The Eugene Ballet‘s world premiere of Toni Pimble’s The Snow Queen earlier this year got good reviews. But dance is an ephemeral art, and from my berth in New York, Eugene OR feels like a distant corner of the country. Fortunately we have Kenji Bunch’s score on a two-CD set from innova Recordings. Brian McWhorter conducted Orchestra Next on the recording as he did for the production, and the magical music stands strongly on its own.
Suggestive and even programmatic themes and sounds sustain the score, yet the music, on Disc 1 in particular, is nearly as enjoyable, and just as intriguing, if you listen without the names of the segments in mind (“The Snow Queen’s Dance,” “Gerda Mourns,” “Gypsy Camp,” and so on.) The score tells vibrant stories all on its own.
Bunch cites the big names in ballet music as inspirations, from Ravel to Tchaikovsky and the other great Russian composers; and in piece after piece he achieves effects those progenitors would recognize and respect. He combines a modernist vocabulary with flourishes of the romantic, with little trace of the avant-garde; old-fashioned ears will drink this music in. Still it’s unpredictable enough to delight those who yearn for something new and original.
That said, Disc 2 plays as something of a disappointment after the excitement and variety of Disc 1. No doubt the story arc helped dictate tempos and moods. But one who hasn’t seen the ballet – an updated and gender-reversed version of the Hans Christian Andersen tale upon which the hit movie Frozen was also loosely based – gets the impression most of the action takes place in the first act.
Nevertheless Bunch succeeds masterfully in depicting the themes of friendship and heroism, along with what he describes as the Snow Queen’s “cold, clinical, icy realm.” And when you do look at the titles of the individual pieces, it’s not at all hard to imagine the scenes: a heart turning to ice, the dance of the flowers, the arrival of the crows, the Robber Girl, returning to the Snow Queen’s palace, etc., concluding with heroic Gerda thawing her dear friend Kay’s heart. This suite is full of heart and likely to move yours, and while it might make you wish you could see the ballet, it won’t leave you frozen.