Review: Simple Measures “Earth”

By: Gigi Yellen

Two longhaired four-year-old girls danced during intermission, mimicking the Seattle Dance Project performers’ spins and holds. Whether from the front row, where these two little friends sat, or from a back corner just six rows behind them, where I and a dozen others stood, audience members got what they came for: close-up experience with dance and music, including enough deep rhythm to take some home. This was the second performance of this program in this all-purpose community room with folding chairs (with one more performance to go there, Sunday night November 15).

What a challenge Simple Measures sets for itself! This is the beginning of a 5th season for this modest venture in artistic outreach. Modest, that is, in presentation, but not in aesthetic ambition. They do excellent performances of chamber music, but the chamber is never the same; and the music! A bit of Beethoven, a bit of Renaissance, Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Cuban-flavored klez. Is it a sacrilege to play just one movement of a Beethoven string quartet? Not in this program: the Andante Cantabile from the Op. 18 no. 5 both honors the composer and helps to refresh the whole business of introducing classical music to new audiences. Or old audiences to classical music in a new way. Context is all. The performers talk and take questions between numbers. And they are world-class performers.

It was just the string quartet (violinists Gennady Filimonov and Heather Netz, violist Heather Bentley, and cellist Rajan Krishnaswami) that opened the program, with the jauntily expert Latin rhythms of a little piece called “Bagel on the Malecon” (imagining a boardwalk in Havana) by a New York-based Russian composer, “Ljova” (Lev Zhurbin, one of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road players).

A little between-music patter about overtones and earth rhythms from the affable Krishnaswami, founder and artistic director of Simple Measures, included an innocent-sounding aside: in nature, all sounds vibrate with overtones (thunder, violins, waterfalls, wooden instruments with strings), but computer-generated sounds don’t. Did he get that right? What might that mean, I wondered, for us humans and our daily audio environment? It was a gentle educational moment. So was the one comparing Rolling Stones music to the rollicking Andrea Gabrieli 5-part fugue. Krishnaswami made a good-natured complaint that people were asking him all kinds of questions during intermission, but not so many during the official Q and A during the concert. Not really a complaint, of course: he and this venture thrive on the casual contact.

Simple Measures books casual venues (community centers, cafés, school auditoriums) in neighborhoods all around Seattle, does some very creative programming with very good performers, then sets up folding chairs and takes questions from the floor between pieces. Actually, the floor is also the stage; at least it was at this community center-style hall.

The sound of the floor was part of the music in the final work on this program shared with Seattle Dance Project (founded by PNB former dancers/current teachers Julie Tobiason and Timothy Lynch). The Beatles’ “Because” opened up what, truly, were simple measures: a pause, built in after each musical phrase, filled by the heavy sound of three dancers’ bodies in motion. If that sounds unappealing, it wasn’t: this concert was about deep rhythm and heavy sounds. (“Earth” was a title well earned.) Accompanied by a gorgeous chamber-ensemble arrangement (by an unfortunately uncredited arranger) of a half-dozen Beatles tunes, two men (Lynch and Kory Perigo) and one woman (Michele Curtis) worked James Canfield’s athletic choreography of love, loss and solitude.

Despite the intrusion into intimacy between artist and audience, a mike would be useful for Krishnaswami, a gentle creature, during his between-tunes conversations with the audience. There’s a lot of gear-moving noise he has to compete with, and what he has to say is worth hearing (like the story that the chord progression in the Beatles’ “Because” grew from Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, backwards).

Choreographers and dancers had to adjust to significant differences between the first location of this concert, Spectrum Dance Theatre’s Madrona Studio, and this community-center-style hall in Fremont. In a couple of months they’ll have to adjust again: “Earth” has been booked for encore performances the last week of January and first week of February at ACT Theatre. Good thing. Tonight’s show drew a capacity crowd of about 150, literally standing room only.

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