Moody 'Trisagion' the latest addition to Chicago Phil and Visceral Dance's developing friendship

If you’re a fan of the Joffrey Ballet, you know Scott Speck. As music director of Chicago’s leading ballet company since 2010, balletgoers see him often poking his head out of the pit at the Auditorium Theatre. That’s all about to change, with Joffrey moving to the Lyric Opera this fall. Speck will remain as music director, but the Lyric Opera Orchestra will replace the Chicago Philharmonic Society in the pit for performances that have live music. 

It’s a little bit full circle, I guess. The Philharmonic—for which Speck also serves as artistic director and chief conductor—began with a group of Lyric Opera musicians seeking to perform outside the opera house. Thirty years later, the musician-led society is known for its deep well of musicians, who are skilled in a variety of orchestral genres, and have become a go-to for dance collaborations. 

If Speck didn’t initially market himself as a “dance guy,” he has certainly become one, and the Philharmonic’s fourth project with Visceral Dance Chicago may be just the beginning of their friendship as this orchestra loses an important anchor playing for Joffrey.

A single matinee March 1 was the only chance to see a world premiere collaboration between Visceral and the Phil at Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, with new work by Visceral artistic director Nick Pupillo taking one-fourth of a wide-ranging concert spanning two centuries of music—from Mozart to Pärt.

The strings-only afternoon opened with Mozart’s “Divertimento in D. Major” (1772), a bright and punchy jaunt that captures the jubilant feel of such much of the 18th century composer’s music. The “Divertimento’s” three movements sound relatively simple now, but Mozart’s repeated scales and layered staccato passages show off the Philharmonic's ease with and enjoyment of this chamber-style piece.

Of particular note, here and throughout the concert, the oft-unappreciated viola section is mightily featured, with sonorous solos for the principal violist, Claudia Lasareff-Mironoff, in the second piece: Grazyna Bacewicz’s “Concerto for String Orchestra” (1948). This was a piece I had not heard, or heard of. Indeed, Speck’s introduction of it went so far as to guess it had not been played live in the Chicago area until now.

Bacewicz, the only Polish woman of note composing music in the post-World War II era, captures the essence of the period, a mixture of grief and deep sadness, the relief of something so horrid coming to an end and a glimmer of hope for the future. Unlike her contemporaries—Schoenberg, Shostakovich, and Bartok, for example—Bacewicz’s “Concerto” indulges highly melodic moments. In other words, it’s easier on the ears than compositions in vogue at the time. Yet, Bacewicz manages to still capture the emotional maelstrom of the period’s less tonal creations, with smart use of repetition, ascending like a rising tide that washes over the listener to only retreat and pull you back. A feeling of suspension, like the drag one feels standing on the seashore as a wave rushes against one’s feet, is omnipresent through this magnificent work’s three glorious movements.

It’s an appropriate introduction, actually, to the one dance work on this program, featuring Visceral’s dancers accompanied by Arvo Pärt’s “Trisagion” (1992). The ethos of this company— which came out of the gates running in 2013 and has since been figuring out its place amidst a contracting contemporary dance scene in the city—is dark, mysterious and sexy. I guess that’s a little like Pärt’s music, which lives in an uncategorized space between modernism and minimalism that, as Speck explained, belongs only to him. It must be appreciated about Pupillo’s creation that the dancers were confined to just two panels of dance floor (think two bowling lanes wide), which the musicians behind. Yet, he manages to create a sense of depth that defies logic, perhaps with the sticky toffee quality he brings to intricate pas de deux and luxurious unison phrasework.

I was a bit thrown off by the choice of costume here, with the dancers—sans stage lighting—dressed in blazers and trunks (the men are bare chested, with the women in nude bras) with black tube socks. Apart from the popularity of socks and movement possibilities they’ve unleashed in the contemporary world, the chopped leg line does a disservice to what should be gorgeous lines. Opting to dance pantsless is only weird after an introduction about how deeply religious Pärt is, and how the title, translated to English as “thrice holy” is an example of how his faith shows up in his music. 

Thought of another way, the dancers’ flesh could be seen as a statement about one’s vulnerability in faith practices. They dip the blazers off of their shoulders, lean back, as if suspended from their hearts, as if submitting to God.

Pupillo does not wholly reject the music in his choreographic choices, nor does he blindly follow it, and the push and pull of allowing this dance to grow in intensity, without waiting for the music to catch up, is its most intriguing aspect.

Bookending these heavier works are the Mozart at the top, and Antonin Dvořák’s “Serenade for Strings in E Major” (1875), which closes the program and completes this sonic exploration of four distinct generations.