Review: Symphony, ballet and jookin' line up for triumphant evening in Memphis

Mei-Ann Chen
The Commercial Appeal

By Jon W. Sparks

An infusion of innovation mixed with energetically performed classical treasures made for a notable Memphis Symphony Orchestra concert Saturday night.

The innovation came in the performance of excerpts from Leonard Bernstein's "On the Town" that featured dance from members of Ballet Memphis and the U-Dig Dance Academy.

The pieces, smartly choreographed by Ballet Memphis' Rafael Ferreras, blended classical dance with the jookin' style from U-Dig. The genres are intriguingly compatible, yet as different as ballet shoes are from sneakers.

The musical tells the story of three sailors on shore leave in New York City who are captivated by the town and vice versa. Ferreras found parallels with the three jookers — winningly danced by Tarrik Moore, Marico 'DrRico' Flake and Daniel Price — who encounter a different style done by Ballet Memphis dancers that brings about a synergy with the two companies.

The three pieces electrified the stage at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts and brought an enthusiastic ovation from the audience.

The first half of the concert started off the evening's dance theme with Beethoven's "Twelve Contredanses," a pleasant confection to start the proceedings.

Following was the beautiful — and beautifully performed — "Dances in the Canebrakes" orchestration of a piano piece by Florence Price. It's a rich and beautiful work, swirling with African-American rhythms and themes of the Old West.

There are countless strong works by African-American composers, and the MSO is in a good position to see that more of them like this get heard.

The closing piece of the evening was Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, a masterpiece among the composer's many masterpieces. Its dance energy propels the work and is one of his most popular.

Maestro Mei-Ann Chen led the orchestra in a moving performance, as muscular as any that it has done and full of the passion that she has for the composer.

Despite rough spots throughout, the orchestra often shimmered with the energy of the piece. At one point — the opening bars to the memorable second movement — the violas and cellos were nigh unto perfect, sending chills up and down the spine.