor.

Dr. Jefferson Johnson has served as the conductor for the Lexington Singers for many seasons now, and his ability to direct the choir, while formidable, clearly cannot compare to his ability to choose a soloist perfectly suited to the Singers’ performance.

Jefferson Johnson (Photo by © Sally Horowitz)

Smith sang the title role, with a style that can only be described, appropriately enough, as biblical. With a throbbing, richly textured tone that conveyed every ounce of emotion that played across his expressive face, Smith leapt from a roaring castigation of the wayward Israelite King Ahab to a soft, subtle lamentation of the fate of his people, and in a searching, haunting aria, he found his way back to a joyful, soaring vision of a flaming chariot come to take him up to Heaven.

Smith has a voice that is too flexible, too widely developed and able to convey a breadth of emotions to offer easy categorization or comparison. Suffice it to say that he is a singer in impeccable command of an extraordinary talent.

Shockingly, Smith is still considered a rising star in the classical world, not yet fully arrived as a star in his own right. However, if his performance in Elijah is anything to judge by, Smith will be drawing comparisons to premier bass-baritones like Eric Owens before long—and some of those comparisons will be favorable to Smith.

Reginald Smith, Jr. | Photo by Sarah Shaw

The Singers, as a choir, also acquitted themselves well. The piece is noted for its rousing and overpowering choral movements. As the music built to climax after climax, the Singers’ voices bubbled, swelled, and rose like a tsunami to crash over the orchestra, the audience, and the building itself in an exactly controlled roll of passion into passion.

The orchestra itself played with a frenetic energy that clearly fed itself off of the remarkable vocal performances. In particular, first cellist Benjamin Karp managed to play with such a fury that he frayed his bow; he then went on to play a tender accompaniment to one of Smith’s second-half arias.

The other soloists also demonstrated the kind of vocal skill that it takes to perform a piece like Elijah. Contralto Shauntina Phillips enveloped the hall in a low, warm sound, even as the orchestra roiled and churned at full intensity behind her.

Shauntina Phillips | Photo credit: National Association of Teachers of Singing

Soprano Amanda Balltrip pierced through the air with a light but wonderfully intense lilt as she sang, unexpectedly, from the back of the hall. Likewise, soprano Katherine Olson set her voice to fly above the assembled choral and orchestral forces and distinguished herself even among the talent around her. Tenor Taylor Comstock snaked his high, silvery voice through the audience and left the impression of a particularly delicate but beautiful flower.

That’s not to say there weren’t a few flies buzzing about the hall. Mendelssohn prepared the text of the oratorio in both German and English, but since its premiere in 1846, the English version of the text has predominated (to understand why you only have to listen to a few minutes of singing in German). The Singers chose to maintain the English text. Unfortunately, the chorus had a sometimes hazy diction that made it difficult to determine exactly what was being sung. There was also a consistent difficulty with the ‘sss’ sound—there were moments when it sounded as though the choir was beating back an infestation of snakes. Despite some minor setbacks, however, the evening was a remarkable success.

The story of Elijah is the story of a prophet reprimanding his people for wandering from the path of righteousness. If they wandered into this performance, even the taciturn man of God would be hard-pressed to find a reason to condemn them.

Arts

Scene&Heard: LexPhil abuzz

The Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra is about halfway through their 2017-2018 season, and the halfway point for the Lexington Philharmonic is unique.

Like any classical orchestra, each concert has an entirely different repertoire, and classical music is notoriously technically difficult to play, even for professionals. It’s all the more remarkable, then, that Maestro Scott Terrell assembled a concert that had the most adventurous and audacious program yet presented this season. It’s a testament to the skill and artistry of the Philharmonic that the concert was a jubilant experience.

LexPhil music director and conductor Scott Terrell

The first piece of the evening at the University of Kentucky’s Singletary Center for the Arts was a standard in the repertoire of any orchestra: Giacomo Rossini’s Overture to The Barber of Seville. As Daniel Chetel notes in his program notes for the Philharmonic, this piece is likely familiar to anyone, classical aficionado or no, as the score to the Looney Tunes’ “Rabbit of Seville” cartoon.

