Caravan

American ballet music at Monadnock; a young Latin American conductor at Tanglewood
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  August 30, 2006

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STILL IN THE GRADUATE PROGRAM AT JUILLIARD: voluptuous mezzo Isabel Leonard was the Falla soloist.
James Bolle’s final concert of Monadnock Music’s summer season began with a work that had had its premiere in Keene, New Hampshire, 70 years and three days earlier. No surprise there, but the work, Pocahontas, is by Elliott Carter! This was a ballet score he’d composed for Ballet Caravan, a touring company devoted to American themes and American composers that was sponsored by the WPA and formed by the wealthy ballet aficionado Lincoln Kirstein, Carter’s classmate at Harvard and a George Balanchine fan who would soon be the prime mover for New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet. Carter was Ballet Caravan’s first music director, and Kirstein himself worked out the Pocahontas scenario; Lew Christensen was the choreographer. At Keene’s Colonial Theatre, August 17, 1936, there was only a piano accompaniment. The New York premiere, three years later, was a much revised version for full orchestra. It’s from that version that Carter drew the suite Bolle conducted.

It’s a very grand piece: expansive, colorful, atmospheric, mysterious. We hear John Smith and John Rolfe getting lost in the Virginia forest; we hear the rituals of “Princess Pocahontas and Her Ladies,” in a slow unfolding of bird calls and forest noises that hints at Carter’s later slow movements. The music sounds mostly like 1930s Americana, but Pocahontas goes to England, so there’s also a stately neo-classical Pavane and some pungent Stravinsky-like harmonies. Both the opening and closing are startlingly grim. Bolle led the Monadnock Music Festival Orchestra in a performance both more powerful and more alluring than the one on the 1982 American Composers Orchestra recording.

This long program, “The Birth of ‘All American’ Ballet and of an Authentic Voice for American Composers,” originally included three other rare Ballet Caravan works, but Bolle decided to cut the most familiar one, Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid. Filling Station (1938), “a ballet document in one act” about late-night goings on at a gas station (drunken revelers, a hold-up), with a score by Virgil Thomson, sets and costumes by homoerotic artist Paul Cadmus, and choreography again by Christensen, was a direct assault on Eurocentric ballet — “America’s answer to Swan Lake,” as the Monadnock program note had it. It begins with a drum roll, virtually a dead march. But Bolle decided not to play every fragment in the suite, and the chosen excerpts sounded shapeless and didn’t call to my mind the comical incidents I was expecting. (I thought I heard a hornpipe.) It was hard to estimate the true quality of Thomson’s score.

The final Ballet Caravan item was Paul Bowles’s extended suite from his 1937 Yankee Clipper (choreography by Eugene Loring), which depicts a sailor’s nostalgic reminiscences of putting in at a variety of exotic ports. Bolle announced that the score hadn’t been performed since 1939 and that we might see why. It’s a long, charming work that deserves occasional resurrection. Bolle and the orchestra were back in form.

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