October’s performing arts schedule was filled with many jewels, including Repertory Dance Theatre, the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation and NOVA Chamber Music Series. The reviews below:
REPERTORY DANCE THEATRE: I AM…
One could not have asked for a more spectacular opener for Repertory Dance Theatre’s (RDT) 58th season than the premiere of Natosha Washington’s evening-length work I AM…, earlier this month.
The RDT company gave an unconditionally exceptional performance. Indeed, it was a rare moment when the eight dance artists effectively unified with a work that began as an autobiographical composition of choreography. Washington’s work ultimately became an embodiment of the dancers’ own experiences as artists in the studio but also in their lived identities off the performing stage. Plainly speaking, the RDT dancers ‘own’ this newest addition to their repertoire in an extraordinary manner that is on par with Zvi Gotheiner’s Dabke (2013), another composition that RDT has astounded audiences with in terms of emotional connection.
As noted in a preview published earlier at The Utah Review, in developing and setting I AM…, Washington started the creative process, by reflecting upon the holistic body of experiences she has had as a Black woman. Raised in a Mormon family in southeast Georgia, she made dance a lifetime vocation from her formative years.
Joining the dancers was Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin, actor, singer, educator and playwright, who narrated and sang at key points in the work. The work opened with Darby-Duffin’s pure heartfelt rendition of an old African American spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, in an 1899 version popularized by William E. Barton. Washington marks the journey the audience is about to embark on – the initial pathos that slowly swells into not just consolation but also deeply held faith. Throughout the entire work, Washington infuses it with a spiritual sense that is simultaneously uniquely hers and that of the dancers, individually and collectively, in a profoundly ecumenical way.
The seamless leap forward in the timeline directs us to the choreography of Washington’s shorter work that became the precursor to I AM…: Say Their Names (Part I) that premiered in 2018. The earlier work fixes some of the spectrum points for the larger work, as Washington responded to the injustices and biases of the “stand-your-ground” laws and mentalities.
What follows in I AM… provides unforgettable moments of an RDT performance. In Dismantle, accompanied by Darby-Duffin’s narration that she wrote, Trung ‘Daniel’ Do plunges as deep as humanly possible into communicating publicly the emotional core of frustrations embedded in an unjust, cruel world. Do pushes himself to the emotional precipice but while it seems that he might spin out of control, he slowly return, being grounded even deeper in faith.
I AM… is propelled by sharp emotional swings, with Washington’s eyes placed on setting the proper zeitgeist in each section. Following the harrowing representations in Do’s incredible performance, Caleb Daly and Jonathan Kim, joined on stage by Darby-Duffin, sassed it up beautifully in the affirmations of loving one self in My Crown. This section featured the neo-soul sounds of Coup Sauvage and The Snips and Willow Smith’s Whip My Hair. Immediately afterward, the emotional counterpoint of Utah composer and musician Trevor Price’s original score is materialized in No End in Sight, in a poignant duet rendered by Ursula Perry and Jacob Lewis.
But, Washington once again brings the dancers and the audience to the swells of faith heard in I AM…’s opening, in the next three sections. Church is propelled by the dancers’ choreographic responses to Sunday Service Choir’s Souls Anchored, which is followed by I Can Only Be Me, resplendent in Perry’s elegant solo of physical strength and Darby-Duffin’s rendering of the Stevie Wonder classic. Closing the triptych in this section of I AM… is, again, Perry’s commanding movement language and Darby-Duffin’s spot-on rendering of Black Girl Magic, a warm, sunny, generous, very physical song that is an anthem honoring the thematic heart of Washington’s I AM…
But, while others might have used this trio of ebullience and confident effervescence to end the work here, Washington brings us yet again back to the reality that there are those out there who will do anything to neutralize aspirations and inspirations for change: Monsters, featuring the company, again with original music by Price. But, to amplify the resilience of the rousing triptych that immediately preceded Monsters, Washington finally closes the work with the company, Darby-Duffin and music by Price and cellist Nicole Pinnell, on the consoling meditation of I Am Here, which completes the narrative circle.
Evening-length works succeed when the narrative cohesion is clear and lucid. In I AM…, Washington excels in the results and, unquestionably, the dancers knew precisely how to embody all 75 minutes, without ever sacrificing any of their authentic selves or the personal impacts of the experiences that Washington brought into the choreographic canvas.
RDT’s next production, Venture (Nov. 16-18) will feature commissions to choreographers who have participated in Regalia, an annual RDT fundraiser in which audience members select a choreographer to receive a commission for a world premiere. But, given that the field has been so strong in recent years, RDT decided to offer commissions to Rachel Barker (Regalia 2020 competitor); and Shane Urton (Regalia 2022 competitor), along with Ruger Memmott, who won this year’s Regalia competition.
Additional premieres include a new work by internationally acclaimed Katarzyna Skarpetowska, a Polish-born choreographer first introduced to RDT as the repetiteur of Lar Lubovitch’s works. In addition, special guest performers from RDT’s Prime Performance Workshop will present choreography developed by Meghan Durham Wall who explores movement and the aging body. For tickets and more information, see the RDT website.
GINA BACHAUER INTERNATIONAL PIANO FOUNDATION: ARISTO SHAM
Opening the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation’s 2023-24 concert series, Aristo Sham, who won First Prize in Bachauer’s Junior Piano Competition in 2008 and then returned 10 years later to win the silver medal in International Young Artists Competition, proved a master of controlling, sustaining, and eliciting exceptional emotional impact in every offering.
Sham, who is as intellectually committed to his programming narrative as he is to the technical demands of his selected works, built the program on a theme of Darkness Descends. In the first half, the works epitomized enlightenment: Handel’s Suite No. 5 in E Major, HWV 430, with the final movement featuring the air and five variations on The Harmonious Blacksmith; Schumann’s 3 Fantasiestücke, op. 111 and Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata (No. 21 in C Major, op. 53). The Handel was played with the proper restraint and deliberate tempos, while Sham, like a master painter, shaded dynamics and chord progressions with carefully graded hues and textures.
Likewise, he elucidated the emotional punch of the chromatic motifs that pepper the first of the three Schumann pieces. Sham effortlessly transitions to the calm in the second piece and then in the third, he moves just as deftly from the first section’s march-like vibes to the brilliant improvisatory feel of the arpeggios. Closing the first half with Waldstein, definitely a familiar work to Bachauer audiences, Sham proves how effective his intellectual approach to this Beethoven work becomes, particularly in how he bookends the work’s outer movements with a brilliant, brisk springing tempo while maintaining total control in the near-spartan lyricism of the Adagio middle movement.
In the second half, Sham again displayed his understated mastery, with Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Suite Floral, W117, and Chu Wanghua’s Jasmine Flower Fantasia. He is like a painter at the keyboard, treating every brushstroke with equal emphasis for impact. Closing out the program, he selected a beast for any pianist: Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, with each of the three movements based on poetry by Aloysius Bertrand. Sham is as good a jeweler as he is a painter, bringing full luminescence to every gem in this Ravel work. He was exquisitely posed to tease out every minute detail Ravel had crafted but also was always aware of not becoming too self-indulgent in the music. His interpretation of this was honestly as worthy of commendation as that of the standard-bearer for this suite: French piano master Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
The Nov. 10 concert will be ¡Jaleo!, featuring Spanish pianist José Ramón Mendez, making his Bachauer debut. He will offer a program of works by Chopin and a second half featuring the music of Spanish composers Padre Antonio Soler (18th century), Isaac Albéniz (19th/20th century) and Enrique Granados (19th/20th century). For tickets and more information, see the Bachauer website.
NOVA CHAMBER MUSIC SERIES: OCT. 22 CONCERT
The most recent NOVA Chamber Music Series concert (Oct. 22) was brimming with personality, which is driving a fascinating theme this season that matches compelling chamber music literature, both classic and contemporary, perfectly to the musicians tasked with performing the works.
The opener was Debussy’s Petite Suite, composed between 1886 and 1889, which has been transcribed endlessly. But, this performance featured the composition in its original form of piano four hands. With the husband-and wife team of Jason Hardink and Kimi Kawashima, the performance was not surprisingly satisfying in every measure. But, what was fascinating in this particular outing involved two pianists with different performing temperaments. Hardink, who has built an impressive portfolio of super-virtuosic contemporary piano literature, is known for his sweeping, marathon-like physicality in his playing. Kawashima is exquisite with more intimate chamber music literature, and, indeed, the meticulous shimmering restraint and graceful control in these Debussy pieces won out in the performance. Why risk compromising matrimonial bliss at the keyboard?
Just as compelling was the Utah premiere of Lullaby for the Transient (2018) by Michi Wiancko, performed by the Utah Symphony’s Fremont String Quartet (with Madeline Adkins, violin; Claude Halter, violin; Brant Bayless, viola, and Matt Johnson, cello) and Erin Svoboda-Scott on clarinet.
In Wiancko’s work, the seeming abstract nature of the music is clarified as a contemplation of the immigrant’s experience. Welcomed at first, the migrant might be content about their new home but as pressures mount to assimilate and blend in, the aspirations for fruitful stability seem to fade. Demands for being included come at a price and one can be left immensely frustrated. The music vividly reflects these sentiments. The austere yet placid opening is broken by strident pizzicato and a clarinet sound that verges occasionally on the grating side. But, as the placid opening returns near the end of the piece, the second violinist bursts into a raspy, discordant rage. Halter, the second violinist stood up, breaking away from the ensemble while throwing nasty looks at his colleagues — a vivid, well-executed metaphorical conclusion.
Equally enlightening was Gasa, a 1963 work for violin and piano by the late Korean composer Isaac Yun. Gasa refers to a solo vocal form that was prominent for many centuries in the Korean court music tradition of jung-ak. Violinist Laura Ha, accompanied by Hardink at the keyboard, emulated the solo voice traditions of Gasa, while Hardink fulfilled the role of soosung-garak, a form of accompaniment steeped in improvisation. Simply, the violin leads and the pianist follows but there is very little in the music to suggest that the two instrumentalists interact anywhere close to what we are accustomed to in listening to Western chamber music. But, the music also evokes Yun’s unique take on twelve-tone serialism while sustaining the jung-ak character of the much older Korean music tradition. It was splendid how clearly Ha and Hardink teased out all of these distinguishable elements in this work.
The Fremont Quartet returned to close out the program, with William Walton’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor. The ensemble made easy work out of this composition, most notably in the vibrant tempo set for the scherzo as well as the phenomenal coda that bursts through in the allegro molto finale. But, even that virtuosic display could not dampen the absolute joyful memory of the ensemble’s superior handling of the lento movement, which produced some of the afternoon’s most cherished sounds.
NOVA returns to Libby Gardner Hall on Nov. 5 with the Salt Lake City premiere of Gabriela Lena Frank’s A Psalm of Disquiet, a new string quartet commissioned by Utah State University, NOVA and the Fry Street Quartet. USU’s role is important as it supported Frank’s residency at the Logan, Utah campus. Frank’s new work will receive its first performance at USU in Logan, three days before its Salt Lake City debut. Also on the NOVA concert will be Joaquin Turina’s Escena Andaluza, op. 7 (1912) and Brahms’ String Quintet in F Major, Op. 88 (1882). For tickets and more information, see the NOVA website.