Whether intentionally or not, the curious, uneven program of familiar ballets, classical choral compositions and pop music presented Sunday in the Orange County Performing Arts Center defined a single issue: the use of virtuosity.
Certainly James Kudelka's 1981 dance drama "Passage" (danced by the Joffrey Ballet) and Rossini's 1842 "Stabat Mater" (sung by the Master Chorale of Orange County) could each be judged remarkable for developing new spiritual contexts for showpiece vocabularies.
In "Passage," bravura dancing was used to symbolize not merely the transcendance of ordinary physical limits but a kind of angelic grace to be shared and ultimately risked for the salvation of others.
Caught in a vortex of human misery, the nearly nude central figure (the extraordinarily sensitive and accomplished David Palmer) reached his own point of metaphysical crisis--with his nature and his suppliants portrayed less through emoting than purposeful formal constructions--and deconstructions--of classical technique.
Kudelka set his ballet to "Spem in Alium," a motet by Thomas Tallis of great structural complexity (another kind of virtuosity) that expressed a sin-obsessed view of mankind: "Lord God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, look upon our lowliness." On Sunday, as the Joffrey became the first dance company to appear in Segerstrom Hall, "Passage" was danced to live accompaniment for the first time.
Maurice Allard led the chorale in a forceful performance, but the singers' presence on the forestage created ruinous sightlines on the left raised section (Tier 1) of the hall and also, reportedly, on the right orchestra level. At times, this was definitely a hidden (if not secret) "Passage."
Similarly, the physical layout for the "Stabat Mater"--the 150-member chorale arranged behind the proscenium with the orchestra and the soloists in front--created acoustical problems in certain sections of the house. (From Tier 1, the distant tenor and bass, Dennis Petersen and Kenneth Cox, were frequently obliterated by the instrumental forces, but the relatively nearby soprano and mezzo, Deborah Voigt and Gail Dubinbaum, dominated the orchestra nicely).
Composed after his operas, Rossini's grand-scale religious work remained operatic in its musical language: sometimes brilliantly dramatic in its setting of the text (as in the cruel, pounding emphases on "Dum pendebat Filius" in the opening section), elsewhere surprisingly lyrical or even jaunty.
But the composer's demands for florid, theatrical singing were seldom met on Sunday, though Allard fitfully enforced a sense of brooding drama from his chorale and orchestra. In many places, however, he emphasized only clarity of attack--as if cleanliness were indeed next to godliness here.
The soloists sounded oddly subdued--and it wasn't merely the acoustical glitch. Petersen's dry-voiced, mild-mannered "Cujus animam gementem" (with the strangled D-flat near the end seeming to emerge not merely from another throat but another species); Cox's cautious, nearly vacant "Pro peccatis suae gentis;" Voigt's dutiful "Inflammatus et accensus" (with rusty coloratura and pinched high notes) and Dubinbaum's lushly vocalized but blandly interpreted "Fac ut portem Christi mortem" missed the fervent, richly embellished, Italianate soul of this music.
In John Rutter's extroverted "Gloria"--without guest soloists--Allard achieved a better balance between technical neatness and emotional propulsion. Full of flashy William Waltonesque brass fanfares and intricate Carl Orffish vocal rhythms, this three-part 1974 concert piece again used the most sophisticated performance skills as a vehicle for spiritual celebration.
Under such circumstances, it seemed highly useful to have Gerald Arpino's "Light Rain" danced by the Joffrey Ballet on Sunday--for this lurid 1981 piece celebrated only itself and the exemplary physical powers of its cast.
As if to mock spiritual pretensions, the rock score (on tape) by Douglas Adams and Russ Gauthier was spiced with references to the music of India--a culture where dance always had more in mind than merely showcasing what God and Nautilus hath joined together.
Not so Arpino: From his first come-and-get-it finger-shimmers to the mass bump-and-grind of his finale, this choreographer balleticized flamboyant '80s hedonism and athleticism, nothing else.
Admittedly, there was a very solemn high priestess in his ritual of body worship: Leslie Carothers who seemed to be impersonating a vestal virgin of the goddess Copacabana or some such profane deity.
But, lifted by chorus boys--a.k.a. the men's corps de ballet--and manipulated through a raunchy pas de deux by the capable Philip Jerry, she embodied only a tough, insular, ribbon-of-steel pliancy.
On an evening that, perhaps inadvertently, raised the question of what virtuosity is for, she definitively supplied Arpino's answer: It is something to be sold.