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Concert:nova's "Carnival of the Animals" a Keeper

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: May 24, 2010 - 5:31:48 PM in reviews_2010

Swan at Cincinnati's Spring Grove Cemetery (photo by Mary Ellyn Hutton)
Premieres are the stuff of legend, with ink still wet on manuscript paper, bemused performers and work-in-progress performances.

The premiere of “Carnival of the Animals” by the chamber ensemble concert:nova  Sunday evening in Cincinnati Ballet studios on Central Parkway may have looked easy, but it was not like pulling a rabbit out of hat.  Nor was it just another first performance.  In pre-concert remarks, composer Douglas Pew said he doesn’t expect to hear his “Swan” again, but Pew is almost certainly wrong.  With vision and countless hours of devotion, concert:nova has hatched a creature with legs with this affectionate re-visit to Saint-Saens' beloved classic.

What have we here?  Eleven members of concert:nova, including pianists Albert Mühlböck and Julie Spangler, performed the familiar “Carnival of the Animals” interleaved with brand new takes on the suite by 15 composers.  This expanded, updated “Carnival of the Animals” was performed with dance episodes choreographed by Heather Britt and other members of Cincinnati Ballet.  The dancing was the unifying element as Saint-Saens’ 15 animals passed in review in a stylistic array that spanned 19th to 21st century composition.  The performance, in CB's Mickey Kaplan Performance Studio, was led with great skill by Annunziata Tomaro, conductor of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music Concert Orchestra.

The dancers, 17 in all, outfitted in various animal guises, struck a group pose during Saint-Saens’ fanfare-like Introduction, followed by CCM composer Wennhui Xie's extracted, pointillistic version.  A  spike-heeled, champagne-swilling gal -- choreographer Britt -- passed across the stage periodically with a poster announcing the sequence of movements.

CB principal dancer Olgucan Borova, complete with tail, portrayed Saint-Saens’ “Marche royale du lion” with great, heroic leaps, pelvic thrusts and Elvis-like gestures.  Jeff Silva’s “Leo,” based on the third movement of Afro-Cuban composer Leo Brouwer’s “El Dacamaron Negro,” featured c:n's Randolph Bowman in a myriad of effects on the flute as the lion was joined by a captivating lioness.

New York composer Charles Coleman’s “House Hens,” which followed Saint-Saens’ “Poules et Coqs,” was a jazzy play on the pecking rhythms of the original.  CB’s Courtney Hellebuyck, Maizyalet Velazquez, Sarah Hicks and Charlotte Munson "hatched" from shells made of cloth, each marked “EGG," to become strutting poultry, extending their necks and peering curiously at the audience.

Danny Clay’s “Wild Animals” served as a prologue to Saint-Saens’ “Hemiones.”  Clay’s score set a dramatic scene for the dancers, with slow, shadowy music played on the keys and strings of both pianos.  As choreographed by CB principal dancer Kristi Capps, a hunter shoots his prey (Kelly Yankle), which revives and dances an elaborate pas de deux (with CB's Anthony Krutzkamp). It segued directly into Saint-Saens’ “Hemiones,” which flew like the wind for dancers and musicians.

Saint-Saens’ “Tortues” ("Tortoises") is famously known for parodying the Can-Can from Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” at a glacially slow tempo.  Capps made an elegant tortoise with a cushion on her back for a shell.  George Flynn’s re-interpretation, entitled "Fantasy Creatures," quoted Offenbach, then quickly turned dissonant as three masked tortoises crossed the stage.  In Yankle’s choreography, the dancers (Capps, Munson, Hellebuyck and Jackie Damico) seemed to be trying to outdo each other with their odd stretches and motions.  The movement ended with c:n clarinetist Jonathan Gunn sounding a distorted version of the Can-Can.  (Note: In addition to its other beauties, c:n's "Carnival" had the added significance of marking the final appearance in Cincinnati by CB principal dancer Capps, who leaves the company this season.)

Saint-Saens’ “L’elephant” was similarly witty, with music in waltz-time scored for double bass and piano.  C:n bassist Boris Astafiev played the original splendidly, turning virtuosic in Inez McComas’ "Elephant."  As choreographed by  Hellebuyck, a single elephant in a lavender tutu (Maizyalet Velazquez) pirouetted proudly at first (Saint-Saens), followed by a trio of pachyderms in McComas' more riotous version (Stephen Jacobsen, David Odenwelder, Josh Bodden).  The lumbering guys suggested the Trockaderos (the all-male ballerina company) and McComas penned a jolly tune for them that sounded like one Saint-Saens himself would have written.

Composer Jerod Sommerfeldt’s “Kangaroos" followed Saint-Saens' playful, hopping "Kangourous" with more complex rhythms.  Both versions inspired some very inventive choreography by CB’s Jimmy Cunningham, including boxing motions and a pair of kangaroos (Velazquez and Damico) jogging rapidly onstage backwards.

