Chroma Chamber Orchestra brings panache to dance-inspired program

Mon Apr 02, 2012 at 1:37 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

“Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” by Marcel Duchamp, 1912.

For the second program of its inaugural season, the Chroma Chamber Orchestra offered up a program of three seminal 20th-century ballet scores Sunday night at Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston.

The orchestra’s debut last October was generally impressive, as one might expect from an ensemble that boasts a significant number of Chicago Symphony Orchestra members among its roster.

Still, Sunday night’s concert showed a marked improvement over last fall’s performances. Artistic director David Crane drew more refined and dynamically nuanced playing, largely avoided the bludgeoning sonic overkill that was evident in this tricky, very live acoustic in the fall.

Francis Poulenc penned his Aubade in 1929 for an all-female dance troupe. The ballet depicts the goddess Diana during a 24-hour span in a scenario that the composer, rather unhelpfully, described as “about women, about feminine solitude.”

The Aubade had somewhat greater success in the concert hall. Scored for piano and 18-member ensemble, Poulenc’s concerto chorégraphique is slight even by early Poulenc standards but well crafted and effective in its contrasts.

Marta Aznavoorian

Certainly soloist Marta Aznavoorian made a fine case for this virtuosic divertissement, cast in eight brief sections. At times her playing was stronger on vehemence than charm, but Aznavoorian threw off the bravura sections with undeniably dazzling power and prestidigitation. The piano tone and ensemble tuttis were a bit fierce at times in the hot acoustic, but Crane and the Chroma players provided their soloist with admirable support.

More so than the Poulenc, the other two works have gained great popularity in the concert hall, so much so that it has tended to eclipse their Terpsichorean origins.

For all its popularity with audiences, Aaron Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring, written for Martha Graham, is a difficult work for musicians, with myriad rhythmic complexities and much exposed writing. Sunday’s performance of the original chamber version for 13 players was launched in unpromising fashion with an offhand introduction, wholly lacking the requisite hushed expectancy.

The performance quickly got on track, however, and Crane led an idiomatic and expressive reading of Copland’s evocative score. Balancing could have been more dexterous and the corporate tone more refined at times. But Crane showed a sure feel for this music, the jaunty cross-rhythms, introspection and deep vein of nostalgia and sadness. Playing was exemplary by the orchestra with flutist Alyce Johnson and concertmaster Baird Dodge standouts.

The program note indicated that the concluding performance of Darius Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde would be preceded by a slide lecture on the art and cultural background of the era. That prospect of a dry, droning academic invariably produced a “Danger, Will Robinson!” feeling of impending dread.

In fact the talk by art historian Mark Pohlad, an associate professor at DePaul, was witty, informative and wholly delightful, deftly setting the stage for the performance. Pohlad’s comments and images economically placed the artistic milieu and ferment that inspired Milhaud’s work from Marcel Duchamp to Josephine Baker, the great surge of interest in “exotic Africa,” and, especially Milhaud’s visits to Harlem jazz clubs.

This strange 1923 work is not really jazz music per se—even less directly than Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which would explode upon the world the following year. It’s more an impressionistic Frenchman’s fresh and affectionate response to the genre, freely mixed in with Milhaud’s Gallic satiric bite and a dash of Parisian frivolity.

Crane is truly a clear believer in Milhaud and the rousing performance of La Creation du Monde was the finest thing to come from the Chroma Chamber Orchestra to date. The well-rehearsed playing had all the brash vitality and brassy panache required and Crane brought a unity and momentum to the connected six sections.

Virtually everyone has a moment in the spotlight and the Chroma musicians all acquitted themselves with distinction, especially alto saxophonist Jim Gailloreto, bass Michael Hovnanian, oboist Jelena Dirks, trombonist Peter Ellefson, and percussionist Cynthia Yeh.

The Chroma Chamber Orchestra’s final concert of the season will take place 7:30 p.m. June 3 with Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat and the world premiere of David Crane’s Ode to the Telegraph.; 847-905-1500 (ext.108).

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment