Four excellent November programs: NOVA Chamber Music Series’ Britten and Shostakovich, Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation’s Andrey Gugnin, Repertory Dance Theatre’s Sojourn, Spy Hop’s 20th anniversary PitchNic

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November has been packed with concerts and presentations by numerous local performing arts and culture organizations. Four are reviewed in this roundup. This week, many organizations are in the midst of various end-of-the-year fundraising efforts and holiday season promotions for gift giving. Also, many local groups will be participating in the National Giving Tuesday (#GivingTuesday), which takes place tomorrow (Nov. 29). 

NOVA CHAMBER MUSIC SERIES: BRITTEN AND SHOSTAKOVICH

In the first of two NOVA Chamber Music Series Gallery Concerts this season, cellist Walter Haman and the Fry Street Quartet made the solid case about why composers Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich epitomized a unique kinship.

Stellar and immaculately balanced at every turn in the G.W. Anderson Family Great Hall at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, the performances of Britten’s Cello Suite No.1 and String Quartet No. 1 along with Shostakovich’s String Quartet No.9 underscored the many layers of the friendship the composers maintained, despite the obvious logistical problems presented by the Cold War in the middle parts of the 20th century.

Chris Myers, of Argyle Arts, noted in his edifying program notes for the concert how the composers managed to bridge the distances to forge a friendship deeper than the professional pillars upon which it was first formed: 

Both showed a natural attraction to the theater and narrative music. Both showed a fascination with reinventing neglected baroque and classical forms. Both spent a lifetime walking the tightrope between innovation and tradition.

And each managed to achieve the great contradiction of becoming the iconic symbol of their national musical establishment while somehow remaining a rebel and social outcast — Shostakovich due to his political satire and resistance to Communist Party ideology, and Britten because of his pacifism during the war and decision to live openly in a committed relationship with Peter Pears at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offense in the UK.

Haman opened the concert with Britten’s Cello Suite No.1, which he wrote for Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Describing the work as a series of six character pieces, Myers explains how the four “cantos” framing the movements “function as a kind of toolbox, displaying the melodic and harmonic elements that will be used in the course of the suite, with each recurrence emphasizing different details.”

Haman’s deft execution was natural. His instincts brought out the animated impact of numerous harmonic, pizzicato and col legno elements. Haman’s sound was luxurious in its darker wood tones and his cantos were spacious and elastic enough to give cohesion to the suite’s entire architecture throughout every movement.  

Fry Street Quartet.

The Fry Street Quartet, whose members also serve collectively as NOVA’s music directors, should do a complete cycle of Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets, as evidenced by its performance of the composer’s String Quartet No. 9, which was completed in the same year as Britten’s cello suite. In the not always useful parlor game of ranking what people believe are Shostakovich’s best string quartets, Nos. 8 and 4 consistently end up at the top, and No. 9 is often near the bottom of the list. But, as Myers’ notes highlight, the final movement’s fugue leads to “a 200-bar crescendo into one of the most exhilarating endings Shostakovich ever composed.”

The quartet’s performance accentuated properly all of the work’s emotional swings, extricating the Shostakovich trademarks of heartfelt lyricism morphing to simmering anger and finally withering ferocity. The Fry Street Quartet’s supreme commitment to sincerity of interpretation never wavered, whether it was in the opening pizzicato, the intense Adagio, the sprightly played Allegretto or the hurricane-like force of the final movement.  

Likewise, the ensemble’s fidelity to Britten’s First String Quartet, written in 1941 when the composer was 28, was just as clear. It is impressive how Britten achieves the same effortless impact when he switches emotions and moods. There are definite Beethoven-like moments that periodically appear. The nocturne vibe of the slow movement was soothing. For this listener, the music was perfect accompaniment to taking in the four large murals that grace the venue’s walls. The end of the piece gives the quartet its one final chance to show off its artistry, rounding out one of the year’s most splendid chamber music outings. 

