The University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra performed a fully choreographed version of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” on Sunday afternoon at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. They didn’t accompany the dancing; they were the dancers, throwing themselves into choreography by famed dance-maker Liz Lerman. This follows up on a UMSO/Lerman triumph of two years previous, a similar effort to the strains of Claude Debussy’s “Prelude a l’après-midi d’une faune,” which you can kind of get the idea of from this video. I watched the video from the previous concert but didn’t attend, and so I didn’t realize how much the movement would transform the music as well as the visual experience of a concert. The word’s overused, but this truly was an unforgettable experience.
And it was an experience framed in memory: Martha Wittman came onto the dark stage and sat down: an older woman paging slowly through a book with a smile on her face. Wittman, who not only danced but also collaborated on the choreography, seemed to be awakening the opening measures with her reminiscences; she eventually found a younger foil in U-Md. conducting student Enrico Lopez-Yanez, whose energy inspired Wittman to match as the music sped merrily along. The framing actions (no program was supplied) served to make the stage into a festive reminiscence, with the musicians garbed in rustic attire appropriate to an Appalachian get-together.
Some of the musicians danced with more ease than others, which is to be expected, but they all threw themselves into their moves and played more than creditably while doing so. Indeed, every so often Lerman, along with choreographic collaborator Vincent Thomas, pressed the students to the edge of reasonable possibility, and the UMSO accepted all the challenges: A double-bassist scrambling across the stage carrying his instrument above his head, a bassoonist standing on a fellow musician’s back and delivering a fine solo, a flautist throwing himself into vigorous dancing one minute and playing with perfect breath in the next. That’s commitment, folks.
Still, the revelation for me came not in the dancing itself, but what it did to the music when the musicians formed and dissolved their various constellations on the Dekelboum Concert Hall’s stage. Instrumental combos that would never sit next to each other (trumpets and violins side-by-side? Sure!) made familiar sounds newly piquant. Textures thinned out, opened up, and at times felt kaleidoscopic, as when string players walked in circles, and you could hear individual notes from the unison playing fade in and out ever so slightly. Woodwinds scattered across the stage to call to each other, underlining Copland’s playful writing and giving it a visual dimension. Especially vigorous rhythms actually got stomped out by the musicians who were playing them, as they advanced from the rear risers. Music that’s always evoked a country celebration in my mind seemed to actually belong to one. And I got goosebumps when a bunch of the musicians strode purposefully to the very front of the stage to blast the climactic statement of “Simple Gifts,” both from the earnest straightforwardness and the sheer volume of sound.
James Ross, the artistic director of the UMSO, masterminded all this effort but was nowhere to be found on stage until the applause started. Being conductorless, too, seemed to liberate and excite the musicians; they had so many responsibilities that they had to be really present, all the time. After that final “Simple Gifts” statement, the music recedes into that twilight memory space again, and Wittman’s character returned to her book; the final touching moment for me was watching a percussion player and harpist nodding to each other as they played the sweet final notes under sustained strings.
It was inevitably a bit of a letdown to hear two pieces after intermission in the standard orchestral configuration, with Ross at the front and everyone sitting down, not that I expect any orchestra to be able to put together a fully choreographed program. (Yes, that’s a dare!)
Robert Russell Bennett’s “Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture” clothed George Gershwin’s immortal tunes in sometimes overfine symphonic garb, overemphasizing the blue notes that were natural to Gershwin. The students romped through it anyway, but I filed the arrangement in the category of “fun but I never need to hear it again.” On the other hand, Henri Dutilleux’s Metaboles, five small-scale works for large-scale orchestra, gleamed with clarity and quivered with tension, orchestral colors bursting from every measure – a showpiece well-shown. And yet, in years to come, it’s the dance I’ll remember.
Update: Video now available!