Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky, photo Yousuf Karsh

“The Soldier’s Tale”

San Miguel Chapel, Aug. 8

Igor Stravinsky wrote his jaunty little theatrical masterpiece, The Soldier’s Tale, under unique circumstances. He had been stranded in Switzerland due to the outbreak of World War I and the Russian Revolution and couldn’t receive any royalties — his only income — from his Russia-based publisher.

Stravinsky and a literary friend hatched an idea for a small-scale work that could tour around Switzerland. No singers would be necessary — just a pickup ensemble of a few instrumentalists and two or three actors. It premiered in Lausanne, Switzerland, in September 1918, but the touring plans were botched by a worldwide influenza pandemic.

The thoroughly enjoyable performance of it by Chamber Music at San Miguel Chapel (401 Old Santa Fe Trail) on Aug. 8 had something of the intended barnstorming quality; six of the seven instrumentalists were members of the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra who rehearsed it in their spare time and were joined by a bass from The Pearl Fishers moonlighting as the narrator. The historic small chapel, which seats about 100, has surprisingly warm and not overly reverberant acoustics, probably thanks to the plaster-over-adobe walls throughout.

The Soldier’s Tale is based on a Russian folk tale about a soldier who makes a Faustian bargain with the devil, trading his violin for a supposedly magic book that will make him rich. It doesn’t work, of course. Later on, the soldier wins the hand of a beautiful princess by losing all his money in a card game with the devil. The devil has his revenge when the soldier ignores one of his warnings and leaves the castle, thereby losing his new bride.

Surprisingly, the orchestration is almost identical to that of early American jazz bands, with its trumpet, trombone, clarinet, bass, and percussion. Some such jazz groups even had a fiddler, as does The Soldier’s Tale; only its bassoon would have been a surprise to Louis Armstrong or Jelly Roll Morton. Stravinsky claimed never to have heard a jazz band before writing this piece, but he never let an inconvenient fact get in the way of a good story, either.

Not surprisingly, the score includes several military-style marches, as well as dances — a waltz, a tango, a “Dance of the Devil,” and a ragtime number — along with a parody of the Lutheran chorale “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Stravinsky wrings an enormous number of fascinating sonorities out of his small group of players. And although the music is extremely complicated rhythmically, the overall effect is witty and charming, descriptors that don’t often spring to mind when the scary word “Stravinsky” is heard.

This presentation was the mastermind of violinist Sandra Baron, and it featured bass player Miles B. Davis, clarinetist James Shields, bassoonist Ted Kirk, cornetist Matthew Ernst, trombonist Jonathan Randazzo, and percussionist Robert Klieger. Their playing of the demanding score was accomplished throughout; extra kudos go to Baron, whose violin part abounded in technical challenges, including very rare three-note chords, and to Klieger, who received a workout worthy of Buddy Rich on his large array of instruments.

The narrator Robert Pomakov plays the one-note role of Nourabad, the snarly high priest in The Pearl Fishers at the opera this summer. Here, he got to branch out and portray all the characters, whom he nicely differentiated vocally. Except for a few short moments when the full ensemble was playing at high volume, he could be clearly understood throughout, with Jeremy Sams’ colloquial English translation as a definite plus.

This is the third season for Chamber Music at San Miguel Chapel, which is one of a growing number of musician-led groups active in classical music. It’s part of a national trend in which the players are taking on active roles in promotion and administration, rather than relying solely on traditional sponsors. The concerts are a collaborative venture between the chapel and the musicians. The chapel receives a portion of the ticket revenues, in lieu of an upfront rent payment, to support its ongoing preservation, and the musicians benefit by virtually eliminating their financial exposure.

There’s one more concert on tap for Chamber Music at San Miguel Chapel this summer, at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 17. Harpist Grace Browning, one of the group’s co-directors, will be joined by soprano Jessica E. Jones (Princess Lyra in The Thirteenth Child at the Santa Fe Opera now) in a program that will include some popular arias (Hint: think Donizetti, Bizet, and Puccini) and songs. General admission tickets are $20 at the door or via the group’s Facebook page. 

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