The programming may have appeared cobbled together by a conference room of ADHD-afflicted classical music junkies, but Wednesday’s “Afterwork Masterworks” performance at Symphony Center proved an animated antidote to the 9-to-5 grind. Divertissement is the term Zac and I arrived at over pints of Boddingtons during our post-mortem of this CSO–Hubbard Street Dance Chicago mash-up, agreeing that a variety show approach seems likely to attract high-art first-timers. Whether a clever development department conceit or an unintentionally brilliant bit of programming stitchery, this Frankenstein of early music and contemporary dance (and $5 preshow drinks at Rhapsody) proved 90 of the more imaginative minutes hosted on Michigan Avenue.
First on the bill: Arcangelo Corelli’s ebullient “Concerto grosso in D Major, Op. 6, No. 4.” The sweep of its opening chords was ushered in sumptuously by conductor and early music specialist Nicholas McGegan, followed by the allegro’s fencing duel of bass violins. Concertmaster Robert Chen managed to remain unscathed by intermittently wonky intonation emanating from the principal second chair (the wonderful Baird Dodge having taken the night off), propelling the CSO strings with signature tonal purity through this ambrosial musical aperitif. All we were missing was a touch more fuego from the strings in the concluding allegro, about as metal a movement as exists in 17th-century repertoire.
I’ll grab tickets to pretty much anything with oboist Eugene Izotov’s name on the marquee, and the CSO principal certainly didn’t disappoint with Alessandro Marcello’s “Oboe Concerto in C Minor.” Marcello—whose pseudonym, Eterio Stinfalico, could be the stage name of an ancient Roman adult entertainer—led a decidedly non-sedentary life as poet, violinist, painter and composer. Izotov infused the Venetian’s urbane score with soaring, elongated phrasing that beautifully dissolved bar lines, his melismatic ornamentation as painterly as we’ve heard the concerto performed. Zac tells me the luscious second movement has been choreographed, which begs the question, why did CSO choose to leave this first half entirely Hubbard Street–less?
Enter the dancers. Exit the house lighting. As the consistently excellent Amy Briggs slowly approached the Steinway, cut out of the now-blackened hall by a single spotlight, the audience was immediately transported into “something completely different,” to quote the immortal words of Monty Python. Interestingly, once Mendelssohn’s sinister bass began to creep out of the keyboard, beckoning forth a quartet of female dancers, the abrupt transition became a fleeting memory. Bodies began moving asymmetrically, singularly or in constantly-morphing groups, emanating and receding from a symmetrical row of four orbs of light. The first element one notices about Hubbard Street resident choreographer and it-boy Alejandro Cerrudo is the fluidity of his movement. There’s nothing taut here, no snapping into forms or rigidity in the motion, which fit most seamlessly in the second half with Mendelssohn’s “Prelude in E Minor, Op. 35, No. 1,” its subtle, foreboding harmonic shifts coaxing the listener into a ruminative, gloomy state.
Less engaging in Cerrduo’s Blanco is the piece which follows, Charles-Valentin Alkan’s Lisztian “Prelude in A-flat Minor, Op. 31, No. 8.” Whereas Cerrudo’s molten movements found a symbiosis with the Mendelssohn, the Alkan, given diffuse choreography, seems to lose the focus of the sonic collaboration.
As few as 3000, set to Bohuslav Martinu’s “Toccata e Due Canzoni,” is perhaps the first time I’ve found myself not praying for a fire alarm in a performance of one of the Czech composer’s lugubrious works. Martinu is the musical equivalent of the CNN ticker—occasionally distracting but ultimately ignorable—yet here, with Cerrudo’s unapologetic humor and onstage trickery, the score is injected with a vitality it lacks in a typical orchestral performance. A magician in a top hat levitated a body from beneath his black cape; a cadre of supine dancers interlocked legs in a lateral Celtic knot.
These images, and a series of late arrivals in the violin sections, inspired only some of the laughter Wednesday night, welcome respites from the often polite goings-on during much of the CSO subscription season. Bodies in synchronized-swimming homages brought chuckles while six-dancer trains of slow-motion, off-the-floor runs triggered audible gasps. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the evening occurred as two lithe male dancers menacingly circled each other on all fours—perhaps tigers facing extinction, as Cerrudo’s title seems to suggest—before swooping together for a cinematic kiss. This Stravinsky-lite score found a voice with Hubbard Street’s remarkable talent, interrupted only by the curious interlude of the dancer-less “Canzone No. 1.” As the final, impressively acrobatic duet exited the stage, Martinu’s most effective compositional moment of the Toccata arrived: an extended, gurgling dissonance overflowing into a triumphant major terminus, and the final thought of the evening: a steaming plate of Martinu is best—or should only be—served with dance.