Karen Hauge, KCMetropolis.org
The Bach Aria Soloists continued its “Season of Collaboration” by teaming up with Owen/Cox Dance Group for a successful performance of diverse sonatas at the Folly Theater last weekend.
The 2013–14 season has been one of exciting collaboration for the Bach Aria Soloists, who, since the fall, have joined their considerable talents with the likes of newEar contemporary chamber ensemble and the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival. Reaching into another facet of Kansas City’s local talent, the Soloists formed a partnership with the Owen/Cox Dance Group, known for their innovative work with new music and contemporary dance. This past Saturday found the pair of groups working together to create several new pieces against the backdrop of the historic Folly Theater.
The concert took on a format that has become familiar to BAS audiences this season—the regular alternation of a work for only the Soloists with collaborative works. This structure was wisely handled in this case, giving the dancers ample opportunity to rest up and refresh in between their pieces, since only eight dancers performed and six of them appeared in each of the three works with dancers. The concert opened with two movements from the third Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord in D major by Baroque composer Jean-Marie LeClair, performed by BAS members Elizabeth Suh Lane and Elisa Williams Bickers. The stately French overture-style first movement featured highly animated and appropriate overdotting by Suh Lane, and the rustic second movement was jaunty and fun. Perhaps it was simply my vantage point from orchestra left, but at times the balance and fluidity of the violin line seemed off, with aggressive double stops in the first movement and the occasional feeling of misplaced emphasis in the second. All in all, though, it was a clean performance from the seasoned duo and set up the example of partnership that the group set out to capture in this concert aptly titled “The Sonata Project.”
Though not, strictly speaking, a sonata, the second piece on the program demonstrated the same ideals of partnership and collaboration inherent in the sonata structure—that of a balanced duo, where both players’ roles are equally important. Appalachia Waltz by bluegrass fiddle player Mark O’Connor is a slow and meditative piece, performed by BAS as a duo for Suh Lane and Kansas City Symphony Associate Principal Cellist Susie Yang. The soulful and yearning melody was performed simply and decisively by Yang and Suh Lane, who presented the first half of the piece alone in the middle of the stage, playing from memory and creating an atmosphere of stillness in the room. The dancers entered slowly once the piece had breathed through the material for several minutes, and their dancing grew stronger and more coordinated as the piece went on, especially as the music swelled in intensity and their choreography became broader and faster. I am no expert in dance, but this piece featured the first of many beautiful lifts in the evening; in this piece especially, dancer Megan Horton seemed to float above the ethereal music.
Harpsichordist Elisa Williams Bickers performed Johann Adam Reincken’s Toccata in G major next, and the rambling, improvisatory piece allowed her to show off her clean and agile technique as well as the variety of colors available on the harpsichord. She achieved great contrast between the piece’s sections by muting different sides of the keyboard in each, and her sense of lyricism was remarkable as she made the plucked strings sing in long lines.
The final piece on the first half was Bach’s Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Harpsichord. Suh Lane and Williams Bickers performed from downstage right, giving the dancers their own space in which to perform. On a whole the music was rendered inoffensively; the pair created some great contours in the final movement, but generally the music made way for the dancers rather than drawing attention to itself. The choreography was well and often cleverly planned, with the number of dancers on stage tied to the number of lines in the piece. Betty Kondo in particular stood out for her fluid and graceful yet athletic work. Once again the six dancers occasionally had issues with timing, sometimes seeming as though they didn’t have enough time to complete their work in the number of counts available, which manifested in some incoordination. However it was not enough to distract from the overall effect of the piece—they made a Bach sonata come to life in a way that we instrumentalists can only dream of, and they should be commended for their energetic and diverse treatment of this music that often gets pigeon-holed as square and predictable when really it is magnificent and exciting.
Following intermission Susie Yang and Elisa Williams Bickers performed the first two movements of Vivaldi’s Sonata for Cello in B-flat major, No. 6. A bit pitchy at the start, Yang quickly recovered and displayed great lyrical technique in the opening Largo. In the spirited Allegro that followed I lost the tone quality of the faster-moving notes, experiencing more of the chipped front of the note than the tonal center of each.
The program concludes with Maurice Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello, a tour-de-force performance for musicians and dancers alike. Suh Lane and Yang played with great precision and coordination that allowed the exotic and often jazzy sounds of the piece to come through very clearly. This piece was also the strongest for the dancers, with Winston Dynamite Brown standing out for his athletic and compelling rendering of the second movement’s pizzicato opening. I was moved in particular by how the choreography seemed to echo not only the aesthetic of the music but also the individual personalities and strengths of each dancer. This piece more than overcame any inconsistencies and flat moments earlier in the program, as all the players involved created a total work that both elevated and celebrated the music.