Last Thursday at noon, Macalester students and community members gathered in Mairs Concert Hall for a lunchtime piano concert performed by Macalester music professor Mark Mazullo and other collaborators, such as composer Christopher Gable and members of the Christopher Watson Dance Company. The audience was garrulous as the piano arrived onstage, but when Mazullo appeared, there was a hush.
The lights dimmed, leaving Mazullo in a pool of light, grand piano gleaming. He quickly launched into a Bach suite of dances, each different in rhythm, though similar in energy and in tone. He played each one with sharp grace notes and graceful articulated phrasing, even during the slower transitions, conjuring up images of elegant dances in empire-waist dresses and powdered wigs. The harmony, played by one hand, remained in constant motion even as the melody shifted from one hand to the other, leaving an impression of constant rhythmic motion. Each of the eight pieces represented a different type of dance, from sarabandes to menuets, but the transitions between each piece were so seamless that it was hard to pinpoint the moment of change. Instead, I caught on 30 seconds later, cognizant of the shift in rhythm. It was a beautiful excursion into the lively world of 18th Century court dances.
The theme of dance was consistent throughout the concert. This was particularly clear in the second piece, “Through the Brambles” by Christopher Gable. Mazullo accompanied three dancers from the Christopher Watson Dance Company, while Becky Heist, a former longtime dance professor at Macalester, choreographed the work. Mazullo described the piece through a quick anecdote about the composer: he and Gable used to play a game of making up band names for different genres of music. This piece comes from a collection of pieces that Gable wrote for each of their hypothetical bands. Mazullo described the genre of this piece as Britpop and Stravinsky.
Before the piano even began, the piece opened with the dancers leaping along the stage independently and with growing energy, alternately shifting levels and position. When the music began with a mellow tune energized by complex chords, the dancers mirrored its intensity. As the music became louder and more powerful, their movements became slower and more controlled, in contrast to the music. The dancers all wore similar shades of red and pink, but they moved mostly independently of one another, coming together very rarely. The exploration of independent movement and complex melodies made for a mellifluous journey.
The final piece continued the theme of dance with a Polonaise-Fantaisie by Frederic Chopin. Mazullo described it as what the Bach piece might have been if the dancing hadn’t quite worked out, and it’s certainly an apt description. The Polonaise-Fantaisie is a more emotional piece than Bach’s, and the passion, frustration and sorrow throughout the piece is almost palpable. It feels like the courtly dance has been interrupted, and the dancers are unable to continue because of their intense frustrations and anger. Then the piece transformed, and while Mazullo’s left hand created a distinct dancing gait, the right hand explored a tentative sorrow. The emotion of the dance became a character in and of itself.
The Chopin was a wonderful finale for the concert: the Bach pieces created the idea of dance, while the Gable piece visualized it and the Chopin combined the two with its expressive intensity. It was a lovely lunchtime exploration of dance and music, and the performance of Mazullo and choreography of Becky Heist was enjoyable and thoughtful.