The next NOVA concert for its 45th season will be the second Gallery Series offering featuring the Utah premiere of Iman Habibi‘s Beloved of the Sky, a 2014 work inspired by the paintings of Canadian artist Emily Carr and  Jessie Montgomery‘s Source Code, a 2018 work; Dai Fujikura  ‘s  Prism Spectra, a 2014 work for viola and electronics, designed to mimic the movement of tropical fish in the sea, and Mozart’s String Quintet in G Minor, K. 516

The Libby Gardner Hall Series concerts also resume in February. For more information about tickets and upcoming concerts, see the NOVA website.

GINA BACHAUER INTERNATIONAL PIANO FOUNDATION: ANDREY GUGNIN

So far, Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation Competition’s season of recitals featuring piano competition gold medalists is a smashing success. The latest concert by Russian pianist Andrey Gugnin thrilled a packed Jeanné Wagner Theatre at the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts with works by Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky and Ravel.

Gugnin, who won the Bachauer gold medal at the 2014 competition before taking similar honors in Sydney two years later, is coming into his golden prime as a virtuoso. His performance of Rachmaninoff’s Op. 32 book featuring 13 of the 24 Preludes was intelligent, cohesive and sensitive. Gugnin projects the unmistakably Russian emotional signals of his fellow countryman. The Preludes are in the bailiwick of every international pianist of Gugnin’s caliber but Gugnin has his own vision of elegance, drawing in the listener that there is a lot more musically underlying the works of Rachmaninoff than the virtuoso dash and flash or the overwrought melodrama occasionally ascribed to late Romanticism. Gugnin offered plenty of contrasts in the set, which made the listening experience refreshing.

Earlier in the concert, Gugnin displayed plenty of bravura in the Petrushka suite, featuring three movements that Stravinsky transcribed from the original ballet score he wrote in 1911. Gugnin shines a sharper light on the music, following his instincts to bend and flex the rhythmic foundations, a privilege for the solo musician working from a transcription of a score that originally was written for full orchestra. 

Andrey Gugnin.

Gugnin’s performance of Ravel’s Sonatine showed inflections of Russian character but he also balanced it wisely to extrude the depths and substance of a work that many typically regard as one of the lesser pieces of the French composer’s oeuvre. There are motifs that would pop in Ravel’s later works, including the far more familiar Le Tombeau de Couperin. 

The opener, popularly known as Bachmaninoff, was Rachmaninoff’s transcription of three movements of Bach’s Partita for Solo Violin in E Major, BWV 1066. Gugnin set the bar for the evening, offering the right dose of panache while executing all of the startling hand crossing passages and driving this thrilling Romantic version of a Bach classic through all of its virtuosic demands.  But the two encores were perhaps the best moments of the evening. Gugnin performed the finale of Prokofiev’s Seventh Piano Sonata, which he performed eight years ago at the Bachauer competition, and a stunning rendition of Felix Blumenfeld’s Etude Op. 36, written for the left hand alone.

In 2023, Changyong Shin, 2018 Bachauer gold medalist, who performed a Bachauer-sponsored Carnegie Hall concert last year, will perform March 10. His program will include sonatas by Mozart and Schubert as well as Liszt’s virtuosic take on Mozart’s Don Giovanni, including the famous aria Là ci darem la mano. The season will close April 30 with a concert by Olga Kern, the 2001 Cliburn Competition gold medalist.

Bachauer will hold its Music Is A Gift fundraiser on Dec. 1 at the Mid-Valley Performing Arts Center in Taylorsville. For tickets and more information about the remaining concerts for the 2022-23 season, see the Bachauer website

REPERTORY DANCE THEATRE: SOJOURN

Sojourn, Repertory Dance Theatre’s (RDT) most recent concert, was a fine example of an accessible, unintimidating, pleasing program that inspires audiences to confidently embrace contemporary dance. In a tight 70-minute concert with no intermission, audiences saw a heartfelt world premiere, a beautiful piece of choreographic imagery in a Utah premiere of a work RDT recently acquired, the first live performance of a 2021 work that had its premiere on streaming video on demand and the reprise of a 2018 work with a message that is just as relevant and urgent as ever. Making the experience even more elucidating were short video interviews with each of the four choreographers.

Tyler Schnese, choreographer, unset.
Repertory Dance Theatre. Photo: Sharon Kain.

