Jack of all trades

Kirkland Performance Center wants to provide an Eastside haven for the arts. Two recent shows suggest it just may be up to it.

Kirkland Performance Center is off and running, its inaugural season under way. Since mid-September, the inviting glow from the wide lobby windows on Kirkland Way has been tempting passersby to join the gathering audience within. It is easy to get to KPC from anywhere on the Eastside or from Seattle. It's also easy to park the car, for free, under the neighboring Kirkland Library.

Kirkland Performance Center

various artists

Built as an all-purpose performance venue, KPC took into consideration the diverse needs of a full slate of performing arts, based on advice from A Contemporary Theater, Spectrum Dance, Bathhouse Theater, and Pacific Northwest Ballet. The premiere season's offerings include cabaret, children's theater, chamber music, contemporary dance, film, ballet, jazz, popular music, choral music, and vaudeville—not to mention shows by such performing groups as Redmond's Washington Academy of Performing Arts, which will be renting the space for the school's ballet and theatrical performances.

The thrust stage is small, with 402 steeply raked seats and two aisles on each side. From any seat, the performers feel close, sight lines are excellent, and there is a sense of connection between the audience and the activity onstage. Two recent productions, a cabaret on September 26 and a concert by the Northwest Sinfonietta on October 5, displayed the performance range of this hospitable space.

KPC is a great space for cabaret: It's larger than a nightclub, so musicians aren't cramped, and singers can move around and even dance a bit. But it's small enough to feel intimate, so that performers can talk casually to the audience. Acoustics are such that virtually every word, sung or spoken, can be heard clearly. The four experienced singers in "Music by Gershwin"—bass James Caddell, sopranos Valerie Piacenti and Kathy Henson, and tenor David Koch—narrated snippets from Gershwin's life, leading easily into one song after another. Cut-outs, projected on the back scrim, portrayed ambient glimpses of the scene Gershwin knew so well: the New York skyline and flappers in the ballroom.

The rhythms were irresistible. Although Caddell consistently pulled Gershwin's clever rhythmic cadences a bit too far out of shape, his velvety bass was always a tonal pleasure.

The two sopranos—buoyant, vivid, stylish Piacenti and bubbling, upbeat, persuasive Henson—brought variety and poise to this high-energy show. As did the dapper Koch, who, when Henson whipped out a trumpet, took out a trombone from under the piano and launched into riffs on "Sweet and Lowdown" (from the otherwise forgotten musical Tip-Toes). Excellent accompaniment by Dehner Franks and his trio rounded out a most enjoyable evening.

The acoustic that makes the spoken word clear—almost no reverberation—does little to enhance musical tone, but there are compensations in hearing a concert at KPC.

The Northwest Sinfonietta, an excellent chamber orchestra based in Tacoma under young French conductor Christophe Chagnard, offered a program of Copland, Mozart, Debussy, and Tchaikovsky, with four soloists playing instruments usually situated at the side or the back of the orchestra. English horn player Shannon Spicciati and trumpeter Russell Campbell, both orchestra principal players, shared the limelight in Copland's Quiet City. While the trumpet can always be heard no matter where it is, the English horn is often covered by higher pitches. Spicciati gave the audience a chance to hear the smooth, mellow sounds of her instrument and to watch her hold impossibly long breaths to complete a phrase.

In Mozart's Concerto for Flute and Harp, orchestra principal flute Darrin Thaves shared the front of the stage with Isabelle Perrin, principal harp of the Orchestre National de France. A rising star, Perrin's appearance here was underwritten by one of the world's major harp-builders, Camac Production of Mouzeil, France, which also shipped a new harp over especially for this performance.

Camac's enthusiasm is not misplaced. Perrin is a consummate musician and team player. She sat close enough to the audience to allow us to watch the fascinating motions of her hands and fingers as they drew different sounds from the harp strings. She watched Thaves closely, making her entrances, endings, and runs match his exactly. Thaves' performance was competent; hers was full of light and the siren sounds. Perrin also performed with the orchestra Debussy's Danses sacrée et profane. It is always enlightening to hear musicians play the music of their own countries; Chagnard and Perrin brought out the shape and flow of Debussy's ideas to perfection.

The orchestra, until this point being an attentive accompanist, came into its own with Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings. Played with richness and swirling tempos, it filled the little hall. Nicely together, the strings played warmly and with a good energy, becoming, however, a little breathy on soft notes.

Chagnard is a highly musical conductor who seems able to convey his intent to the musicians. His stick technique is precise, his orchestra well together, and the two have grown considerably since they began together seven years ago.

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