Review: Igor Stravinsky’s Les Noces
By Perry Tannenbaum
Uniquely combining performing arts, visual arts, film, literary, culinary and even cosmetology events, all promoted with endearing academic diffidence by Central Piedmont Community College, Sensoria is an annual arts and literature festival that just might be achieving traction in Charlotte. Two campus parking garages were teeming with stalled traffic on the night my wife Sue and I attended a modernistic program of music and dance at Halton Theater, headlined by a staging of Igor Stravinsky’s Les Noces. For multiple reasons, this was a student/faculty showcase like none I had ever attended before.
CPCC’s Dance Theatre had reached out to UNC Charlotte, bringing the UNCC Percussion Ensemble and the UNCC Dance Ensemble into their production and staging it on both campuses. Attendance for this edgy event at CP was phenomenal, filling the Halton’s balcony more fully than any CPCC Summer Theatre show I’ve attended in recent memory. Little slips of paper were being handed out as we exited, tipping off the probability that academic credit was being offered for attending. Student admission was free with ID.
Even before their contributions to Les Noces, members of the Percussion Ensemble were involved in three of the four preliminary pieces. UNCC lecturer Rick Dior composed, conducted, and introduced two of these, “Equinox for Percussion Ensemble and Theremin” and “Flesh and Bone.” Serving as co-emcee was Clay Daniel, who created new choreography for Les Noces. Visiting UNCC artist Janet Schroeder worked with the Dance Ensemble to create “7(each her own) = !” Composer Ivan Trevino was the only major creative force who was not affiliated with either of the two schools, but his “2300 Degrees” got the evening off to a promising start, performed by Raven Pfeiffer and Chris Merida facing each other on two shared marimbas separated by an island of crotales, little cymbal-like instruments that were pinged with sticks.
Merida launched the piece with some delicate work on the crotales before the spirited marimba duetting began in earnest. The title refers to the temperature at which glass becomes semi-liquid and malleable, and the tensions of the piece, premiered in 2016, are intended to evoke the dangers and the beauties of this hot medium. Both Pfeiffer and Merida wielded two mallets in each hand, and when the music intensified, they both played their five-octave marimbas and the crotales array at the same time. When the composition climaxed, both of the players were reaching across to the other’s marimba. Really a fun beginning.
With Pfeiffer moving to play the theremin and Merida sitting himself behind a drum kit, all of the UNCC Percussion Ensemble joined in the auspicious world premiere of “Equinox.” Most of Dior’s introductory remarks were devoted to explaining the theremin, an electronic instrument invented by Leon Theremin in 1928 and probably best recognized as the melodic voice of the familiar Star Trek theme. Dior described Pfeiffer as a quick-study prodigy on the gizmo, which is the antithesis of any percussion instrument she had played before. Touching the looped left antenna of the theremin actually silences it, and moving your hand away from that antenna raises the volume while the right hand, working with the upright right antenna, controls the pitch.
As this intriguing piece unfolded, Pfeiffer appeared to be playing what I’d call “air trombone.” Precise jerks of her right hand could produce recognizable runs and scales, but smoother movements yielded slide whistle glissandos. Of course, no breath was required for Pfeiffer to sustain tones while eight percussionists worked busily behind her, four on drums pitted against four on malleted instruments. Shifting and crossing motifs of the percussion were intended by Dior to mimic the hemispheric action of the equinox, but I’ll freely admit that it was hard for me to unfasten my attention from the spectacle of Pfeiffer’s fine performance.
It was far easier for me to wrap my eyes around the oddity of Schroeder’s “7(each her own) = !” The seven dancers, all costumed in similar aqua-colored tops and cheery white leggings with hexagonal graphics, brought out a variety of surfaces to which they would apply their tap shoes. There were individual entrances and exits before all seven of the women were there to stay, establishing the individuality of the dancers and their common link to a steady beat. No other instruments were onstage making music; and if you listened closely to the walking, tapping, and stomping; you would notice a variety of pitches that the portable circular, square, and triangular dance surfaces brought to the sound palette. For a good while, Schoeder and her dancers disdained actual tap dancing, and I began to wonder just how far the UNCC Dance Ensemble had gotten in their lessons. Relief, expression, and true individuality emerged when the tap dancing finally began – along with the beginnings of bonds and community among the dancers. Perhaps that was the message.
Choreographed by CP dance faculty member Tracie Foster Chan, “Flesh and Bone” was the first collaborative piece of the night, bringing the UNCC Percussion Ensemble back on stage to play for four members of CPCC Dance Theatre. As Dior explained prior to conducting his piece, Chan and her dancers had taken on a challenge, since most of the time signatures in the piece weren’t easily counted or danceable meters in three or four. When the two soloists did release into a stretch of 4/4, the difference was quite noticeable and refreshing. Utilizing one male dancer and three women clad in abstract black-and-white costumes, Chan’s choreography nicely captured the restless asymmetry of Dior’s score. As for dancers – Angela Cook, Kataryna Flowers, Amber Johnson, and Byron McDaniel – moving away from ballet and into the modern idiom seems to have brought more comfort and confidence to this troupe. The title of the piece was Dior’s reference to how the two drum soloists played, Merida with his hands and Daniel Ferreira with drumsticks.
With six more CP dancers, four vocal soloists, an eight-person mini-chorus, seven Percussion Ensemble musicians, and four pianos, Les Noces (The Wedding) took some time to set up, almost justifying an intermission. Once all the people and pieces were in place, with Dior wielding the baton, there was sensory bombardment and overload that I’ve rarely experienced before. Printed lyrics would have helped in understanding the action, but how could we have read them while watching the dance? The dancing helped us, after all, in delineating the four scenes of the continuous score: The Blessing of the Bride, The Blessing of the Bridegroom, The Bride’s Departure from Her Parents’ House, and The Wedding Feast. For some perverse reason, however, Daniel didn’t want his choreography to reveal who the bride and bridegroom were until the very end – so obviously the actions of blessing and departure were also blurred.
Amid all the sensory bombardment and conceptual confusion, I didn’t notice Alan Yamamoto, the conductor listed in the program, making the usual formal entrance we expect at symphonic and operatic performances. But I’ve gotten multiple assurances that he was indeed on the podium, and I had nothing but admiration for his spirited work. Daniel’s scenario began effectively in silence, with dancers ceremoniously bringing a long flowering vine in from an exit at the side of the hall. That effect contrasted with the sudden onslaught of the percussion and the female vocalist who sang The Bride’s role. Besides including the lyrics, the program would have been more useful if it had designated who sang the roles of the bride’s mother and father, the groom, the groom’s father, etc. For all of the confusion that hovered over this presentation, the primitive savagery of the singing and percussion were absolutely riveting. The title might have sounded like a sentimental Hallmark greeting card, but the experience was more like the most raucous moments of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, absolutely thrilling.