The world premiere was Tyler Schnese’s unset, a choreographic ode to the unique vista we have living along the Wasatch Front in Utah, watching magnificent sunrises and sunsets. Schnese won the commission earlier this year in Regalia, the company’s annual choreographer’s competition. Featuring six of the company’s dancers, Schnese, with an artistic background that includes ballet, inflected the work nicely with elements that felt like ballet while keeping the integrity of the contemporary dance form. The imagery of the sun’s daily trajectory came through clearly, a suggestion of resilience of coping with the day’s challenges and stresses and then marking it with a communal gathering at a dance club at day’s end. The work was set to a perfect choice for music: Thoughts Wasted by Róisín Marie Murphy, an Irish singer, songwriter and record producer. As noted in the preview, Schnese was grateful for Murphy’s willingness to allow the track to be used. Murphy, indeed, would be rightly flattered by the outcome.  

The dancers shined just as prominently in the Utah premiere of a recent acquisition to RDT’s repertory, Triptych by Cherylyn Lavagnino, which was choreographed in 2012. There’s a reverent spirituality in the work, evoked as much in the original score Reverence by longtime RDT collaborator Scott Killian along with Finis Jhung. In an earlier interview with The Utah Review, Lavagnino explained how each section was inspired by her observations in Mexico, which covered secular as well as religious expressions of community, faith and generosity. Triptych’s striking aspect is how the dancers (particularly in solo and  duet form) flawlessly transformed themselves into figures, which one would find in the narrative panels of a triptych artwork.

Cherylyn Lavagnino, choreographer, Triptych.
Repertory Dance Theatre. Photo: Sharon Kain.

Fresh performances of two other recent additions to the company’s repertoire, likewise, demonstrated the fine cohesion in the current RDT ensemble. Natosha Washington’s Say Their Names, Part I, which premiered in 2018, snapped more precisely this time around as a magnificently considered reflection on an issue that sadly remains the same in terms of unresolved status and urgency – the injustices and biases of the “stand-your-ground” laws and mentality. 

In Utah, there has been a spate of new works where choreographers are more than just keen and astute in selecting the music to emphasize the potency of their dance language. Say Their Names is amplified effectively by music from experimental composer Max Richter and Luca D’Alberto’s Consequences, a 2016 release that juxtaposes punk-inflected electronics with acoustic classical instruments). Thus, the work telegraphs Washington’s thematic message without the need of spoken word. The dancers’ properly framed intuition, as well, is eminently displayed.

Natosha Washington, choreographer, Say Their Names. Repertory Dance Theatre. Photo: Sharon Kain.

Sojourn also featured the first live performance of Hold by Kaley Pruitt, the winner of RDT’s 2021 Regalia choreographer’s competition. Pruitt set the work based on Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, as recorded by the New York Philharmonic led by Leonard Bernstein. The work received its world premiere at the beginning of 2022 in Emerge, a concert that originally was scheduled to be live but then because of concerns about the numbers of COVID-19 cases, was switched to a filmed concert.

No question the live performance truly brought forward the full impact of Pruitt’s interpretation of one of the most famous pieces by an American composer from the 20th century. Pruitt had tweaked some of the original choroegraphed composition in working with the dancers and the result was a smoother representation of the crochet movement and the crossovers in the Barber score. The most moving moment comes near the end – a perfect idealization of an ensemble which takes great pains and discipline to ensure not only their own health and safety but also the opportunity to perform live in an art form that is capable of such emotional power. 

The concert is also available, for purchase, as a streaming video on demand option. For more information, see the RDT website link for Sojourn

SPY HOP: PITCHNIC 20th ANNIVERSARY

One of the most compelling things to consider, as Spy Hop’s PitchNic program celebrated its 20th anniversary is the ever-shifting frame of reference, which guides the young filmmakers who create, produce, shoot and edit their narrative and documentary short features. In its two decades, the PitchNic film program at Spy Hop, the young filmmakers have amassed an impressive record of awards and film festival appearances for their short films, as previously highlighted at The Utah Review. 

The Young Men’s Guide to Bloodsucking.
Spy Hop, PitchNic 2022.

