It’s rare — sadly — that you get people beaming for joy and clapping along at a classical chamber music concert. But at the Northwest Sinfonietta’s Rialto show Saturday night, emotions ran the gamut from surprise to awe to sheer joy, thanks to a program that fused new music with glassblowing videos on stage (Museum of Glass) and dancing in the aisles (Spectrum Dance). Oh, and some sublime electric cello to link it all together.
The awe came in the first half of a program played twice over — the first time with glassblowing videos, the second with live dance.
Each time, though, the first piece was allowed to stand on its own: “Hot Shop,” by Sinfonietta violist Heather Bentley, who’s a composer of lithe imagination. With an ear for color and texture, Bentley has written a chamber piece that embodies the energy of a hot shop team. From sharp ricochet cello and bass pizzicato through the exotic timber of harp, claves and djembe, Bentley combined an intense, swinging rhythm with an almost English tonality based on atmospheric seconds and fifths. After an exquisitely lyrical violin duet, the mood shifted to that waiting period while glass cools down: a tropical rainforest of birdsong harmonics, piccolo melody and rainmaker percussion.
This led straight to Alexander Miller’s “Encaustic” and the first of the videos. Museum of Glass videographer Derek Klein synched his work with a real sensitivity to the music. Here, the otherworldly orchestral sliding (representing wax) and bright clarinet solo (representing paint, finely played by Kevin Morton) was captured visually with tight, close shots against a dark background, highlighting the glowing, almost alien glass as it oozed and stretched.
James Lee III’s “Stones and Bread” string quintet had a fierce energy echoed playfully in a stop-motion video of sand-casting glass, hands working frenetically around the frame to mold sand. (A sweet, direct tone here from concertmaster Denise Dillenbeck.) Philip Glass’ “Glassworks” (VI) followed, the mesmerizing, wave-like string triplets perfect for watching Lino Tagliapietra roll, smoothe and curve his golden-orange “Boats.” Long upward shots, backlit and calm, infused the music with a purpose that’s sometimes missing from Glass’ minimalist writing. Rich string sound and delicate harp were highlights.
Finally, “Mai Nozipo” by Zimbabwean-American composer Dumisani Maraire, an outburst of joyful string harmonies and African rhythms, was put to videos of African-inspired glass by Jenny Pohlman and Sabrina Knowles and masks by Paul Marioni. Here, it was the music inspiring meaning in the glassmaking — often a tedious thing to watch live but now given narrative through the pensive slow section and beat-filled finale. Long horn calls, orchestral clapping and impressive drum work by Matthew Drumm made this a joy to hear.
There was even more joy in the second half. After the initial surprise of five Spectrum dancers floating and stepping through the Rialto aisles to the Miller, the experience was a little disappointing — there’s just not enough raking to really see a dancer who’s down at the front below the stage. Choreography that echoed the contrast of sliding wax and clear paint didn’t mesh with the music’s timing.
For the Lee, though, the dancers — now clad like graceful soccer players — gave the music a running, arm-linked momentum, easily seen on the stage. A quick costume change led to a dreamy, all-white interpretation of the glass, the dancers interweaving with balletic arabesques and developpés in lines and pyramids.
Between the works in this second half came Gretchen Yanover, a Sinfonietta cellist who played solo on looping electric cello. Offering sublime melodies and thoughtful harmonies, Yanover created a bridge that merged inventively between the themes of each of the other pieces.
And finally “Mai Nozipo” again, with joyful dancers leaping and striding through the theater, calling and whooping in glee and bringing huge smiles to the faces of the audience, who were clapping along with the orchestra with beaming encouragement from conductor David Lockington.
To those glum prophets who perpetually tell us that “classical music is dead” — you completely missed the party this weekend. It’s thanks to the composers, artists, dancers and musicians encouraged by groups like the Northwest Sinfonietta that classical music is, in fact, joyously alive.
May 19-21: The Northwest Sinfonietta performs next in “Mozart’s Requiem” in Seattle, Tacoma and Puyallup.