Rossini wrote in the full Italian style, emphasizing easily singable (or hum-able) melodies that work their way into the ear and stay there. The key to a good performance of Rossini, then, is to make the sound as clear and clean as possible. This was no challenge to Terrell and the Philharmonic, who obviously enjoy playing the piece.

It’s still a remarkable sight, no matter how many orchestral performances you see, to watch nearly twenty violinists move their bows in absolute unison. It’s a mix of technical precision and passionate artistry that’s quite peculiar to orchestra concerts.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no cutting loose, though. At one point towards the end of the overture, Terrell turned to the side of the podium facing the violist and—and I really can only use this word—boogied with him, while still marking time for the rest of the orchestra.

The main piece for the first half of the evening was a suite of music drawn from Igor Stravinsky’s 1920 ballet Pulcinella. Stravinsky, unquestionably the foremost composer of the 20th Century and possibly the greatest single composer since Beethoven, wrote this piece in the early part of his neo-classical period. After an early career in the 1910’s redefining the sound of not just ballet but the entirety of classical music with pieces like Le Sacre du Printemps and Petrushka, Stravinsky spent much of the next few decades attempting to turn back the musical clock. His neo-classical style looked back to the Baroque period, with delicate counterpoint and strict dance forms, as a basis for containing the seemingly infinite musical options available to the composer.

Igor Stravinsky | Portrait by Arnold Newman – 1946

Even within the supposedly restrictive forms used in the suite, Stravinsky created a sound world all his own. He spins from one musical idea to the next, never settling on one path for too long, but circling back to explore all the options available. Through just one moment of the suite, the orchestra goes from a delicate but cheery violin solo (performed both passionately and expertly by concertmaster Daniel Mason) to a booming thundering clamor from the bass instruments, and then right into a lush orchestral swell under a resumed violin solo; this all happens within perhaps fifteen or twenty seconds of music.

It takes a titanic effort simply to keep everyone together during those moments, and it’s obvious that not just Terrell but the entire orchestra are listening intently to each other.

Stravinsky’s music is always its own sound world— the melodies always sound half familiar, but still distinctly unlike anything that you would think of humming to yourself as you wash the dishes. Towards the end the trombonist and a bassist juggled a short set of phrases back and forth between them, only fully joining into one voice as the whole beast roared into a fanfare for the finale, creating an effect that is both predictable and surprising all at once.

There are plenty of traps for players in Stravinsky’s music— sudden stops for the stings, an out-of-nowhere flute solo that has to soar above the whole rest of the sound and glide gracefully back down— and lesser orchestras often trip up on these moments. Not the Philharmonic. When the violins drop out, they drop out as one, and when they return, it’s as though each bow is connected to the same hand.

The neoclassical style can sometimes sound simplistic or reductive, but Stravinsky orchestrates in an extravagant manner, and the Philharmonic was able to accentuate each part of the whole in such a way that the listener could observe not only the entire effect but the way that every component contributed to the entire experience.

After an intermission, the Philharmonic returned with Vaughan Williams‘ Overture to The Wasps.

Vaughn Williams conducts The Eastman School Symphony Orchestra | Photo courtesy of the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester

Williams wrote a whole set of music to play with a production of Aristophanes’ ancient play, but the overture has found a second life among orchestras. It’s obvious why the Philharmonic was attracted to the piece—it has a style that overflows the bounds of the hall, filling the air with thick and overwhelmingly pleasant harmonies.

Williams’ overture runs about nine minutes, and it’s an excellent example of what classical composers can do within that time frame. Whereas pop music tends to be shorter in length and quite focused in terms of form and aesthetic, classical composers often feel free to roam about and wander through their material. Williams offers an example of this—there are no moments of quick change or unexpected leaps to new sections, only a continuous unfolding of transition upon transition. In the capable hands of Terrell, the music flows in an almost out-of-time manner.

The main event of the evening, however, was last.

In his time at the Philharmonic, Terrell has been a champion of new music. In his comments to the audience before the last piece, he said that he believed that orchestras have an obligation to present the “voices of today” to audiences. To accomplish that, the Lexington Philharmonic commissioned a new concerto from renowned composer Chris Brubeck, to be played by the world-famous Canadian Brass.

