VAF Les Violons du Roy
Hixon Theater, April 21, 2017
Review by M.D. Ridge

On April 21, in the Hixon theater, the Canadian baroque orchestra Les Violons du Roy— the Violins of the King—enchanted the Virginia Arts Festival audience with a program of Strauss, Mozart and Romanian composer George Enescu.

Violinist Anthony Marwood, Principal Artistic Partner of the group since 2015, and five more players trooped onto the stage: violinist Véronique Vychytil, violists Isaac Chalk and Annie Morrier, and cellists Benoit Loiselle and Mariève Bock. They immediately launched into Richard Strauss’s “String Sextet” from the composer’s last opera, Capriccio. Written for strings, not singers, it served as a prelude to the opera, with closely related motifs. One did not miss vocal lines; the lines of music were interwoven into a lacelike pattern, and the beautiful singing was being done by the instruments, especially Loiselle’s cello, Marwood’s lovely violin and Chalk’s gorgeous viola.

Marwood, Loiselle, Chalk and Morriere reappeared with violinist Pascale Giguère for Mozart’s String Quintet in G Minor, K.516. Marwood’s energy communicated to the rest of the players, as he leaned back, tapping time, concentrating, with one foot in the air. He, and they, put their whole bodies into the music. The third movement, Adagio ma non troppo, leading to a light, graceful ending, shifts from major to minor. At the end of a phrase, Giguère closed her eyes, still very attentive to the other players. Morrier’s viola spoke out clearly. The final movement, Adagio—Allegro began at “a walking pace,” with cello pizzicato—dance-y, more like what we think of as Mozartean. Marwood rocked back, one knee in the air; his foot came down on the next downbeat. You’d think that might be distracting, but I find it quite the opposite: music is very physical; it doesn’t just happen above the eyebrows—and ideally the audience too is drawn into that physicality.

Enescu’s ambitious, sumptuous String Octet No.7, written when he was only 19, is full of ferociously difficult technicalities. Each of the eight players is treated as a soloist. Les Violons du Roy, now including violinist Michelle Seto, met its challenges smoothly and with passion. The first movement, “Tres modéré” (Very moderate) had sinuous melodic lines, and a passage of wonderful viola writing, (One expects good writing for violins, but sexy viola writing is much harder to find.) The movement ended on a fabulous diminuendo. “Tres fougueux” (Very fiery) was fiercely attacked, with repeated sharp strokes bowed in unison—wow. That high energy tamed down to sweetness and tenderness before ending in a rhythmic waltz, with ravishingly romantic strings, and a joyful, bravura ending.

Founded by conductor Bernard Labadie in 1984, Les Violons du Roy has been in residence at the Palais Montcalm in Québec City, Canada, since 2007. (Before that it was in Montreal.) The ensemble has a core membership of fifteen players. They play modern instruments—with copies of period bows. While thoroughly invested in the works of the Baroque and Classical periods, they also explore works of the 19th and 20 centuries, such as Piazzolla, Bartók and Britten—and Enescu. They have produced an amazing 32 recordings.

After the concert, I noticed Virginia Symphony violinist Tara-Louise Montour waiting for a chance to talk to them. She’s Canadian, they’re Canadian, and they know each other. (Showing the flag, supporting the home folks—always cool.)

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

VAF Swan Lake
Chrysler Hall, April 2, 2017
Review by M.D. Ridge

Violent bands of rain on Friday, March 31, kept me from even getting out of my neighborhood for opening night of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Swan Lake— but the wonderful matinee performance April 2, with the same cast as Friday, more than made up for any disappointment I might have had.

Swan Lake is one of the classic ballets blancs—ballets in which the principal ballerina and the corps de ballet all wear white tutus. It has an otherworldly romantic story, the company’s superb cast of dancers and, not least, Tchaikovsky’s utterly thrilling music with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra in the pit under the exciting direction of Tadeusz Biernacki.

After the lovely overture, the curtain went up on twenty-first birthday of Prince Siegfried, powerfully danced by Liang Xin, with high, high leaps and soft, precise landings. The villagers and courtiers are entertained by a mischievous Jester, danced with great verve and humor by Yosuke Mino. The elegant Queen Mother (Tara Birtwhistle) arrives with her attendants, informing the Prince that he must choose a bride at the next evening’s ball—and gives him a crossbow as a birthday present.

In the deep forest that night, Siegfried follows a flight of swans who land in a lake and turn into lovely young women. The Prince immediately falls in love with the Queen of the Swans, Odette, danced with great beauty by Sophia Lee. She explains that the evil sorcerer Baron von Rothbart (the menacing John Reynolds) controls them with a spell that only the power of a faithful lover can overcome.

The following evening, at the ball, groups of dancers from Italy, Hungary, Poland and Spain entertain the guests, who include von Rothbart and his daughter Odile, (the Black Swan). Sophia Lee, who danced the Swan Queen in Act II also dances the dazzling Odile—crisp and cool where Odette was sweet and warm. The Black Swan dazzles the Prince, who declares his love, thinking she’s Odette. It’s a triumph for von Rothbart and a disaster for the Swan Queen Odette and the swan maidens. At the lake, the Prince explains his unknowing betrayal to the heartbroken Odette; he challenges von Rothbart and destroys him and his power. Siegfried and Odette face the sunrise together.

(The original ballet did not have a happily-ever-after ending, which may have been why its first performance was a failure; many different endings have since been performed.)

The members of the large corps de ballet were completely stunning, with fluid arms, incredible grace and perfect turnout.In Act II, the pas de quatre of the cygnets—the young swans—is always a favorite, with their crossed hands, disciplined steps and head positions perfectly in sync, giving a sense of youthful jauntiness.

Among the standout moments were Odette’s gorgeous adagio pas de deux with the Prince in Act II; Odile’s commandingly harder-edged performance in Act II (ah, those fouettés!); Siegfried’s subtle, supportive partnering; and the Jester’s insouciant hijinks.

The variations in the ballroom scene were excellent. The light and airily be-ribboned Neapolitan dancers with their tambourines; the rich turquoise costumes of the Hungarian dancers; the red-clad mazurka dancers with their wonderful red boots; and the black-and-gold-clad Spanish dancers with their deep back bends brought out the different folk dance rhythms with confident zest. Had Siegfried not already fallen in love with Odette, surely one of the six lovely princesses would have won his heart and hand with her pure, sweet dancing.

But the audience’s hearts were already won by the members of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Such perfection does not come without both talent and long, careful development, not to mention unstinting love for ballet.

The sets that evoked the palace terrace, the twining trees of the deep woods with the lake in the distance, the palace ballroom were very attractive and provided ample space for the dancers. The costumes for both principals and corps were well-suited to their characters.

Hampton Roads is a big dance town, and knowledgeable audience members showed their appreciation of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet with well-deserved curtain call after curtain call. And every time they hear the Swan Lake music, they’ll remember this performance.

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

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