Saint-Saens’ “Aquarium” was prefaced by Jennifer Jolley’s “Aquarium,” which seeks the same effect of motion within a motionless medium.  Jolley's music mirrored the beauty of the original with lovely melodic turns for violin, flute, pianos and glockenspiel (c:n violinist Mauricio Aguiar gave it an extra touch of sweetness) as eight CB dancers rolled, wiggled and paddled on the floor to choreography by Britt.  Jolley's ending flowed seamlessly into Saint-Saens' original by utilizing the same tone colors with which Saint-Saens begins.

Saint-Saens could hardly have been more literal in his “Personnages a longue oreilles,” i.e. donkeys.  Aguiar and second violinist Smiliana Lozanova sounded Saint-Saens' raucous “hee-haws" in tandem, then it was composer Juan Campoverde’s turn.  His “Les autres personages avec longues oreilles” portrayed a donkey’s life in sparse, but colorful music with pseudo-hee haws, and a brief cadenza for -- what else? -- the viola, performed with gusto by c:n’s Heidi Yenney.  Naturally, it was all long-eared humor in Krutzkamp's choreography, danced by Jimmy Cunningham, Velazquez and Hellebuyck.

CCM’s Douglas Knehans, who drew Saint-Saens’ “Cuckoo,” says the original has always sounded melancholy to him, so he contrasted it with a happier version of cuckoo life.  Krutzkamp choreographed the Saint-Saens as a rather solemn pas de deux.  Danced by Capps and Krutzkamp to Gunn’s insistent clarinet, it ended with the dancers' arms (wings) extended, one leg bent backward.  They frolicked like Ginger and Fred in Knehans’ version, which featured multiple “cuckooing,” xylophone riffs (Jeff Luft) and the violin echoing Saint-Saens' slow melody.  

There were multiple bird calls in CCM composer Mara Helmuth’s “The Birds,” responding to Saint-Saens’ “Voliere.”   Instead of twittering flute (no one twitters quite like Bowman), she appropriated the real thing via computer from Montreal's Biodome, including sparrows and woodpeckers native to Ohio, with lots of percussion and sound effects.  The differences were of character, too, as reflected in Cunningham’s choreography.  Saint-Saens’ birds were beauties, dancing gracefully in feathered, silver masks.  Helmuth's were awkward and clumsy, fighting over slices of bread tossed out by members of c:n.

In “Pianistes,” Saint-Saens parodied students doggedly hammering out scales.  Choreographer Britt may have taken a cue from Francis Poulenc’s opera “Les Mamelles des Tiresias,” where the feminist heroine pops a pair of balloons symbolizing her breasts.  Here, dancers Selahattin Erkan and Yankle took turns popping each other’s balloons as one laborious scale transitioned to the next.  In Kurt Westerberg’s “Pianists,” the pianists vied via Chopin’s Etude Op. 25, No. 10, but got all muddled up in exercises by Hanon.  No one won.

Saint-Saens quoted himself (“Dans Macabre”) in “Fossiles” and composer Ellen Harrison followed suit in her “Fossils,” with fragments from one of her earlier works for solo clarinet.  It is beautiful, late-romantic music, reminiscent of Alban Berg or early Schoenberg.  In Sarah Hicks’ choreography, gloved dancers preened and strutted to Saint-Saens, but grew positively mournful to Harrison.  A bit of unwarranted self-prophecy?

Pew may have gotten the plum assignment with “Le Cygne” ("The Swan"), most popular of Saint-Saens’ “Animals.”  But how do you follow it?  You don’t, I suppose, and that may be why Pew's “Swan” prefaced Saint-Saens'.  It is a bit spooky and programmatic in effect, without melody or real shape, ending with what sounds like an orchestra warming up.  This led into Saint-Saens’ iconic melody, played with great beauty by c:n cellist Theodore Nelson.  Choreographer/dancer Dawn Kelly crafted an aching portrait here: an exhausted dancer falls asleep and dreams fitfully of dancing.  When she wakes up (dies?), she quickly scrambles for her toe shoes and tutu, ties up her hair and takes a swig of coffee before performing Anna Pavlova’s famous “Dying Swan.”  Kelly's dancing was breathtakingly beautiful, to her last tremulous motion as the swan folded its wings and died.

It was left to Joel Hoffman, chairman of CCM’s composition department, to write the Finale to Saint-Saens’ Finale.  It was a composite view, with Hoffman tying up bits of the other movements into a unified whole.  The dancers leapt across the stage in character and assumed the same group pose they had at the beginning of the suite.

Most of the composers were present for the performance, including Clay, Flynn, Helmuth, Hoffman, Jolley, Knehans, McComas, Pew and Sommerfeldt.

In sum, it was a portentous evening for Concert:nova.  “Carnival of the Animals” deserves repeated performances – the first is at 8 p.m. tonight at the Ballet studios -- and should become a permanent part of the group’s growing repertoire.