The concerto, entitled No Borders, was an unequivocal triumph for both composer and orchestra. Brubeck has a style that’s reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein, with lots of irregular meters that shout this is genuine American music, and a relentless and optimistic rhythmic drive that throws the piece constantly forward. The Canadian Brass played not just spectacularly, but in magnificent combination with the orchestra—totally in sync, and the whole feeling was one of camaraderie and unity of purpose.

Brubeck’s jazz-influenced style moves effortlessly between a kind of joyous wailing and winging about and moments of passionate harmony that seem suspended in time. He comes by that influence honestly as the son of the great jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck. As the piece moved from a rollicking opening movement that brought to mind West Side Story and big band standards to a suave slow second movement, Canadian Brass and the orchestra, with seemingly no effort, demonstrated a graceful and subtle exchange between instruments that’s a hallmark of the highest level of playing in both jazz and classical music.

Canadian Brass performing with LexPhil

The final movement was like a tour of the Alps, moving from one glorious peak to another. With a rhythmic swing that bounces the head up and down and rolls the sound of trumpets and trombones (and tubas and horns) out into the seats and steps of the hall, a raucous and ecstatic energy carried the piece to a close and the audience to its feet.

Canadian Brass member and Lexington native Caleb Hudson

After a standing ovation that lasted for three separate bows, the Canadian Brass returned to offer two encores. The first encore featured Canadian Brass member and Lexington native Caleb Hudson showing off the infamously tricky trumpet solos of The Beatles’ Penny Lane. Canadian Brass also demonstrated exactly how fast their fingers could move with a second encore, featuring The Flight of the Bumblebee in an all-brass arrangement.

The final notes shot by at such a rapid clip that the audience had to give another standing ovation just to capture them as they flew by. 

Many left the hall that night buzzing with excitement over what they had just experienced.

Arts

Scene&Heard: LexPhil’s “Simplicity”

Live performance in any genre is a daunting challenge; for music, it may be particularly so, given the small idiosyncrasies of a hundred different categories that can produce massive differences in the audio quality of a performance. In their latest concert, titled Simplicity, the Lexington Philharmonic demonstrated their dedication to their craft, a dedication that is substantially devoted to executing each moment of music so precisely that small idiosyncrasies are banished from the concert hall. The result was an enjoyable, if not ecstatic, evening of music.

Maestro Scott Terrell made the somewhat unorthodox decision to start the evening with Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony (Beethoven is usually held in reserve for the final piece of most concerts, the idea being that the audience will be suitably wowed by the greatest of the composers just as they leave). Terrell, in his pre-concert talkback, noted that the Fourth Symphony is often overlooked, sandwiched as it is between the legendary Third and Fifth Symphonies (the Third being the Eroica, and the Fifth–well, the Fifth has that opening theme, “da-da-da-dum”). Terrell notes that it shows off a lighter side of Beethoven the composer.

As the symphony went on, I found myself focusing on individual performers: the violinist with a bright blue chin cloth, contrasting with the black and white uniform of the orchestra. There was the timpanist, highlighted standing against a deep red rear curtain. I noticed a violinist whose feet never touched the ground when she played. I was drawn back to the characteristic touch of the maestro, who likes to accentuate big strings hits with a magisterial point down in his left hand, arm fully extended like a steel beam, tilted forty-five degrees towards the floor from the shoulder.

There were without question some excellent moments throughout the performance. The moody opening, a low and rumbling B flat that left me looking around the stage in some wonder and not a little bit of anxiety. Immediately following was the first violin entrance, where the high strings give a direction and a sense of purpose to the moody ambiance. Towards the middle of the piece, the orchestra dropped away for the entrance of a solo clarinet, presaged by a rolling horn that stops and sustains a note; the clarinet entered on the same note, and the horn faded away, leaving a woody sound, in turn giving way to a clarinet melody floated over pizzicato strings towards the ears of the audience.

My favorite flourish, though, was an exchange between the violins and the timpani. The strings marked out a quick one-two pattern, answered by the timpani, uncharacteristically for the instrument but delightful nonetheless, rattling and rasping a reply.

