“Promise” review- Chicago Philharmonic and Visceral Dance Chicago: A masterful collaboration

Visceral Dance Chicago in "Trisagion"; photo by KT Miller Photography
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On Sunday March 1, 2020, Music Director Scott Speck conducted the Chicago Philharmonic in large string ensemble in a concert entitled Promise: Mozart, Pärt, Bacewicz, Dvořák at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie. A concert dance interlude featuring Visceral Dance Chicago choreographed by Founder/Artistic Director Nick Pupillo to the music of Arvo Pärt’s Trisagion was also presented, marking the 4th inspired collaboration between Chicago Philharmonic and Visceral Dance Chicago. The afternoon was a rich and rewarding experience, consisting of both musical and dance masterworks that piqued the imagination.

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Divertimento in D Major, K.136, 1772

The musical form divertimento is intended to be background music, a pleasant entertainment. However, the piece played this afternoon, a fine example of Mozart’s early mastery over conventional forms and a harbinger of the ingenuity to come, is more of a small symphony. The lovely first movement Allegro, elegant and beautifully contained ushers in a fulfilling miniature Andante, made special by little touches like sustained single notes produced by the first violin which linger on the air above the other strings. The concluding bright Presto brought a cheerful end to this charming gem of the oeurvre.

  • Grażyna Bacewicz Concerto for String Orchestra, 1948

Considered to be a neoclassical masterpiece by this superb composer/violinist, the concerto is distinguished by the sheer inventiveness of construction as well as the “harmonious combination of formal elements of a traditional nature with new tonal ideas”. It seems to seesaw brilliantly between the baroque and the early traditional sonata form. The classically shaped first movement Allegro begins-and continues- energetically, with a constant, pendulum-like movement. The Andante that follows is emotionally calm and yet romantic, while the third movement Vivo seems like an exercise in “pure motion… in the form of figural motives with infinite transformational possibilities.”

The Philharmonic produced a continuous sense of spontaneity, led by a conductor who had advised the audience of the constant mutability of the tonal situations and the extremely sophisticated, ”acerbic” harmonies that reflect both the style of this composer as well as her intuitive grasp of the technical/expressive possibilities inherent in a string instruments ensemble.

Visceral Dance Chicago in “Trisagion” with Chicago Philharmonic; photo by KT Miller Photography

Trisagion for string orchestra was composed for the congregation of the Orthodox Church of the Prophet Elijah in Ilomantsi, Finland for its 500th anniversary, and was reportedly inspired by the opening prayer of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy.  The enormously expressive and technically superb Visceral dancers, performing in an admittedly limited stage in front of the Philharmonic, whose instruments had been moved as far back as possible, presented an urban fable. Clad in minimalist garments including black street-inspired jackets, they formed a human representation of the essence of divine strength. Meeting in groups, in emotionally charged duets, and as individual shapes of expression, they acted out the core of this heavily solemn  yet ecstatic atmospheric piece.

As the music, perfectly pitched by a Philharmonic at the top of its game, separated into very clearly demarcated sections of intense different rhythmic dynamics, so did the dancers lift and move in impossibly elegant shapes. Ultimately, sound and movement faded into silence.

  • Antonín Dvořák Serenade for Strings in E Major, 1875

The concert concluded with this infectiously joyful and charming piece  constructed of 4 movements, each imbued with a unique character: a lively waltz, a cunning scherzo, a passionate larghetto, and a playful folk dance in the style of the composer’s native Bohemia. Speck led the Philharmonic to produce a sense of unity throughout the work; it seemed as though snippets of melody were quoted between movements- in the larghetto were phrases from the waltz, for example- and the finale actually revisits themes from each of the prior movements  before concluding with a restatement of the work’s opening theme. Thus, the wonderful piece came full circle, and left the audience thoroughly pleased.

Conductor Scott Speck, with baton, and the Philharmonic receive applause after “Promise”; photo by Elliot Mandel

After the event, I caught up with Visceral dancers Luis Vazquez and Meagan Cubides to capture their thoughts on the premiere danced to Trisagion.

Debra Davy: “Can you describe the experience of working together with Nick Pupillo to learn this world premiere piece? Is there room for individual interpretation? Is there a certain “Visceral language?”

Luis Vazquez: “Working on a world premiere allows the dancers to see the piece come to fruition from the first steps to the performance. For this work, Nick generated all the movement vocabulary separate from the musical score, then section by section began to shape the landscape of the piece. Next, he asked us to use the phrases he’d created and to shape them into solos. This allowed us to express our individual voices as artists while remaining true to the shape and feel of the work. To me the ‘Visceral Language’ involves taking bold and daring choices, while flowing through classical lines and shapes. It is important to Nick that the company members not only stand out as soloists, but that they also meld together in seamless unison.”

Meagan Cubides: “The process of creating this piece began with learning several short phrases of choreography. There is definitely a ‘Visceral language’, but Nick also communicated with us on how the movement felt autonomically and emotionally to ensure an organic understanding of the work. We were given ample time to explore these phrases individually before turning collectively as a company to create the works cohesive framework. Another wonderful aspect to this process was the creation of our individual solos that were spread out within the piece; we were challenged to find our own interpretations of the movement yet remaining within the Visceral vocabulary.”

Davy: “What was your take on the piece itself?”

Vazquez: “There are moments when the dance unfolds with the score, while in other moments the silence in the music is either contrasted with a fury of steps, or matched with stillness in the dancers. This causes the music and choreography to not be a prisoner to one another, but rather the two are in constant conversation.”

Cubides: “The dance was filled with very intense and heavy emotions that were fighting to escape our bodies. There are many moments where our limbs are reaching in opposite directions and then forging forward into either fast sequences or subtle pauses. This movement in combination with the dynamic musical score made for a powerful experience – one that I interpreted as needing to be reflected onto the audience.”

Davy: “What was it like to perform right on stage with Chicago Philharmonic- not just in terms of the limitations of the space, but with the vibes and actual personnel of the orchestra so near?”

Vazquez: “It was truly an honor and dream to perform live with the Chicago Philharmonic. Sharing the stage with the musicians allowed me as a dancer to have a tangible connection with the music; you could feel the vibrations coming from the strings, and the moments where both the dancers still and the musicians were silent felt grounding. It made performing the work feel fresh, daring, and exciting.”

Cubides: “Having the orchestra on stage with us felt as if our energies were feeding off one another. There was a shared excitement in the air that I sensed helped further drive our movement. In a typical stage setting, it is just dancers sharing the space. But this collaborative experience meant that our awareness had to stretch beyond ourselves and we had to tap into a level of sensibility we may normally not get to explore. Additionally, being so near the orchestra, my ear was able to pick up on sounds I had not been attuned to hearing when rehearsing with a taping of the piece. This in a way made the union of the choreography to the music feel more organic than ever before.”

Chicago Philharmonic at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie; photo by Elliot Mandel

For information and tickets to all the fine programming of The Chicago Philharmonic, go to www.chicagophilharmonic.org





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