Ground-Breaking Review of a Combination of Classical Orchestra Meets Striking Hip-Hop Street Dancing!

SYMPHONIC DANCES
Orchestra prowess meets ground-breaking choreography during the Cal Phil's dynamic third concert

By Christina Linhardt, Staff Writer

"I hope you brought your dancing slippers, or ballet shoes... or bare feet... depending on which dance we're doing," Maestro Victor Vener said, welcoming music-lovers on the afternoon of July 29th, 2018, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The third concert of the Cal Phil's spectacular Summer Season, "Symphonic Dances," was an assortment of invigorating orchestral dances from widely diverse destinations, full of color and folkloric flavor.

The concert could not have “kicked off” in a more captivating manner than with the Introduction of Maunel de Falla's "Three Cornered Hat" Suite. A brilliant herald of four trumpets and pounding timpani instantly grabbed the audience’s attention, along with furious castanets. Musicians who were not playing their instruments spontaneously started clapping Flamenco rhythms and shouting "Ole!" in a delightful celebration of this perennial favorite. The concert-goers who attended the Maestro’s pre-show talk in the BP Hall heard him say about the de Falla Suite, "This can only be Spanish music." And indeed, it was a vibrant fiesta of resplendent sounds with magnificent solos ringing out from Jim Thatcher on French horn, Marilyn Schram on English horn, and Fancisco Castillo on Oboe. The audience couldn't help but tap their feet as the orchestra blazed through the finale dance with gusto. Next up was the "Danse Generale" from Maurice Ravel's passionate "Daphnis et Chloe," known for its lush, impressionist harmonies. The 20th Century composers featured in the “Symphonic Dances” concert utilized specialty instruments in some of their pieces, such as the piccolo clarinet, the contrabassoon, and the alto flute. To introduce one of the novelty instruments, Dr. Vener first asked Cynthia Kelley to stand and stand up and show the audience her piccolo flute, then asked Jamie Pedrini to display the standard concert flute, and lastly he asked Pam Martchev to show the alto flute with its curved, elongated mouthpiece. As he was about to give the downbeat for the “Danse Generale,” the Maestro joked that since the dance was written in 5/8, "like a waltz with a slightly broken leg," he invited us all to "limp" along. The vivacious impressionistic wash of tones in Ravel’s piece, like paints bleeding together, revealed the superlative skill of the Cal Phil musicians. It was then time for guest star, Harvey Pittel, America's foremost saxophonist, to enthrall us with his astounding abilities. Mr. Pittel came on like “a one-man-band” with several instruments: alto saxophone, soprano sax and sopranino saxophone. He immediately starting playing "Simple Gifts" on the alto, unaccompanied. When he finished he said, "That is how I say ‘good afternoon’ in saxophone."

He proceeded to give a brief history of the creator Adolphe Sax, who invented the saxophone in 1840. Sax was intending to find an instrument that could bridge the gap between the brass and woodwinds. Mr. Pittel gave a demonstration of the other saxes and provided a taste of the various styles of music they are used for. He was then joined downstage by Cal Phil percussionist Terry Schonig on vibraphone and principal bass Pete Doubrovsky, making up a jazz trio. Instead of being backed up by a six piece combo they were backed up by an entire 60-piece piece orchestra for John Williams’ "Escapades for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra" from the motion picture “Catch Me If You Can.”

Set in the 1960s, Williams’ score evokes the era of “Cool Jazz” and cool it was, with orchestra members snapping their fingers as Mr. Pittel took off with ease and fluency, evoking the feel of a smoky night club during the era of progressive jazz. Schonig shone on the vibraphone in exact precision with Pittel, as Doubrovsky delivered a sure bass line holding down the tempo, all the while with the Cal Phil members following along with great admiration for their musicianship. Harvey Pittel sings through the saxophone and races like lightning along the keys, exemplified by his solo in “Oodles of Noodles,” by Jimmy Dorsey. There is really no other way to describe the piece other than oodles of notes racing around a symphonic merry-go-around in pure virtuosic fashion. For a surprise encore, Mr.Pittel performed “Flight of the Bumblebee” on soprano sax. As if the fluidity of his playing and flawless technique were not enough, he performed it all in one breath! In the pre-show talk, where the Maestro always reveals little secrets, Mr. Pittel’s circular breathing method was described. It sounds easy enough, but when the Maestro asked everyone to try it (breathing in through the nose while breathing out through the mouth), everyone quickly realized knowing the trick doesn’t make it any easier. Needless to say Harvey Pittel, Master of the Saxophone, received an instant standing ovation for his literally breathtaking performance!

After the intermission, Maestro Vener welcomed the audience back with a warm, “Ok, that was fun wasn’t it?” Even more fun was yet to come with the charming and picturesque Dvorak Dances, 3, 6 and 9. Czech composer Antonin Dvorak would absorb folk melodies and rhythms and then write his own original music, emulating and evolving the traditional sounds. His dances sparkled with mirth, invoking the fairytales of the Bohemian Woods - lilting, pastoral, and rousing. 

Following the delectable Dvorak dances, Alyson Stoner strutted lithely on stage in a lace-up black cat suit, crouching before the conductor’s podium, making ceremonial gestures on the ground. The famous, ominous opening melody of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” (played on bassoon by Andy Radford) rang out across the hushed crowd. Rising, Alyson expertly moved into her own striking combination of hip hop street dancing, to be joined by "flexer" Matthew Gibbs contorting in "bone breaking" fashion. After a dialogue in movement between the two, Kaitye Martinez came out from stage right "whacking" and "vogueing," followed by Friidom Dunn "krumping," incorporating his own new "epic" style. Josue Figueroa entered break dancing across the floor in juxtaposition with Erika Klein's contemporary style with more kicks and pirouettes. The five dancers surrounded Ms. Stoner, the central figure in the avant-garde story, flowing, convulsing, and jerking in perfect rhythm and awe-inspiring movement to the primordial beat of Stravinsky's epic ballet. The piece ended with four dancers lifting Alyson Stoner up to the sky in sacrificial offering. Originally choreographed in 1913 by Vaslav Nijinsky, "The Rite of Spring" created a scandal with its shocking costumes and choreography, its primal rhythms and dissonance as well as its story line of Russian pagan rituals.

"I hope it shocked you just a tiny bit," the Maestro teased the exuberant crowd who stood in ovation to show their appreciation for these powerhouse dancers. Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite” closed the concert, once again affirming the first-rate quality of the Cal Phil, an orchestra showcasing some of the world's finest instrumentalists. Delivered with impeccable precision, gusto, and with astonishing slides from the trombones, the infernal dance of King Kashchei swelled into the lullaby of the second movement, leading way to a breath-taking horn solo by Jim Thatcher. The fervent strings catapulted the third movement into the ether, with exquisite sound that resonated through the air.

Only at a Cal Phil concert can such transcendence be experienced!

California Philharmonic