New breed pianist, perfect dancers and a string quartet

Igor_Levit.jpgRemember yesterday's Russian/Polish icons of the piano? Artur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, among the best known? Well, the new young keyboard wizards storming the concert halls can arguably equal their predecessors' artistry and technique. But they certainly don't look the same -- the latest one being Igor Levit.

What a different sight.

He walks hesitantly onto the Wallis stage, a desultory glance at the audience before his head turns to the real focus, a Steinway just feet beyond. His attention wavers back and forth.

And from there on you're struck by the contrast between him and his illustrious models. Whereas they sat upright -- especially Rubinstein, with his patrician spine extended and his head tilted up, seeming to summon the angels -- Levit (right) hunches over the keyboard like a miner digging out some unknown ore, his nose to the ivories, his back in a posturally dangerous half-round.

But, ah, yes, the playing. It's reason enough for those "breaking news" reviews from high places everywhere he goes. It's a technique that astounds and an expressive depth and intensity that are transcendent.

You like your Bach contemplative? Not in the pure, detached-note, manner of Glenn Gould, who mesmerized us through a partita's contrapuntal complexity, but instead full of romanticism a là Andras Schiff? Then here's your man. And, again with Beethoven, Levit becomes an Aladdin polishing his magic lamp and summoning a mystical being. So much so that in the "Tempest" he severely breaks the rhythmic frame -- in order to burrow here and there, bringing the piece to near-stasis. But you will surely hang in with him...

Also compelling -- though on a less profound level, of course -- was the Alvin Ailey Dance Company at the Music Center. Today the world-traveled troupe features a smartly sleek, streamlined sophistication, still wrapped in colorful theatricality. Its dancers are body-perfect and high-tech-trained, as the current standard universally demands. To be sure, there will always be the gospel vernacular of their calling card, "Revelations," but it's straight ahead to a newly-minted mix of modern attitudes that come with street savvy and assorted balletic innuendoes -- witnessed both in Aszure Barton's "Lift" and Hans van Manen's "Polish Pieces."

alvin-ailey-dt.jpgAlvin Ailey Dance Company


There was one shocker, though, more to do with the audience than the performance. With Christopher Wheeldon's "After the Rain," a duet set to Arvo Pärt's well-known "Spiegel Im Spiegel" (Mirror in Mirror), a piece of infinite quietude, continuity and introspection, there was uproarious applause and whistling throughout with each lift or leg extension -- utterly ruining the effect and converting the work to a circus act, say, that of a seal balancing a ball on the tip of its nose.

But a word about the typical Ailey audience, long-time returnees who always spill over in joyous outbursts for "Revelations" and, really, for the whole show: These are people who have long-mourned, and identified with, the tragedies of the Freddie Grays. That they can rise up here in unalloyed jubilation is deeply moving any way you cut it.

In contrast, there's Beverly Hills and its subscribers tip-toeing to the Wallis Theater-- they seem new to culture, specifically the performing arts, a few of them even showing rudeness to pianist Levit. Often, they don't register whether a performance is ordinary or spectacular, remaining somewhat blasé regardless.

A case in point was Ballet Jazz Montréal's electrifying performances of Foniadakis's "Kosmos, with its propulsively driven movement to throbbing Middle-Eastern rhythms that animated a dramatic scenario (who could ever forget those silken dancers ripping around like crazy?); and Robitaille's "Rouge," a big pastiche of sly dance numbers set off by a sound score's guttural intonations and evolving into witty slink-and-thrust maneuvers.

Why, the Ailey crowd would have brought down the chandeliers witnessing this. But an air of quiet sophistication dampened the response of these spectators -- even though it takes almost no background to be stunned by what transpired onstage.

Rouge-montreal-jazz.jpgRouge/Ballet Jazz Montréal. Photo by Rapha'lle Bob Garcia.

A few weeks later, though, saw no reservations for the Brentano String Quartet. Everyone (true, an older Wallis audience) clamored with approbation by evening's end and deservedly so. What escaped no one was how perfectly the hall's environment -- its acoustic and size -- embraced the keen virtuosity and presence of these musicians. Just to sit there and take in the marvelous playing, every intimate detail of it, was a gift.

The Brentanos gave us a sharply articulate Haydn, full of playful wit and echoing a Beethoven-like dialogue; Bartok's Quartet No. 3, a bracing adventure in contemporary anxiety with its Hungarian accents churning in agitation; and Debussy's Quartet, which swept us onto lush trails and dark imaginings, a never-land of sensuality -- my god, a miracle.

And just in case you're thinking about other chamber music, remember L.A.'s own Calder Quartet -- which comes as a resident to that other westside culture emporium, the Broad Stage. At its last visit there we heard Schubert's Cello Quintet, the monumental work that reaches nearly symphonic proportions. The Calders, with L.A. Phil guest artist Robert Demaine, illuminated its soul-wrenching beauty and delicately poised key modulations that wafting up to the sublime heavens.

When it came to Mozart's G-major Quartet who could not delight in their sweet-toned, finely animated way with the work or not hear their unanimity of thrust so full of exuberance, or their shapely phrases punctuated by heart-beat rests?

The late Mehli Mehta (Zubin's father) said it best: "Chamber music contains the very core of all that is dear in music."


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