Tuesday, January 13, 2009
By Chris Waddington
The art proved as good as the mood as superstars from the world of dance and music joined the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra for a gala concert Saturday to celebrate the reopening of the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts.
A sell-out crowd full of politicians, art patrons and season regulars packed the hall's 2,100 seats. They came at the invitation of the orchestra and the New Orleans Ballet Association, a nationally acclaimed presenting group that called the theater home until floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina damaged it.
On Saturday, the building put on a pretty good show of its own, having just undergone a $22 million post-storm restoration, including such major upgrades as an acoustical shell for the orchestra, new lighting and a new dance floor.
For local arts groups, reopening the city-owned hall was seen as an economic necessity. For concert-goers, it was nice to sink into plush new seats and circulate in a refurbished lobby with sweeping views of a brightly lit Armstrong Park.
It proved a perfect venue to host legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman and dancers from two of the world's finest companies: the New York City Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet.
Perlman's performance of Bruch's "Violin Concerto in D minor" helped settle one of the lingering questions about the hall's restoration: Just how would the boxy, 1973 building sound with an orchestra on stage?
The new acoustical shell let Perlman project his trademark sound to the farthest rows of the upper tier as the LPO held back in a gently supportive role. This wasn't a performance that let one hear complex interactions between soloist and orchestra, but if you came for Perlman, you got a great show as he unscrolled keening high notes and melting sighs, skittered through fast passages, and poured out his heart in vibrato-drenched melodies.
The orchestra strutted its own considerable chops in Richard Strauss' "Suite From 'Der Rosenkavalier' " -- a richly orchestrated work that proved a fine vehicle for testing the hall's acoustics and for displaying such strong solo voices as oboist Jaren Philleo and concertmaster Joseph Meyer.
With Carlos Miguel Prieto at the podium, the LPO maintained its balance as the music shifted from tremulous string passages to muscular surging punctuated by cymbal crashes and bursts from the brass. And Prieto took the kind of expressive liberties that post-Katrina concert-goers have learned to expect from this brilliant interpreter: treating tempos elastically, taking daring pauses, bringing volume down to a whisper and swinging the rhythm to great expressive effect.
That's no small feat given that the LPO had its first rehearsal at the theater only hours before the gala.
Prieto trusts his band and they trust him -- and that bodes well for the future as they test their new hall, tweak its acoustics and find a sound appropriate for the space.
It's a change for the LPO's loyal audience, too. If you've followed this group around town since Katrina, you've had a chance to hear them in chamber settings -- Loyola University's Roussel Hall seats about 600 patrons, for example -- and that sound is bound to be different, and more focused on individual voices, than the broad organlike sound projected in the big hall on Saturday.
Dance lovers had to wait through a champagne-filled intermission as the LPO moved to the pit and the hall's stage was prepared for dancers.
The wait was worth it.
Two principals from the New York City Ballet -- Wendy Whelan and Albert Evans -- opened the dance program with a duet that was created for Whelan by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. Set to haunting, spiritually charged music by Estonian composer Arvo Part, "Liturgy" unfolded with a seamless succession of movements.
Sweeping arm gestures yielded to a ritual tableau in which the two dancers struck cruciform poses or seemed to act out moments from Christ's descent from the cross. Holly Hines' simple costumes -- bright white on Whelan, Lenten purple on Evans -- drove home the devotional mood. With guest conductor Martin West in the pit, the LPO projected strongly with a sound that seemed a bit brighter than that heard from the stage.
The mood shifted -- and so did the scale of the dance -- as members of the San Francisco Ballet performed "Double Evil" by choreographer Jorma Elo. Set to music by Philip Glass and Vladimir Martinov, the piece shifted from romantic adagio passages to percussion-driven allegros, and showed the range of the dancers with choreography that demanded both upright, balletic grace and the gymnastic skills to execute martial arts movements.
The eight dancers took full advantage of the theater's big stage, working exits and entrances for maximum expressiveness. And here, as in "Liturgy," the hall's state-of-the-art lighting system supported the dancers, sculpting their forms and defining their movements precisely.
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Chris Waddington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.The original article can be found here.