Though less performed, the Fourth is certainly Beethoven, wide-ranging and expressive, and at times lyrical; Terrell is right that this is a lighter Beethoven than the brooding image conveyed by the Fifth Symphony or Appassionata Piano Sonata. The Philharmonic was finely tuned and gave a demonstration of the craft that’s required to even attempt a major symphony. But for this performance, though professional and enjoyable, the Philharmonic didn’t quite break above the clouds and reach the mountainous peaks of the truly memorable.

Following a brief intermission, the Philharmonic returned with their soloist for the evening. Mezzo-soprano Sofia Selowsky, a young and upcoming talent in the opera world, was to give her premiere performance of a modern American work, Dominick Argento’s song cycle Casa Guidi.

Sofia Selowsky | Photo by Simon Pauly Photography

Argento, who spent a good deal of time in Florence, where Elizabeth Barrett Browning spent most of her married life, wrote this song cycle to express his deep connection to the city, and to the poet.

The composer, now 90, explained this connection to Maestro Terrell in an email, excerpts of which Terrel, in turn, read to the audience before the performance. Argento, whom Terrell calls “extremely sincere in his music-making,” taught Terrell, and the two were later colleagues at the Minnesota Orchestra.

Maestro Terrell chose Ms. Selowsky,  a “consummate artist,” in his view, to perform with the Lexington Philharmonic after working with her at the Aspen festival.

Ms. Selowsky is obviously a dedicated professional as well as an empathetic artist. Speaking of Argento’s composing technique, she was quick to note that the music “fits the voice and fits the language in a really beautiful way.” She has an obvious affection for the piece, despite the fact that she had only recently learned it.

Ms. Selowsky, unfortunately, struggled somewhat in working with the orchestra. Throughout the cycle, but in the first two songs especially, the orchestra tended to overwhelm her voice. This made the whole form of the piece somewhat indistinct.

The third movement, however, with a quieter orchestra, permitted Selowsky to shine. She had a clear affinity for the quieter moments in the piece; as she told me in a pre-concert interview, the quality that drew her to this piece is that “the poetry is so intimate, even when you have a whole orchestra behind you.”

That expressive feeling eventually came through, as Ms. Selowsky leaned on some clearly well-developed dramatic chops, as well as an open and clear mezzo voice.

The fourth song was expressive and moving— a high and scratchy scoring in the violins lent a haunting and disquieting air about it, appropriate to a text that dealt with the pain of Barrett Browning’s estrangement from her father.

Sadly, the fifth and final song suffered from the same balance problem as the first two songs— when the orchestra shone, it easily eclipsed the soloist, whose voice couldn’t soar over the instrumentalists.

Sofia Selowsky in rehearsal with the Lexington Philharmonic

After a mixed performance of a modern piece, the concert ended on its strongest note, with a delectable performance of the Prokofiev Classical Symphony. The Philharmonic delivered it like a cupcake: perfectly fun, light and airy, with lots of sugary frosting on the top. Prokofiev has written some challenging and complex music— his Classical Symphony is neither. An example: the end of the third movement includes a cheeky button that elicited a soft chuckle from the audience. Prokofiev wrote a straightforward homage to the by-then bygone era of Haydn and Mozart, and it demands a disciplined touch to create the pleasant effect.

The Philharmonic’s craft and clarity of playing were remarkably well-served by the final piece. The opening movement was a light romp, a perfect palate-cleanser to start off the final piece of the evening. The slow second movement was a chance for the orchestra to display its lyricism and soulful spirit, and an easygoing melodious feeling filled the hall. A gavotte, a kind of moderately quick two-step, gradually turned up the heat in the third movement. With a breakneck dash to the finish line in the fourth movement, resting almost entirely on the nonstop violins, the Philharmonic finished the evening with a lovely send off for the audience.

The evening was not an unequivocal triumph. Throughout the performance, however, the Philharmonic played with a consistently high standard of quality, and there were plenty of moments where every element congealed into a flash of euphoria.

Even with its flaws, the Philharmonic remains an excellent orchestra always worth a listen.

Arts

Scene&Heard: LexPhil’s Thunderous Season Opener

As the audience filed into the concert hall, the orchestra onstage made an unholy din. Tuning their violins, practicing one particular phrase on the trumpet, testing out the reeds on the oboes one last time, the Lexington Philharmonic prepared itself to open their 2017-2018 season. Performing at the Singletary Center for the Arts, Maestro Scott Terrell and the Philharmonic presented a program that lived up to the title of the concert, Bright. With a variety of works in several styles and ‘voices,’ the Philharmonic had a glittering evening at the start of their year.

The concert began with a contemporary piece by the American composer Michael Torke. Torke is known for his synesthesia—he sees colors when he hears music. This particular piece, called Bright Blue Music, is a clear and straightforward exploration of that color. The Philharmonic proved a guide through the work, with a performance clear and straightforward enough to direct the listener’s ears to the development and unfolding of the piece. 

Michael Torke | Photo by Brian Hainer

A simple theme developed with a particular rhythmic flair, and the development clear and direct enough that even the most novice listener can follow the progression from one movement to the next. (Whether the listener sees blue a somewhat subjective matter: the whole piece read as rather yellow to me.) The brass would occasionally overwhelm the strings, though whether this was a problem of composer or conductor is unclear. Energetic and simple, but with enough surprises— and banging timpani here, a snap of the snare drums to cut off the winds and emphasize the strings, a screeching wail of the horns and flutes there— Maestro Terrell and the Philharmonic kept the piece from the monotony minimalist and post-minimalist music is often accused of.

The first half of the concert, however, was dominated by the Grieg Piano Concerto. Guest soloist Joyce Yang, a young pianist who is part of an emerging generation in the process of shaking up sometimes stuffy concert halls, took to the front and center of the stage and immediately commanded her instrument.

Joyce Yang | Photo by KT Kim

Yang played with her whole body— hunched over the keyboard for staccato descents, practically rising out of her bench for the dramatic flourishes up and down the keyboard that predominate the concerto. She would keep time by flicking her head this way and that, directing visual attention to an emphasis on a certain chord or progression. Said emphasis was pounded in by the relentless thundering of the keyboard; Grieg is not a subtle composer, and both soloist and orchestra went for the full melodrama. The piano roared, howled, clamored, practically leaped out at the audience. Very little of the concept was played at anything less than full volume and intensity.

While I appreciated it from the back of the house, I did worry about the eardrums of those whose tickets placed them closer to the action. And that action was powerful— at the end of a particularly intense cadenza towards the end of the first movement, Yang slammed down the final chord and her entire body rocketed away from the keys, so intense was the emotion. The audience, somewhat caught up in it, spontaneously applauded between the first and second movement (an unusual breach of symphony protocol, it caught Yang and Terrell off guard, which she covered with a quick bow).

The thundering, however, became a tad monochromatic towards the end of the piece. The keys of a piano cannot be pounded indefinitely without at a certain point pulverizing all sensitivity of some listeners’ ears. While a quiet and subtle treatment took over the beginning of the second movement, it was soon back to a total sonic offensive. And in the last few minutes, the never-ending proclamations of melodramatic stampeding up and down the piano and through the orchestra began to run together. There are only so many crescendos a performer can make before they top out at the height of emotion and intensity.

Regardless of any quirks in interpretation, the performance of the concerto was filled with a kind of wild energy— partly from the slightly strange harmonic progressions of Grieg, which foreshadowed Stravinsky and the chord clusters of modern concept music— but mostly from the infectious power bouncing back and forth between Yang, Terrell, and the orchestra. Soloist and conductor were obviously familiar with each other, as Terrell had only to glance at the piano, and Yang had only to give one of her nods, to open up the bellowing sororities of the full orchestra. The performance was an obvious and immediate crowd-pleaser: Yang and Terrell gave some half a dozen bows to a standing ovation.

After the bows and ovations were concluded, the orchestra took an interval in which the technical crew replaced Yang’s piano with two harps and a handful of specialist wind instruments, a rather large choir joined the orchestra, and I furiously scribbled notes onto a writing pad.

Maestro Terrell dashed back onto the stage and immediately threw himself into the downbeat of the first piece of the second half, selections from Ginastera’s ballet Estancia.

This music was simply tremendous. In writing a ballet about Argentine farmers and cowboys, Ginastera hit upon the muscular and vibrantly beating heart of Latin American concert music, which more than any other tradition (at least to my mind) is written for the average listener to immediately grasp on to and not just understand, but deeply enjoy. While the second half of the evening was entirely ballet music— music written to dance to— Ginastera’s selections from Estancia were imbued with the kind of infectious danceability that quite literally gets people moving.

Even Maestro Terrell was affected, jumping up and down on the podium in his excitement for particular slams of the timpani, never more expressive than when Ginastera pins his entire dance rhythm to the drums. The percussion section as a whole did some really tremendous work with Estancia— using everything from a tambourine to a marimba to a bass drum that literally shook the seats, Estancia was not just a musical but a physical experience.

After the Dionysian delights of Ginastera’s dance music, the concert closed with the more Apollonian music of Ravel.

Full of coloristic flourishes and effective at creating an entire atmosphere from only a few rich chords, Ravel’s Suite No. 2 from Daphnis et Chloe is a distinctly French take on a Greek story. The impressionistic and almost totally a-melodic music of Ravel immerses the listener into a world of impressions, of not quite distinct color.

The orchestra carried off this task— not the easiest one— with aplomb. Aided by an extensive choir, the piece moved seamlessly from one overstuffed and pregnant bloom of chromatic color to the next. As a set of selections from a larger ballet, and as a more moment-to-moment composition than a more melodically dominated piece might be, it would have been dangerously easy for the orchestra to present a disconnected and incoherent series of flashes in the musical pan. The deft baton of Terrell, however, maintained a clean and clear pace throughout the piece, and his direction charted a course and current that connected the brightest climaxes and the quietest flutters of the flute into a single whole. The choirs, normally a focal point of attention for the listener, blended seamlessly into the tapestry of the orchestra, becoming simply another color in the palette of composer and conductor. The overall effect, while certainly magical, was artfully restrained and balanced. 

With a varied and virtuosic start to the season, the Lexington Philharmonic has proved not just worthy of their hall, but worthy of their audience. 

(Photos by Richie Wireman unless otherwise credited)

Arts

LexPhil Ushers in a ‘Culture of Curiosity’

In the grim and gloom of a particularly rainy September, the Lexington Philharmonic prepares to debut their 2017–2018 season. The first concert is titled, ironically, Bright. The season opening, held this Saturday (September 16th) at the Singletary Center for the Arts, has an energetic and bouncy program. In that sense, Bright’s place in the larger 2017–2018 Philharmonic season is like an opening fanfare to a  larger symphony: energetic, full of life, and the right mix of excitement and intrigue to keep listeners interested.

As the orchestra prepares to sound out its audience for the season, I spoke with the lead conductor and Artistic Director of the Lexington Philharmonic, Scott Terrell, about the upcoming concert, and about young people’s place in the concert hall.

The most notable feature of the program for Bright is the age of many of the performers. The featured soloist, pianist Joyce Yang, is a young and rising star in the classical music world, and part of the generation of young soloists who are redefining the concert hall. Maestro Terrell calls her part of “the changing face of music.” Her animated and expressive playing is a far cry from the stentorian proclamations of Gould or the other old masters of the form.

Yang will be playing the Grieg Piano Concerto. Even in a genre that is known for emotive solos, the Grieg is a particularly animated piece. (You can hear a performance of the concerto, in this case performed by Arthur Rubinstein, here to get an idea of the emotional range of the piece.) As Maestro Terrell notes, the Concerto is “a thrilling piece and a challenge for the soloist” to perform.

But Yang will not be the youngest of Saturday evening’s performers.

For the large-scale work Daphnis et Chloe, premiered over a century ago, the Philharmonic has selected the Suite No. 2 to perform. To do so, the orchestra has partnered with several area schools, including Lafayette High School. The collegiate choirs of Asbury University and Eastern Kentucky University are also joining the Philharmonic for the performance of the Daphnis et Chloe Suite. Inviting these choirs to perform with the Philharmonic, Terrell tells me, is “building audiences both on stage and as years progress.”

Terrell thinks of the audience as part of a broader community. While the old-fashioned idea of separation between performers and audience has fallen out of fashion, Terrell wants the Philharmonic to remain “ever-flexible and always relevant” to the wider community. To that end, the soloists for this season collaborate with the orchestra to serve as “ambassadors” to the world for their music, says Terrell. The incorporation of the young choruses for the performance of Daphnis et Chloe is a clear example of this musical diplomacy.

Inevitably, talk of younger performers invites talk of younger audiences. The symphony has an unfortunate reputation as a gathering place exclusive to the elder generation. While the Singletary Center, where the Philharmonic performs, is located on the campus of the University of Kentucky, a symphony is not a social event for the college on the level of a football or basketball game or Greek gathering. Nevertheless, Terrell says that the Philharmonic “is not a museum piece.” He emphasizes that there is an “openness and receptiveness of [the Philharmonic’s] audience” that makes the art of making music exciting. The Philharmonic takes full advantage of that receptiveness, he says, with the goal of creating a “culture of curiosity” among the audience. Toward that end, every concert this season will contain at least one piece by a living composer.

For Bright, that contemporary piece is a (literally) colorful composition. Michael Torke, an American composer, wrote Bright Blue Music in 1985, and the style of the piece—harmonically direct and simple, with a clear single development—reflects the emergence of American minimalism in the late twentieth century. Throughout the program, then, the Philharmonic will undertake a backwards motion, almost like a dive: from the contemporary sounds of Torke, through the early twentieth century impressionism of Ravel, and stop at the unreconstructed romanticism of Grieg along the way. In short, the concert will move quickly through a variety of tastes, and should contain something to satisfy even the most stoic listener.

The Lexington Philharmonic will debut the 2017-2018 season on September 16th, in a 7:30 PM concert held at the Singletary Center for the Arts. Tickets range from $25—$75 dollars, with $11 student tickets available from the day before, and at the door.

(All photos by: Richie Wireman)

Arts

Review: Lexington Ballet’s Romeo & Juliet

Ballet, as an art form, can be difficult to write about. The art of it, the movement from one moment in space to another, is almost impossible to describe in any detail without resorting to jargon that at best conveys a terrible case of Francophilia and at worst renders the whole description unintelligible. Still, every so often you happen across a ballet—whether it’s a performance, a new piece, or just a little video clip of an old prima ballerina—that demands to be shared with whomever will listen. This is a review of Lexington Ballet’s Romeo & Juliet, and it is one of those pieces that demands attention, even secondhand.

Lexington isn’t a large city, and so it’s somewhat remarkable that its Ballet was able to attract the talents of Artistic Director Luis Dominguez who received full scholarships to study in New York with the world acclaimed Dance Theatre of Harlem as well as The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Mr. Dominguez went on to perform around the world as a soloist with the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

For this production of Romeo & Juliet, which sadly ran only for this weekend past, he crafted a new set of choreography to match the music of Sergei Prokofiev. Dominguez’ choreography glitters with life and an enthusiasm that is often missing from an art form over three hundred years old. Dominguez has marshaled his company to flit and float about the stage in deceptively simple group tableaus, and he makes his soloist and principal dancers explode off the stage. At the same time, he keeps the ballet grounded, never letting the dance become so airy that it floats away on a cloud of insubstantial pleasantness.

Image courtesy of Nicole Brocato Photography

Image courtesy of Nicole Brocato Photography

He achieves this monumentally difficult balancing act by keeping everything about the production simple and direct. Nobody and nothing is carried away by obscure technical details; where Dominguez wants to convey apathy, Mercutio will simply shrug. At the end of Act I, when Romeo and Juliet have finished the first of their spectacular pas de dieux dances, they kiss. Dominguez isn’t interested in communicating with the audience through an opaque and difficult-to-follow series of classical gestures. He just tells the story he wants to tell in a fantastically physical way. And he goes all in to tell it.

Image courtesy of Nicole Brocato Photography

Image courtesy of Nicole Brocato Photography

Watching this production, it was remarkable how youthful and enthusiastic the whole affair was. I’m no expert, to be sure, but I’ve seen plenty of ballet, and it’s remarkable how often a production will come across as totally lifeless. The cast of Romeo & Juliet, on the other hand, brought such a raw enthusiasm to the performance I saw that I couldn’t help but get carried away in it all. Everyone on stage was having enormous fun, and it infected the audience.