In this year’s class of four short films, there were plenty of aspects to consider in these aspiring Gen-Z filmmakers. They have spent practically their entire lives in social media and video streaming platforms. They are not Facebook users but they are far more likely engaged with Tik Tok, Instagram and other apps where content is tight and edited quickly. The challenge is learning how to harness it best for their own creative purposes and expression. They are thinking constantly about connecting with their audiences, while figuring out how their video platforms can become spaces for enlightenment and social activism.

More importantly, the stories the young filmmakers chose for the 20th anniversary class of PitchNic shorts also reflected the state of their current opinions and mindsets. Coming-of-age stories arose from the tensions of not only taking the risks to set out independently but also to acknowledge that in times of family crises, their voices matter. The short docs underscored both the joys and risks of independence in living their identities with as much joy as possible, even as they still believe that their families and communities with which they grew up should be a part of their lives. 

The Drowning of a Man-Boy. Spy Hop, PitchNic 2022.

In the four short films which received their premieres, all worthy projects, the most important lesson of their PitchNic experience is what really came through – filmmaking as the quintessential collaborative process. This already was evident, as noted in the earlier preview at The Utah Review

There were plenty of laughs from the audience, with The Young Men’s Guide to Bloodsucking, a coming-of-age horror comedy in which the main character is about to set off on his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) mission. He is about to reveal that not only is he gay but he also is a vampire. No question, the film’s comedy hit more effectively, especially in the early scenes, than its horror vibes which seemed strangely campy enough to fit this bill. Written and directed by Max Rhineer, 18, a University of Utah student, the creative team included producer Noah Thomas, 17, a Wasatch High School student and director of photography Conrad Porter, 18, a University of Utah student. 

Queen Bees. Spy Hop, PitchNic 2022.

On a much more serious note, the companion coming-of-age narrative short The Drowning of a Man-Boy dealt a good deal of realism that resonates with the peers of these Gen-Z filmmakers. The protagonist is a teen who is about to set off to college but has had difficult times relating to his parents. Paralyzed about the whole transition to adulthood, he retreats deeper into the escapism of video games. The message which comes through is that parents should not avoid helping their children express their fears and worries because a crisis could wipe out any opportunity for it. Likewise, forcing a child to talk is not good if the child observes their parents talking about problems and crises in ways that do everything but produce relief, reassurance or comfort. Directed by Erin Stotts and produced by Cecilia O’Brien, 16, who is a student at Utah Online School, the film’s creative team also features Julia Roller, 18, who is attending Utah Tech University, as director of photography and Lamis Shaikh, 19, a Weber State University senior, as production designer. 

The youthful voices in the short documentary Hidden Pride likewise offered a worthy counterpoint especially to others who believe that queer students from  Brigham Young University might be better off cutting their ties to the school, transferring to another college and finding their own group. Hidden Pride put a realistic perspective on the issue, finding a nuanced balance that produced some pleasantly surprising insights about how students most affected are being resilient and perhaps how we could do more to support their challenges in navigating the paths they must contend with for the time being. The film was conceived and directed by Fletcher Gibbons, 20 and was produced by Maryssa Straw, 19, both Utah Valley University students. 

Hidden Pride. Spy Hop, PitchNic 2022.

Perhaps the biggest crowd pleaser of the premiere was Queen Bees, featuring three well-known drag performers from the Salt Lake City scene and a teen who is hoping to become part of the next generation of performers. The trio, featured in the film, opened the program with a performance that delighted the audience: Lilia Maughn (Jacob Kelly), Veronika Davil (Angel Showalter) and Divina 2.0 (Anthony Parrott). Credited with the concept for Queen Bees is director Riley Nickel, 16, a junior who is graduating early from Jordan High School. Eleanor Condie, 15, of Olympus High School, is producer. 

The film is a youthful love letter to the art form and the filmmakers give a pretty sharp stylized inside look at why the art of drag performers is a multifaceted creative endeavor, for personal and professional reasons. No doubt, the youngest subject of the film, Charlie Asky (Slaytina), just 15, already enjoys working up their own glamorous aesthetic at home.  

The films are now available for view at the Spy Hop YouTube channel. The filmmakers will be encouraged, as their predecessors, to submit their work to film festivals. 

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