The University of Chicago Chamber Orchestra spent Saturday night celebrating song and dance, invoking feelings of place as well as spirit. The audience began in a French Renaissance court in Le roi s’amuse and travelled to the magical woodland setting of Iolanthe, all the while instilled with the spirit of dance. Conductor Matthew Sheppard asked the audience to “picture the elegance of the setting” while listeners partook in the orchestra’s celebration of dance and joy rife with internal drama.
The first movement of the piece, Gaillarde from Delibes’ Le roi s’amuse, introduced the titular character with whimsy and cheer. The second movement, entitled Pavane after the 16th-century dance, is the most familiar of the piece and expressed dynamics that rose and fell beautifully. Throughout Le roi s’amuse, the joyfulness had a foreboding undertone, hinting at the drama of the Victor Hugo play for which it was composed, in which a king and his jester accidentally bring a violent curse upon themselves.
The second piece the orchestra performed was also titled Pavane, this time composed by Fauré. Sheppard invited the audience to imagine Fauré’s depiction of “a banter call back and forth between a couple dancing,” a lighter inspiration than Delibes’ courtly dance fraught with cursed tragedy. This dance opened with violas as cellos laid the floorwork throughout their part. Together, they created the dance floor upon which the violins, violas, and the woodwinds took turns embodying the voices of flirtatious dancers. The song faded, like the end of a romantic evening, with a final flourish from flautists fourth-year William Petterson and first-year Kristine McLellan.
The concert concluded with a sneak peek of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, which the Chamber Orchestra will perform later this quarter with the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company. The overture, one of the only ones written by Sullivan himself, begins with an ominous minor chord before fading into flutes, the voices of the opera’s fairy characters. The piece presented a cheerful, woodsy tune with minor chords scattered throughout to represent the dramatic events in Iolanthe’s pastoral setting before falling into a march harkening to adventure, finishing with more fairy flutes and drawing to a thunderous close.
After the overture had foreshadowed what was to come, the events were revealed more fully through six songs that were then performed by singers from the opera company. The orchestra accompanied the vocalists with music that was subtler than the earlier pieces. These selections began with a chirpy love song sung by the two young lovers Phyllis and Strephon (played by professionals Teaira Burge and Matthew Peckham) and featuring more dialogue than operas generally include. The four following numbers brought even more pronounced comedy. Iolanthe promises to be a topsy-turvy tale of the English parliament running in with the feisty fairies of the countryside—a delightful taste of a performance to come.
The Chamber Orchestra will return to play Iolanthe on March 10–12.