Getting creative down by the riverside

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Mendelssohn Club singers rehearse Byron Au Yong's "Turbine," to be performed with Leah Stein Dance Company at Fairmount Water Works. (Sharon Torello)

A Mendelssohn Club concert? An edgy new work by the Leah Stein Dance Company? Or a guided meditation?

With Turbine, the new site-specific dance/choral work premiering this weekend at the Fairmount Water Works, all three descriptions apply. Fifty-eight choristers and 18 dancers will perform among the trees, near the gazebo and other Water Works sites - while also (when possible) taking the audience with them.

"Blend your voices into sounds within and beyond the trees," reads the first page of the score by Seattle composer Byron Au Yong. "Rest to listen, often."

The word whispering is sung with "hand across shoulder."

"Brush hand over head" while singing "beneath the sky."

A circle in the score comes with instructions to "move your arms in a circle."

Movement and music are one in Turbine - subtitled for moving choir along the water - with its 7:30 p.m. performance times calculated by choreographer Leah Stein to benefit from June's mid-evening light. All members of the creative team were involved at the most basic conceptual stages, exploring the Water Works site together, allowing music and dance to evolve like two heads on the same body.

"That integration, it's very exciting," said choreographer Stein. "I've never worked this closely with a composer. And I've never worked with a group this large in an outdoor space."

The neoclassic architecture nestled along the river's edge between the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Schuylkill boathouses might seem like music itself - and looks lonely without people in it. But realizing a piece like Turbine - "It's quite different from anything we've ever done," said longtime Mendelssohn Club artistic director Alan Harler - has none of an indoor work's control factors. Mid-spring rehearsals took place amid chilly after-dark winds blowing off the river.

"People started bringing flashlights," Yong said. "But Alan had to hold on to the music score, plus notes, plus flashlight."

Humor, admits Stein, "is the only thing that's getting us through . . . and knowing we all have a common vision in mind."

Plus a come-what-may attitude. With the nearby expressway and passing SEPTA trains, the area has an urban hum. On the hilltop overlooking the Water Works, a bagpiper held forth during a Turbine rehearsal, making concentration more difficult.

"Want me to go talk to him?" asked one person.

"Think he'd like to join us?" said another.

"Maybe we should keep him in," Yong said.

Already, stray children have joined rehearsals. As for adult audience members, moving from spot to spot may leave them flummoxed. "But that's one of the best places to be," Yong said. "Sometimes."

"Listeners need to accept that they won't hear everything that a normal classical audience would," said Harler, who retires from the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia after this weekend's performances. "Part of the music is ambient sounds of the river and the industry of the city. It's not supposed to be competition."

When rehearsal begins, the singers augment vocal exercises with listening warm-ups, immersing themselves in whatever vibe Philadelphia is emitting that day.

Turbine was initiated to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Fairmount Water Works, which gave Philadelphia safe drinking water but which also has long been a considerable aesthetic attraction. Choreographer Stein, who often creates site-specific works, was tapped for the project by Water Works executive director Karen Young. When Stein envisioned singers on the grounds, she turned to Harler, with whom she had collaborated several times, including on the 2009 David Lang piece Battle Hymns at the 23d Street Armory. "I jumped at the opportunity," Harler said of Stein. "I think she's a creative genius."

Most collaborations have the choreographer and composer retreating to their own creative corners at a certain point. But Yong, a former dancer who has also written music to be performed in tandem with tai chi, arrived at work sessions with nothing more definite than sketches, developing snippets of music to be sung with movement and repeated at to-be-determined duration.

"The music is simpler, because it has to be memorized and is sung with singers moving. There's a lot to keep track of," Yong said. "But they're pretty hardy."

Texts were drawn from everything from children's games that chant Philadelphia street names to travel accounts by visitors such as novelist Charles Dickens. One movement is a quadrille, recalling "The Fairmount Quadrilles," popular dance music of the early 19th century. With such terse melodies, larger musical structures were Yong's constant guide. "You can be intuitive for only so long before things get redundant," he said.

When Harler first saw the score, he wasn't sure what to think. During indoor rehearsals, the music seemed awfully thick. "But putting it on the grand plaza outdoors," he said, "thinned it out so you can hear individual texts and beautiful melodies."

Like most choreographers, Stein couldn't evaluate her work until she saw it in action - and then revisions followed. Dancers know that; singers, who are used to more concrete data on the printed page, do not. They had to accommodate the shifting sands of in-process choreography, plus make their own decisions about how long to repeat a passage.

"Their feeling is, 'Tell me how it's done and I'll do it. Don't give me a choice,' " Harler said.

A bigger problem, however, was a huge white party tent erected in the middle of the performing area in mid-May, forcing a monthlong delay in performances. As a result, the 85-voice Mendelssohn membership dropped to 58 because some of the volunteer singers had vacation plans.

Ultimately, Yong welcomed that extra month to let music and movement sink in. And though Harler sometimes longed to be ending his 27-year tenure with something like the Brahms German Requiem, "a new piece by an American composer fits with what I've been doing with Mendelssohn Club.

"And now I have to memorize it. But we're in an outdoor space with beautiful sunsets and a beautiful river. A badger family is down by the water. There are turtles. We're having a good time."


WATER WORK

Turbine

 

Presented by Leah Stein Dance Company and Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia at the Fairmount Water Works,

at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Admission: Free; tickets are not required but strongly suggested. Reservations at 215-735-9922 or www.mcchorus.org.


dstearns@phillynews.com