March 10, 2016
(++++) THEATRICS WITH PURPOSE
Stravinsky: Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale). Fred Child, Jared McGuire, Jeff Biehl; Tianwa Yang, violin; Virginia Arts Festival Chamber Players conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.99.
Granados: Marcha de los vencidos; Torrijos; Suite sobre cantos gallegos. Cor Madrigal and Barcelona Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pablo González. Naxos. $12.99.
Tom Cipullo: After Life; Lori Laitman: In Sleep the World Is Yours. Ava Pine and Megan Chenovick, sopranos; Catherine Cook, mezzo-soprano; Robert Orth, baritone. Music of Remembrance conducted by Mina Miller. Naxos. $12.99.
A nearly unclassifiable work uniquely suited to a particular type of stage, Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat was designed “to be read, played and danced” after the composer, with librettist Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, decided in 1917 to create “a travelling theatre which, with as little funding as possible, could be moved easily from place to place and perform in small meeting places." Histoire du Soldat was developed in 1918 for this project, and its structure, the way it switches among narration, action and mime, and its dance elements encompassing tango, waltz and ragtime, made it unique in its time – and have kept it from frequent stagings since then. The suite from the work is quite popular, but the complete piece is much less known – which makes the excellent Naxos performance led by JoAnn Falletta all the more welcome. In keeping with the Stravinsky/Ramuz concept of simplicity and ease of relocation, Histoire du Soldat uses only three characters (a narrator, the Soldier and the Devil) and an instrumental septet (violin, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion and double bass). Falletta’s recording gives the work in an English translation by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black, revised by Pamela Berlin. The non-use of the original language matters considerably less here than in the usual opera or song cycle, since Histoire du Soldat is really a series of discussion points within a kind of fairy tale – rather than a set of traditional songs or an opera. The morality of the story is traditional, a combination of “give the Devil his due,” “make no pact with the Devil,” and “do not seek to add to your possessions too many more.” But the way Stravinsky and Ramuz communicate these clichés makes them sound fresh, even after a century. Fred Child narrates the story in a suitably involving manner, while Jared McGuire as the Soldier and Jeff Biehl as the Devil become involved in their not-quite-formulaic roles and make their back-and-forth arguments, disagreements and one-upmanship simultaneously entertaining and periodically thought-provoking. Even in the absence of a staging, this reading has near-visual impact, thanks to the highly evocative music and the easy-to-follow events (although it would have been nice to include the words with the CD or make them available online). Clearly a work inspired by World War I, Histoire du Soldat is sufficiently timeless so that it still has impact today.
One of the many lives claimed by the Great War was that of Enrique Granados (1867-1916), who died after a German U-boat torpedoed the England-to-France passenger ferry on which he and his wife were traveling. Naxos is marking the centenary of Granados’ death with a series of recordings of his music, the first volume of which includes a stage work even less familiar than Histoire du Soldat. Granados produced the incidental music to a play called Torrijos in 1894, and the five scenes including his music – three of the pieces being choral works featuring words by Fernando Periquet – show a winning combination of lyricism and stage presence. A highly effective orchestral March and Finale neatly set off the vocal elements (and, thankfully, here the texts are included). Granados is best known for his piano suite, Goyescas, and the opera into which he subsequently expanded the piano pieces – itself a testimony to his interest in and attraction to the stage. The rarely heard works performed by the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra under Pablo González make the composer’s stage focus clear as well. Marcha de los vencidos (1899) is a fascinating concept – a march of retreat in which soldiers defeated in an unspecified battle do their best to maintain a semblance of order as they depart from the battlefield. The work makes a particularly effective contrast to the March within Torrijos. The other piece on this CD of world première recordings is the four-movement Suite sobre cantos gallegos (Suite on Galician Songs). This richly textured work, which dates to the same year as Marcha de los vencidos, offers a typical musical “story arc” by progressing from its opening Canto de la mañana (Morning Song) to its concluding La fiesta; but what is not typical is the material from which Granados builds the music. He takes real Galician folk tunes and dance rhythms and both compiles the material and opens it up so as to turn the music into a kind of portrait of the land where the tunes arose – somewhat as Kodály was to do many years later in Dances of Marosszék (1927/1930) and Dances of Galánta (1933). Granados’ handling of the material is less subtle than Kodály’s would be, and the suite’s movements go on a bit longer than the material really justifies, but the work has many attractive elements and a fine sense of orchestral color. It is certainly a worthy element of a centenary celebration.
