Pa. Ballet awesome, despite poor sight lines and seats

Local Life February 9, 2011 0 Comments

by Michael Caruso

The East Falls-based Pennsylvania Ballet danced away the wintry weather this past weekend with “Classic Innovations” at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St. Roy Kaiser, an Erdenheim resident and the company’ artistic director, chose a program of contemporary ballet that featured William Forsythe’s “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude,” Christopher Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia” and Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room.” Sunday afternoon’s performances were the perfect set of antidotes for the depressing string of winter storms that have afflicted Greater Philadelphia.

It was “In the Upper Room” that brought the program to a close, definitely a case of saving the best for last. Set to a beautiful, minimalist score by Philip Glass, the work was premiered by Tharp’s own company in 1986. The Pennsylvanians gave it their first set of performances in 2007. Although there were occasional problems of ensemble and while some of the classically trained dancers were not altogether comfortable performing Tharp’s mostly modern dance moves Sunday afternoon, the entire company caught the choreography’s electric charge of energy. Best among the groups was the one comprised of Martha Chamberlain, Evelyn Kocak, Rachel Maher, James Ihde, Jonathan Stiles and Francis Veyette. Ihde, in particular, struck a perfect balance between technical precision and unaffected spontaneity.
If only the Pennsylvania Ballet could cease-and-desist at the Merriam Theater, where the seats are uncomfortable and many sight lines are dreadful, and perform its entire season in the Academy of Music, I’d be in choreographic heaven. Fortunately, the company’s next offering, Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” will be performed there March 3 to 12.

YOUNG PIANISTS

My weekend of concert-going was highlighted by performances from two prominent solo pianists. Philippines-born Cecile Licad gave a solo recital presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society Friday night in the American Philosophical Society’s Benjamin Franklin Hall, 427 Chestnut St. in Old City. On the two evenings surrounding that night, France’s Helen Grimaud joined the Philadelphia Orchestra under Fabio Luisi’s baton for Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major” in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall.

Licad is one of the many recent graduates of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music to make an impact on the contemporary concert scene. She joins the likes of Lang Lang, Jonathan Biss and former Chestnut Hiller Ignat Solzhenitsyn carrying Curtis’ name far and wide as a successful conduit of the great traditions of piano playing. While at Curtis, she studied with Rudolf Serkin, Seymour Lipkin and Mieczyslaw Horszowski, one of the last exponents of the romantic style of the 19th century. Serkin represented the classical German school of piano playing that stretched all the way back to Beethoven, and Lipkin only recently performed Beethoven’s mighty “Hammerklavier” Sonata in recital at Curtis.

True to the traditions of serious music-making imbibed at Curtis, Licad played a daunting program of solo piano music: “Two Impromptus” by Alexander Scriabin, “In the Mist” by Leos Janacek, Schumann’s “Piano Sonata in F minor” and Chopin’s “Twenty-Four Preludes.” She did, however, lighten up considerably for her encores: Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in G minor,” Louie Moreau Gottschalk’s “Caprice de Concert” from “Souvenirs d’Andalousie,” and a reprise of the Chopin “Prelude No. 7 in A major.”

Throughout the entire program, Licad demonstrated piano playing of the highest caliber of artistry and technical mastery. And what a pleasure it was hearing my first recital in the Philosophical Society’s Franklin Hall – a true gem historically, architecturally, visually and acoustically!

Grimaud’s appearance with the Philadelphia Orchestra was a different matter altogether. In fact, the entire concert was a major disappointment. Fabio Luisi led a rendition of Weber’s overture to “Der Freischutz” that merely pointed up its dated quality of meandering melodrama. Grimaud’s performance of Beethoven’s sublime “Fourth Piano Concerto” was expressive yet superficial. And the programming of Franz Schmidt’s “Symphony No. 4 in C major” was, indeed, revelatory, but of the composer’s lack of thematic inspiration, developmental technique and the simple realization of when to just stop writing another boring note.

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