Dance ruled at the San Diego Symphony’s concerts this weekend (March 18-20): a powerful account of Igor Stravinsky’s Suite from The Firebird, the composer’s first collaboration with the great Russian choreographer Serge Diaghilev; a rhapsodic Harp Concerto by Alberto Ginastera, and the premiere of a Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Five Scenes” danced by seven members of Malashock Dance.
Frank’s compact, 15-minute ballet of five short scenes could not have been more welcoming to a choreographer. Her appropriately rhythmic, tonal idiom and transparent orchestration spurred by a lavish, mildly folkloric percussion section ensured motion even in the work’s quieter moments. Although neither the composer nor choreographer John Malashock supplied a program for “Five Scenes,” the theme of an outsider winning acceptance to a closed group asserted itself in both the dancers’ moves and their costumes.
Like the music of Béla Bartók, whose style reflected his extensive study of Central European folk music without actually quoting specific songs and dances, Frank’s ballet suggested Latin American dance rhythms and popular street songs, especially her stratospheric trumpet riffs, neatly executed by Principal Trumpet Micah Wilkinson. According her program bio, Frank comes to these Latin American influences through her Peruvian mother and her own extensive travels in Latin America. I predict that this fresh and inviting score commissioned by the San Diego Symphony will find its place on other orchestra programs, even without the presence of a dance company.
Although Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera spent the later decades of his career trying to transcend the nationalistic traits of his style, the outer movements of his popular Harp Concerto, Op. 25, proudly sport the marked dance rhythms and flavor of his native soil. Guest harpist Yolanda Kondanassis gave a glittering, invigorating account of the concerto, sympathetically assisted by guest conductor David Danzmayr and the orchestra. I particularly appreciated the middle movement’s mysterious, quavering “night music”—in the Bartók tradition—that featured a mildly dissonant chorale gravely intoned by the harp and answered by Principal Horn Benjamin Jaber’s haunting solo that floated upwards from the depths of the orchestra.
In the imposing harp cadenza that preceded the concerto’s jovial final movement and in her encore “Chanson dans la nuit” by Carlos Salzedo, Kondanassis demonstrated the breadth of her commanding technique and her consistently stylish execution.
The Firebird, the first of Stravinsky’s three massive, groundbreaking ballets that ushered in the modernist revolution in orchestral music in the early 20th century, displays little of the aggressive rhythmic and harmonic artillery of The Rite of Spring that shocked 1913 Paris. With the perspective of a century, however, it is easy to see that The Firebird, with its rich melodic lode spread among the orchestra’s most colorful soloists, actually forms a link between Tchaikovsky’s lush and tuneful ballets and the shocks of The Rite of Spring.
Danzmayr authoritatively presided over this Stravinsky outing, providing clear, detailed direction while at the same time drawing an ebullient, animated rsponse from the orchestra. The Suite’s one dark movement, the “Infernal Dance,” bristled with slashing rhythms and stark harmonies, stoked by Danzmayr’s firm lead. But the composer followed that fearsome moment with one of his most endearing movements, a gentle “Lullaby,” whose main theme was tenderly recounted by Principal Bassoon Valentin Martchev.