The Lake Placid Sinfonietta continues to challenge itself with ambitious material written over several centuries, some of which can challenge its listeners, as it did again on Aug. 3 at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts.
Such an orchestra doing a six-week summer gig in a tourist town may be able to get away with playing a warhorse repertoire of pops favorites, but such is not the case with this ensemble. Audience members need to go in with an open mind and often a sense of humor.
Sunday's concert began with the overture to Mozart's "Don Giovanni," a piece written right up to the minute of its 1787 premiere in Prague on paper "with the ink still drying," said music director Ron Spigelman.
Sinfonietta Director Ron Spigelman
Photo provided by Lake Placid Sinfonietta
Richard Fairman, in Opera magazine, describes the premiere as "chaotic, spontaneous, noisily convivial, like a cross between an end-of-term student production, a high-society soiree and a pole-dancing club."
The orchestra's performance on Sunday, however, was hardly chaotic (and devoid of any pole dancers) as it ripped through the lively and dramatic piece that many audience members may recognize from the opening scene of Peter Shaffer's 1984 movie "Amadeus."
The next piece, "Funeral March of a Marionette" by Charles Gounod, brought chuckles from the audience as it recognized the main theme from the TV series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." Clarinetist Waixiong Wong carried the melody and added to the humorous moment as he bobbed and swayed in his chair, as if he himself were dangling from a puppeteer's strings.
The first half closed with a true test of an audience's sense of humor with Jacques Ibert's "Divertissement," a six-movement work from 1930 that pokes fun at a variety of musical genres, similar to the way Spike Jones and his City Slickers did with a big jazz band some 20 years later. The second movement, "Cortege," is supposed to be a funeral dirge, but it contains passages from Mendelssohn's famous "Wedding March" as if they were one and the same. A bastardized version of "The Blue Danube" appears in the fourth movement, and in the sixth it launches into Keystone Cops-style chase music with Tony Oliver in the percussion section blowing a police whistle and probably wishing he had the arms of an octopus to handle all the additional devices required in the part. With Spigelman's high-octane energy behind the baton, the piece was great fun to listen to.
The second half featured Stravinsky's "The Soldier's Tale," a roughly 55-minute work scored, according to the program notes, "for dancer, three speaking parts and seven instruments." It tells the story of a World War I soldier who sells his cheap violin (his soul) to the devil in exchange for unlimited material wealth in the form of a book that can predict future events such as stock prices. Once the soldier realizes his made a mistake, he finds the devil a clever adversary in his efforts to trade the book back for his violin.
The speaking lines were catchy, Ogden Nash-style rhymes translated from Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz's original text by Sheldon Harnick, the famed lyricist for a number of Broadway hits including "Fiddler On A Roof." Pendragon Theatre provided the actors, dancers and lighting.
The overall performance seemed smooth and flawless, which is no easy task for anything involving Stravinsky, with his complicated rhythms and harmony. The seven orchestra members involved in this piece deserve credit for playing so much Stravinsky while being so musically exposed.
Bonnie Brewer worked her usual magic with the lighting. Cassidy Dermott, playing the devil, was the strongest presence on the stage.
And yet with no apparent flaws in the performance, it still seemed long and tiresome. It may have been improved with more resources and action on the stage. Kevin Pinero had a heavy load to haul by performing nearly all the dancing on his own. The lone exception occurred when he danced a duet with the princess, played by Courtney Meyer. This section had considerable life to it, prompting a smattering of applause at its conclusion.
Other productions of this work, such as one by Jiri Kylian with the Netherlands Dance Theater, have involved more dancers performing in concert, which may have been what this production needed.
Tiresome or not, the Sinfonietta deserves much credit for challenging itself and its audiences with ambitious material like this and should not let a less-than-raving review prevent it from doing more in the future.
The Sinfonietta next Sunday concludes the season with music by Elgar, Beethoven and Haydn's "Farewell Symphony," and Navah Perlman returns to play Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2.
Don't miss it.