February 22, 2014
The San Francisco Chamber Orchestra presented two pieces for narrator and orchestra: Stravinsky’s famous L’histoire du soldat (a soldier’s tale) and Stephen Saxon’s Luck or Wisdom?. Both stories pit individual determinism against fate ordained by a higher power, exposing the futility of human schemes. The message in both cases was that wealth and wisdom are ultimately trounced by good luck and humility. It is a lesson that is confirmed over and over again in literature, from ancient Greek dramas about hubris, to Goethe’s Faust, to Steinbeck’s Mice and Men, for example.
Saxon and Stravinsky took different approaches in how the music relates to the storytelling. Stravinsky lets the story breathe with extended interludes between scenes. The music is replete with complexity and meaning — the push and pull of conflicted desires is portrayed in contorted dance meters and jarring harmonies. Stravinsky knew to keep the music transparent enough so it could punctuate crisp rhythms under the narration without covering it up. The tightly knit 7-person ensemble (Robin Sharp, violin; Michel Taddei, double bass; Michael Corner, clarinet; Karla Ekholm, bassoon; Ron Blais, trumpet; Craig McAmis, trombone; and Chris Froh, percussion) played the difficult work with dry precision, clarity, and sensitivity.
Conductor Ben Simon likes to perform L’histoire every few years, and his ensemble by now plays it very naturally. Simon’s conducting style is somewhat jagged and stiff, yet it is effective in keeping all those time signatures in order. Sharp handled the gnarly violin part admirably, playing those double stops amazingly in tune, never covered by the winds, and also generating a sweet and warm tone.
With Saxon, the music was largely limited to cliched sound effects and short Klezmer-ish tunes that tended to cover up the narration with unbalanced orchestration. The boomy acoustic of the concrete bunker-like First United Methodist Church didn’t help matters and the words were often lost in an echoey jumble. The excessively wordy and drawn-out text didn’t quite work as a “libretto” that complements the music — here, too, they could have learned from the rhythmic verse and terse rhymes of L’histoire. It felt like the music and narration were competing with each other rather than complementing each other. The trumpet solo in the prelude was probably the most effective moment in Luck or Wisdom?. No surprise, because Saxon is himself a trumpeter and was able to write in the Klezmer-style nuances in the register that allows the instrument to shine — not so much in the other instruments.
Joel ben Izzy plays the part of the Jewish storyteller well, with shoulder shrugging and palms pointed upward while asking a philosophical questions in an exaggeratedly dry, sing-songy voice. He got the audience involved and even did a little dancing — he does a pretty good moonwalk! I liked how he tied things together at the end, finally explaining why Jews keep saying “Mazal Tov!” (good luck).
This production went the extra mile in the Stravinsky, adding a puppet show to the music and narrative. The Lewis Mahlmann Lilliputian Players (Randal Metz, Fred C. Riley, Rhonda Godwin, and Carl LaRue) made up for the orchestra’s reduced numbers. They were able to add a lot of humor and drama with relatively simple props. Several times they broke the “fourth wall” with the normally hidden puppeteers emerging from behind the screen when the proceedings needed a little extra action.
This concert, like all performances by SFCO, was free of charge. So while there is still no such thing as a free lunch, there is such a thing as a free concert, and this is not a case of “you get what you pay for.” The musicians are top notch and the programs are always interesting and diverse. Of course, someone has to pay for all of this — SFCO relies on voluntary donations, a membership program and grants.