Thursday, February 07, 2008

Mozart, Thomson and Stravinsky at the Ballet

The last time my friend Charlie Lichtman (above) went to the San Francisco Ballet was many years ago when he was dating a dancer who took him to see Frederick Ashton's full-length bucolic ballet, "La Fille Mal Gardee." Charlie thought maybe it was his own "visceral" New York upbringing that made him feel like he was going to lapse into a coma, but I assured him that was not the case.

He decided to try the institution once again, and joined me for $10 standing room tickets in the orchestra for "Program 2." of the season. It's a mixed bag of Balanchine's 1956 "Divertimento No. 15" to music by Mozart, Mark Morris' 1988 "Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes" to 13 unrecorded piano etudes by Virgil Thomson, and Yuri Possokhov's version from last year of the 1910 Stravinsky "Firebird." It was a great program, and Charlie even said he'd come back for more.

The conductor for the evening wasn't the usual music director, Martin West, and the deluxe substitution was George Cleve, who conducted the San Jose Symphony for decades along with the San Francisco Midsummer Mozart Festival. The orchestra's account of the Mozart Divertimento was wonderful and even better was the entire troupe of dancers who danced the ascetic, difficult architectural stylings of Balanchine with real brilliance.

Even better was the early Mark Morris ballet, which started with Natalya Feygina seated onstage at a huge grand piano all by herself playing a "modern" sounding piece by Thomson called "Chromatic Double Harmonies." It wasn't until the final notes that a pair of dancers finally ambled onto the stage in front of the pianist, letting the audience know that this was going to be about the music.

The San Francisco Ballet has worked enough with Mark Morris over the last decade that they're almost like a second company for him, and they dance his pieces with extraordinary affection and expertise.

Competing with George Balanchine and Mark Morris isn't really fair, particularly with one of the most famous ballet scores in history, but Possokhov's choreography of "Firebird" and the production by Yuri Zhukov were both silly and confusing, and the piece doesn't get better with repetition. Still, after all the aesthetic perfection of the first two-thirds of the program, sending the audience out with some crowd-pleasing kitsch probably wasn't a bad idea.

1 comment:

jolene said...

Ending the program with such a kitchy crowd-pleaser usually satisfies most of the ballet audiences. I prefer to pick from a better repertoire of crowd pleasers however, such as Rodeo or Sandpaper Ballet.

I thought that this would be a better program for ballet newbies than Program 1, which I dragged my friends to go watch. I should have waited and taken them to see program 2.