The history acknowledged – although scarcely celebrated – by the Seattle-based group called Music of Remembrance is more recent, dating not to World War I but to World War II. Founded by and under the leadership of Artistic Director Mina Miller, Music of Remembrance focuses on the Holocaust: musicians and music dating to that time, plus newly composed music remembering or inspired by that event, plus other forms of memorialization. Tom Cipullo’s After Life was created for the group’s 17th season (2015) as a rather oblique Holocaust-related work that reaches out more effectively than some other pieces whose themes are more strictly focused. After Life is a one-act opera that manages to present some intriguing arguments about fame, memory and the relative importance or unimportance of celebrities and everyday human beings. David Mason’s libretto conjures up an imaginary conversation between Gertrude Stein and one of the avant-garde artists she promoted, Pablo Picasso. The two have a posthumous discussion and debate in which Picasso (Robert Orth) comes across as a self-absorbed blowhard and Stein (Catherine Cook) – who was Jewish – as a narcissist. How they both made it through the war is one element of the subtext here, but the main preoccupation of both Stein and Picasso is posterity: how they and their works were seen, and continue to be seen, after their deaths. This could all become a kind of self-referential literary endeavor if Mason, a poet and novelist, had not included on stage a third figure, an unnamed teenage girl (Ava Pine) who quickly becomes the center of After Life and a quiet accuser of both the famous characters. She never knew Picasso’s art or read Stein’s books, she tells them, but she was nevertheless alive and, she implies but does not quite say, as worthy of continuing to live as they were. But now she is totally unremembered and no longer even has a name. Mason’s very serious use of the girl is somewhat akin to the comedic invention by Offenbach of a woman called Public Opinion to be the prime mover of a very satirical version of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. The girl in After Life is the one who urges the audience to confront issues of fame, mortality, and the wiping out of “little people” when the names and works of “greater” ones endure. Cipullo’s music interweaves with the words – which Naxos makes available online, and which listeners will definitely want to read – in very clever ways. For example, as each confrontation among the characters builds to a climax, it is left to the music – not the words – to “resolve” the scene, which of course means there is no resolution at all except whatever one listeners (or viewers of the stage production) bring along themselves. The posturing of Picasso and Stein would become tiresome if this work went on much longer, but in a single 50-minute act, the approach works well, and the fine singing and emoting make After Life an involving experience throughout. Lori Laitman’s In Sleep the World Is Yours (2013) is much less so. It consists of three songs whose poetic texts were written by concentration-camp victim Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger (1924-1942), who some listeners may think of as possibly being the unnamed teenage girl of After Life (she is not, but she could be). Laitman sets the words with sensitivity, and Megan Chenovick sings them with feeling, but the sentiments are filled with surface-level pathos that, although moving, is scarcely original. The circumstances under which the poems were written are what give them heft and a kind of moral authority, but anyone who did not know those circumstances would be unimpressed by lines such as “Sleep, my child, just fall asleep,/ please sleep and don’t cry anymore.” The third and best of these short poems, called Tragedy, is also the one that ties most directly to the theme of After Life: here Meerbaum-Eisinger writes of what it feels like “to give all of yourself and realize/ you’ll fade like smoke and leave no trace.” What Music of Remembrance does, as is clear in this pairing of two world première recordings, is to try to ensure that memories of people such as Meerbaum-Eisinger do not fade – that people such as the unnamed teenager in After Life, although they personally are not remembered, are recalled through art because of what they suffered and how it fit the contortions of the world in one particular, devastating war. Meerbaum-Eisinger’s words are more authentic than Mason’s in terms of when and where they were written, but it is the thoughtfulness and complex questioning of After Life that more effectively raise the sorts of issues with which Music of Remembrance is so deeply concerned.