Image courtesy of Nicole Brocato Photography

Image courtesy of Nicole Brocato Photography

This enthusiasm was aided by Dominguez’ commitment to a simple and direct choreography. When Mercutio and Tybalt duel, Dominguez’ lets them really swing their swords. It isn’t totally un-stylized, of course; a wide swing is still done with a pirouette. But the ‘language’ of this production was geared towards the general public, not experts of academics who are more interested in dissecting the significance of a single arabesque than in whether they understood what was going on on-stage.

Image courtesy of Nicole Brocato Photography

Image courtesy of Nicole Brocato Photography

The youthful enthusiasm of this production wasn’t without a downside, though, and Romeo & Juliet certainly wasn’t perfect. There were plenty of minor dancing errors—a dancer’s head would turn the wrong way, or someone would land from a jump out of time with the rest of the company—but again, that irrepressible energy made it irrelevant to the experience. I just couldn’t find it in myself to be bothered by a lack of technical perfection on the part of the dancers.

Similarly, there were questionable production choices. The lighting of the stage would often cast shadows over the faces of any dancer who strayed too far from center. Loading up three of the soloists with bells that jangle off-time to the music can be distracting when it doesn’t have to be. Moving a set piece—the inescapably iconic balcony—on and off too slowly can put a drag on the momentum of Act I. All these choices certainly count against the production, at least from my perspective, but again I struggle to be all that bothered by any of them.

Maybe it was their faces. A lot of ballet will simply have the company plaster on dead-eyed and utterly artificial expressions of seriousness, meant to convey that you are watching High Art, and never vary that pose. These dancers, and prima Ali Kish in particular, never went in for that approach. When Juliet is happy, Kish lights up the house with a laugh. And when the body count starts to climb, towards the end of the second act, Lady Capulet, danced by Alex Orenstein, twists and contorts her face in a mixture of sorrow and rage.

Image courtesy of Nicole Brocato Photography

Image courtesy of Nicole Brocato Photography

This is part of a remarkable commitment on the part of Dominguez and company to actually define their characters as characters. Dominguez doesn’t just use the story of Romeo and Juliet to move from one dance piece to another, he adds little flourishes and touches to create people out of his dancers. Juliet is girlish and impulsive—we first see her enter carrying a doll, a child’s toy. Mercutio, danced by Frank Macias, is the quintessential rogue—he interrupts his fatal duel with Tybalt to take a moment and flirt with one of the girls watching him fight for his life. Cal Lawton’s Lord Capulet, a man whose life is lived by violence, prowls like a bear and strikes his daughter when she refuses to marry Paris. This is a production more interested in the psychologies of its characters than most.

Image courtesy of Nicole Brocato Photography

Image courtesy of Nicole Brocato Photography

Again, this approach is not carried off without flaws. Romeo himself remains an almost total cipher—what does he see in Juliet? (But to be exceedingly fair, this is also a criticism that can be leveled at Shakespeare’s play.) The secondary characters—The Friar, the Nurse, Tybalt—also remain more-or-less sketches of characters. The dancers, however, give them a life beyond the choreography. Paris, another cipher, gains definition through Tyveze Littlejohn’s rigid and military posture that he maintains even at Juliet’s graveside.

This character-driven approach reaches its peak in Act III. Juliet, utterly distraught by the death of her cousin and the exile of her Romeo, dances a pair of solos in a style entirely different from everything done in the first two acts. Where before she was light and graceful in the pas de dieux, here her motions become quick and sharp, the poses she strikes angular and rigidly defined, not soft or flowing. Kish’s movements become anguished and aggressive, blurring the line between dance and passionate pantomime. The choreography became totally subservient to the character, and it made both reach new highs. It was the best performance I’d seen from a dancer in a long time.

Image courtesy of Nicole Brocato Photography

Image courtesy of Nicole Brocato Photography

When I walked out of the Lexington Opera House, I remember thinking how unusual it was to realize that I’d had fun at the ballet. Often, a ballet performance will leave me appreciative of the skill required, and the aesthetics of the performance; when I walk out of the theater I sometimes feel like I sat through a particularly boring church service. It’s a rare performance where I leave the theater with a smile on my face. Romeo & Juliet left me with a stupid grin.

Image courtesy of Nicole Brocato Photography

Image courtesy of Nicole Brocato Photography

(Topmost image courtesy of Nicole Brocato Photography)