Review: Ideas of North dances with Morphed; then swims strongly into Nameless Seas

Morphed is a dance work created by Tero Saarinen.

The NAC’s Ideas of North Festival continued Thursday night at the NAC with Finnish contemporary dance in the Babs Asper Theatre and Finnish and Canadian music in Southam Hall with NACO and guest conductor Hannu Lintu.

Choreographer Tero Saarinen, who blew me away 10 years ago with his fearless solo HUNT, was back with his company and his 2014 work Morphed. Created for seven male dancers and set to extraordinary music by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the hour-long piece explores masculine identity through the sometimes violent friction between stereotype and nature.

The dancers first appear wearing black hoodies, marching in aggressive, rigid formation. Gradually, as the music evolves from the strict, martial tones of Salonen’s Concert Étude for solo horn to the still driving but almost romantic expressivism of his violin concerto, the dancers shed their black garb, and their toxic masculinity, one by one. They spin and leap off into expansive solos, duets and trios where they are free to be tender, vulnerable, even feminine. Sometimes one of the dancers harshly tries to bring the “rebels” to order, but the emotional infection keeps spreading. A man can only stay in a prison of his own making for so long.

Down the hall, Angela Hewitt performed the world premiere of Canadian Matthew Whittall’s Nameless Seas, an evocative, four-movement piano concerto inspired by MaryBeth Thielhelm’s vast paintings of close-up ocean surfaces. Whittall’s work is programmatic deep down in its bones, with a texturally descriptive quality. Far-off muted horns that sound like seabirds, patterns sweeping in a meditative, tidal rhythm from the keyboard to the orchestra, all heard through a shimmering haze of glissandi in the strings. The second movement is pure Ravel impressionism, lush and decadent.

The piano writing is smart, if not extraordinarily difficult — Whittall uses lots of effects that sound impressive to the audience, but aren’t that taxing to the pianist. Hewitt’s playing emphasized Whittall’s percussive, rhythmic vocabulary; her superb control in the minimalist ending achieved a hypnotic, almost obsessive effect. But I found her colour palette too bright and cold, and she was overpowered in the more extravagantly orchestrated passages.

The remarkable Hannu Lintu conducted Sibelius’ Second Symphony with infectious enthusiasm and childlike joy. Lintu’s exuberant energy and optimistic vision of the piece inspired the orchestra to bring out all the music’s warm, dancing lyricism. The musicians played out of their skins — the horns and brass in the final movement sounded like the voice of some heroic Northern god. The long, ecstatic ovation they received was well deserved.

I rarely get to give props to the tuba, and by rarely I mean never, so here goes. Chris Lee, the Winnipeg Symphony’s principal, is on trial with NACO and did a fabulous job with one of the most prominent (and fun) tuba parts in the whole symphonic repertoire.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.