Sean Jones and Regina Carter (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)
Last night in the Veterans Building, San Francisco Performances (SFP) launched its new season with its annual gala, whose proceeds provide funding for its educational and outreach programs. As usual, the schedule for the festivities allowed for about an hour of music featuring one or more guest artists that have become favorite visitors to SFP concerts. This year the performance was devoted to a single composition, which received its first performance exactly 100 years ago yesterday. That composition was Igor Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du soldat” (the soldier’s tale).
This music was composed a time when World War I was winding down, probably as much from exhaustion as from actual combat. Stravinsky had been waiting out the war in Switzerland since 1915, and his finances were strained. (He accused Serge Diaghilev of not providing the royalties due to him for the music he had composed for the Ballets Russes.) He collaborated with Swiss author Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz to create a theater piece with minimal resources based on a Russian folk tale. The resulting score for “L’Histoire du Soldat” required only seven instrumentalists playing, respectively violin, bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, and percussion. Ramuz’ text, in turn, specified three actors and one dancer. The whole production could fit in the proverbial “back of a truck,” making for a low-budget “road show.”
Last night’s featured guest artists included tenor Nicholas Phan as the sole narrator of Ramuz’ script. He was joined by former Artist-in-Residence Regina Carter taking the key instrumental part of violin. (The tale itself is about a soldier selling his soul to the Devil; and the violin serves as the “embodiment” of that soul.) She was joined by current Artist-in-Residence Sean Jones on cornet. Given that Stravinsky had written his score under the influence of jazz that had migrated from the United States to Europe, last night provided an opportunity for jazz players to offer their “response” to Stravinsky’s perspective on jazz. Carter and Jones were joined by two other quality jazz players, Robin Eubanks on trombone and Aneesa Strings on bass. The other three musicians were Justin Sun on percussion, Patrick Johnson-Whitty on bassoon, and Natalie Parker on clarinet, replacing originally scheduled Jeannie Psomas. (Parker is probably best known by readers of this site as a founding member of the Farallon Quintet.) The ensemble was conducted by Valérie Sainte-Agathe.
No efforts were made to “jazz up” the score. All four of the jazz players had little apparent trouble with fitting into a chamber music setting and giving all the marks on paper their proper due. As the “lead” performer, Carter had a solid command of not only the technical demands of engaging with her instrument but also the deliberately eccentric rhythms of Stravinsky’s scoring. For the most part the remaining instrumental parts are there to provide context and reflection on the violin’s portrayal of the soldier’s character. The Devil, on the other hand, is usually embodied through full ensemble work; and his concluding “Triumphal March” ultimately resolves into a percussion solo in which an ostinato rhythm gradually builds to a blood-curdling climax.
As narrator, Phan had no trouble using tone of voice to differentiate the different characters in Ramuz’ narrative. Much of the text is deliberate doggerel, which migrated from French to English with little difficulty. (In her opening greeting SFP President Melanie Smith cited Michael Tilson Thomas as a contributor to last night’s translation.) The only key element missing from the original conception was the dancer. However, since the roles for the actors had all been distilled down to a text for a single narrator, that absence was not particularly critical. Overall, the tale is a bit on the longish side; and much of the music recurs (to accommodate the text of the script) a bit too often. Stravinsky would subsequently extract a suite from his full score, whose account of the narrative is almost as effective as the original production.
By way of an encore, the four jazz players returned to the stage for a rather extended take on “Night Train.” (For the record, it has been many decades since I heard anyone play this music in concert or on recording!) Each of the four had plenty of time to unfold a highly imaginative sequence of improvisations on the tune. When the tune itself returned in Carter’s hands, Jones and Eubanks were there with some belly-laugh punctuations. After about an hour of jazz-influenced Stravinsky, the encore made for a delightful reminder of the origins of those influences.