Natalia Khoma Presents Bach’s Solo Cello Suites (1-3)

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After last year’s presentation of J.S. Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites, Natalia Khoma brought it to Piccolo Spoleto again, this time at First Presbyterian Church.
For the concert on May 29, she played the first three suites of the six. Her interpretation was rich and colorful. Her skills allowed her to add layers, change volumes and vary tempos while performing. All these, integrated with her graceful appearance, made her even more charming.

Khoma, a native Ukrainian, is a renowned cellist and a cello professor at College of Charleston. Among her competition wins is the Budapest Pablo Casals Competition, named after the Spanish cellist who played a crucial role in popularizing the Bach cello suites.

These suites were largely unknown until Casals recorded a full version of all six in 1939. They then became a peak that seemingly every cello maestro tries to reach at some point in their career.

Unlike Casals’ deep interpretation of the Prelude of Suite No. 1, Khoma’s playing is brisk and absorbing. Her first note in Menuet—bright, quick and forte—was a potent contrast to the mournful Sarabande. Her refreshing articulation of the beginning was joined by an elastic and elegant reinvention of it in terms of melody and sound intensity. It enriched the acoustics and added layers to the suite.

The second suite in D minor, in contrast to the first one, is darker. The lines lingered in her strings, her fingers, the hall and the church. The mournful notes were like endless sadness and gloom. However, the pace in the Allemande was unexpected. In her interpretation, the lines and notes plunged forward in an incredibly fast tempo that still captured every nuance.

Yet the Courante was somehow even speedier. With greater contrast in volume and pitch in phrases, the emotion became so fierce that when the final crescendo came, you felt the agony and drama falling on the audience. During this suite, Khoma kept wiping the sweat off her head and fixing her hair between movements. Her dress strap also fell off her shoulder, which seemed to distract her. (The strap fell from time to time throughout the concert.)

After going backstage for a while, Khoma came back and played the third suite in C major. Her melodic short notes leaped over the fluid bass. While the strong resonance in the First Presbyterian Church sometimes blurred the piece’s echoes, the emotions were amplified. Khoma’s seamless playing then integrated the layers, the volumes and the richness of sound in the Gigue. With successive fortes near the end, she ended this journey with an intensified and prolonged coda.

Puppets Bring Shakespeare to Life

Review of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Dock Street Theatre.

Spoleto Festival USA’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is not just about bringing Shakespeare’s play to life. It’s also about bringing puppets to life in Shakespeare’s play.

The production, by Handspring Puppet Company and Bristol Old Vic, makes use of puppets to present the fantasy world. But in this realm (being housed at the Dock Street Theatre), the puppets and actors exist alongside and interact with each other.

Four young lovers —Hermia (Akiya Henry), Lysander (Alex Felton), Demetrius (Kyle Lima) and Helena (Naomi Cranston) — appear as puppets wearing the same clothing as the actors who control them. Though weird at first sight, the puppets soon interweave with the actors’ breaths, gestures, physical movements and voices.

William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The gods Oberon and Titania, meanwhile, are presented in another style, one more reminiscent of sculptures. David Pearce, who plays Oberon, holds a big wooden head and a mechanical hand that can point, make a fist and fetch objects. Saskia Portway, who plays Titania, raises a regal sculpture head. When the gentle yellow light falls on the sculptures, they look stately and solemn, yet the shadow falling to their right also adds a gloomy cast.

The puppets carry the metaphor of the play. As the story goes on, the lovers are aware of the puppets and act as counterparts with them, exchanging and even dropping them. This blurs reality and fantasy, which helps convey the supernatural powers of this uncharted era and place. The contrast between the sizes of the puppets speaks to their relative status. On the other hand, the production also makes room for the absurd, notably the conversion of Puck as a transformative creature made of carpenter’s tools (carried by three actors) and Bottom’s transformation into an ass, who plays a comical word game with his name by reversing his head and his backside.

The production does ask a lot of the audience, however, by demanding that they crane their necks for a better view of the puppets on stage in order to understand the lover’s plight in this rendition of Shakespeare’s classic.