Underground Sound

A close listen to the PNB’s pit crew.

It was George Balanchine's love of not only the play A Midsummer Night's Dream, but also of the evocative, gossamer incidental music Felix Mendelssohn wrote for it (in 1826 and 1843), that inspired the choreographer to create this full-length ballet in 1962. This music's far more commonly heard in the concert hall, and poses challenges different from most ballets in the PNB repertory, offering a good opportunity to take a close listen to the PNB orchestra. Compared to other music this orchestra tackles, more complex and flashily orchestrated scores from The Nutcracker to The Rite of Spring, Dream might seem like child's play. But in this score, little glitches loom large. Mendelssohn's music isn't just exquisitely crafted; compositional polish is part of its expressive content. That's true not just of the picturesque fairy tale music he wrote for Dream but the other Mendelssohn works Balanchine selected to fill out the score as well (three overtures, parts of a cantata, and half of one of Mendelssohn's early string symphonies). An error isn't just an error; it violates the essence of the music. Most of what I heard from the pit matched in splendor what was happening onstage in this almost absurdly beautiful production, staged by PNB's former artistic director Francia Russell and designed by Martin Pakledinaz. Yet the opening night performance saw little glitches here and there that were unexpected. Performing as the Auburn Symphony (also led by PNB conductor Stewart Kershaw), this group of musicians can confidently claim to be second in stature only to the Seattle Symphony among the area's orchestras; I last heard them a year ago, at a special 10th-anniversary concert in Benaroya Hall, in a phenomenal performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11. So their problems in McCaw Hall were the more dismaying: overwhelmed and inaudible violins in the first loud passage in the Overture; occasional tuning issues in the wind section; rhythmically blurred trumpet fanfares in the opening to the Wedding March (which is, unluckily, one of the most recognizable pieces of music in the Western world). Still, the problems were never obtrusive enough to obscure the intimate connections Balanchine set up between his choreography and the score. It was fascinating to hear the incidental music, familiar only from the concert hall, performed in a new context. There's a little trumpet arpeggio near the end of the Overture, for example, which happens to coincide with the onstage entrance of Theseus and Hippolyta. To herald their resplendent arrival, Kershaw emphasized this figure, giving Mendelssohn's small detail new poetic significance. In any other collaborative orchestral performance—opera, for example—decisions about tempo involve compromises, give-and-take between the conductor and the musician being accompanied, which are still made on strictly musical grounds. Here, tempo often depends on the timing of the stage action and, above all, what the dancers physically can do. As a result, some of the fast music—the Overture and the Scherzo—seemed to have not much room to breathe; the rhythmic steadiness required by the dance translated musically into a certain relentlessness. The beginning of the Nocturne also sounded squarely prosaic: a little unrefined both in phrasing and tone. As for poetic moments: Karla Flygare played neatly one of the flute repertory's all-time scariest passages, the long bravura perpetual-motion solo that closes the Scherzo (which Balanchine did not echo, I was surprised to see, with a similar bravura turn for a dancer). And the richness of the orchestra's string section (thanks to years of Tchaikovskian training?) added warmth to the self-conscious, slightly brittle 18th-century pastiche in Mendelssohn's String Symphony No. 9. The symphony's slow movement, which accompanies the second-act pas de deux—danced miraculously last Thursday by Louise Nadeau and Olivier Wevers—offered the most ravishing playing of the night. gborchert@seattleweekly.com

 
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