Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Time-Traveling Mephistopheles Medicine Show

The Time-Traveling Mephistopheles Medicine Show

By Tom Wachunas

Exiting Cable Hall at the conclusion of the February 25 chamber music performance by members of the Canton Symphony Orchestra, I overheard two women talking about the concert. One said, “Well, THAT was sure different, and no intermission, either.” Her companion snipped back, “Yeah, probably just as well. Maybe no one would’ve come back.”

Had there been an intermission, I seriously doubt the likelihood of a mass exodus. To a certain degree, though, it is understandable how some in the audience might have been put off by this 60-minute program – Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire Du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale)” - and maybe even felt captured rather than captivated. And yet such a reaction could be viewed as having a poignant irony, given the narrative content of this masterwork.

Written in 1917 amid the devastation of World War I and the chaos of the Bolshevik Revolution, the work is among Stravinsky’s early forays into a neoclassical period that followed his explosively visceral “Le Sacre du Printeps (The Rite of Spring)”. It’s probably fair to say that for those predisposed toward more traditional presentations of chamber music, “The Soldier’s Tale” sounds more ‘neo’ than ‘classical.’

Essentially this is a morality fable with a distinctly Faustian connection. A soldier on leave from the front trades away his beloved fiddle (his soul) to the devil, in exchange for an enchanted book that delivers financial wealth. Ultimately, though, despite an interwoven romance with a princess, the soldier inherits an eternity of woe - an unsavory but timeless reminder that a bargain with the devil is invariably a bitter pill. Stravinsky described the work, a re-writing of a Russian folk story, as a “narrative ballet to be read, played and danced.” It includes a narrator, ballerina, and two actors who share the stage with a septet consisting of violin, bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, and percussion. The austerity of staging, along with sparse personnel, was such that, due to wartime closings or destruction of major concert halls, the work could easily travel and be produced on a portable stage. These days it is more often performed purely as a musical suite, without its original theatrical accompaniments.

Indeed, Matthew Brown, CSO assistant conductor (and the conductor for this performance) had previously informed the audience in the orchestra’s newsletter that “…this production may strike you as much more ambitious and involved than this series normally entails.” He was certainly right and, in the intimate confines of Cable Hall, the ambitious nature of the production was effectively amplified.

Thomson Smillie was the stage director as well as narrator for the proceedings. After a few nervous moments at the beginning of his reading (in the first of two performances), his delivery became increasingly confident and endearing. Brad Eick, as the soldier, was “nervous” too, but appropriately so to the stalwart character who realizes too late that he’s made a terrible mistake. Nate Ross turned in a facile portrait of the devil who is not so much an outright demon as he is a charming seducer. The remarkably elegant finesse of ballerina Victoria Suba, as the princess healed by the soldier, brought a palpable tension to the story. That tension was further reinforced by the intense rhyming scheme of the narrative (translation by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black). At times the spoken portions were delivered with all the insouciant air of a child’s bed-time story (Dr. Seuss meets the grim reaper?), in sinister counterpoint to the somber plot.

Whether we call this work a “music theater piece,” as did Smillie in his program notes, or an early example of multimedia theater, its true dramatic thrust lies squarely in the music. And in that regard, the musicians here revealed the work’s soul with all the full-bodied sound and technical panache it demands. It is a work replete with unforgivingly intricate layerings of rhythms, tempi, and moods, rendered on this occasion with gripping virtuosity. This musical ensemble masterfully embodied the story’s rich flow of emotional nuances – from wit and romantic whimsy to ponderous cynicism and desolation. A hearty bravo to conductor Brown and each accomplished player: Nathan Olson, violin; David Kahn, bass; Randy H. Klein, clarinet; Todd Jelen, bassoon; Scott Johnston, trumpet; Tom Pylinski, trombone; and Matthew Beck, percussion.

So in the end, I didn’t feel captured at all. Rather, I was gladly beguiled into surrendering to the enthralling, albeit dark magic of a 60-minute musical moment worth remembering.

Photo: “Faust and Mephistopheles Waiting for Gretchen at the Cathedral Door,” oil, 19th century, by Wilhelm Koller

No comments: