Concert:nova, Know Theatre Bring Stravinsky's "Soldier"

March 10, 2008

By Mary Ellyn Hutton
http://www.musicincincinnati.com/site/reviews/

One of the most promising new arts groups in town is Concert:nova, a chamber ensemble drawn from the Cincinnati Symphony and Cincinnati Chamber Orchestras. Founded in 2007, Concert:nova is dedicated to renewing the concert experience through multi-media and meeting people where they are. If you haven’t caught them in a bar or café downtown (they performed at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital after Christmas), chances are you will in one of the non-traditional or “found” spaces the players favor -- and in ways you may not expect. The enterprising group presented a complete, staged performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “Histoire du soldat” (“A Soldier’s Tale”) in collaboration with The Know Theatre and Next to Nothing Theater Company Sunday evening at Know Theatre’s home on Jackson Street in Over-the-Rhine. Winter weather or no, there was a full house for the first show. The second – an add-on necessitated by the cancellation of Friday’s snowed-out opening – drew a good crowd, too. It was an encouraging response for a fledgling arts group just beginning to sink its roots (Concert:nova) and the adventurous Know Theatre, now celebrating its 10th season (their slogan is “just left of off Broadway," see http://www.knowtheatre.com/.
Stravinsky’s 1918 classic was right at home in the Know Theatre (an intimate space seating about 100 between Central Parkway and 12th St. across from Kroger/Gateway Garage). Scored for seven instrumentalists and three actors, including narrator, the work was premiered in cramped quarters during World War I in Switzerland, when resources were scarce. It is usually heard as a concert suite. The original text (in French) is by Swiss writer C.F. Ramuz, based on a Russian folk tale told to Ramuz by Stravinsky. Cincinnati actress Julianna Bloodgood and actor/director Michael Burnham, professor of drama at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, have given it a new twist, painfully up to date with the modern world. In the original, a soldier (Joseph) returning home from war is met by the Devil, who persuades him to trade his violin (i.e. his soul) for a book promising untold wealth. When Joseph finds unhappiness instead, he challenges the Devil to a game of cards. Joseph loses his wealth, but regains his violin. His playing cures a princess and he wins her hand in marriage. They don’t live happily ever after, however, because Joseph violates the Devil’s warning not to try to revisit his past. He tries to visit his mother in secret and, just over the border, is claimed by the Devil. Bloodgood and Burnham have updated Ramuz’ story, complete with euphonious rhymed couplets, so that the soldier is a survivor of one of today’s wars. Black and white slides projected onto sheets behind the stage provided scenic backdrop (tanks, barbed wire, city streets). The Narrator is female and joins the action as the “Princess,” who may be Joseph’s wife or fiancée. The Devil and Joseph’s bargain may or may not be real be real. The Princess asks Joseph what has happened to him, but he will not tell her. He dies by his own hand, a victim of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The seven instrumentalists occupied the center of the stage and occasionally supplemented the action with sound effects (claps) and comments. Former CSO assistant conductor Tito Munoz, 24, conducted (Munoz is now assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra). Violinist Tatiana Berman played with storybook expression: crisp, gritty, sweet or husky, echoing Joseph’s complex feelings and playing a blue streak when the drama escalated. (She was dressed fittingly in black slacks, satin-trimmed jacket and spike-heeled red shoes.) All of the musicians were casually, even scruffily dressed, Munoz in sneakers and navy tee-shirt, clarinetist Ixi Chen in an open, knee-length coat. Members of the ensemble also included double bassist Owen Lee, bassoonist Hugh Michie, trumpeter Doug Lindsay, trombonist Jeremy Moeller and percussionist Patrick Schleker. All played in technicolor, their onstage position assuring that Stravinsky’s music got equal billing with the action. Munoz led unobtrusively, with controlled energy and clarity.
Know actor/CCM drama graduate Anthony Darnell was youthful and touchingly vulnerable as Joseph, circling the ensemble with wonder, consternation and finally despair. Burnham, who wore an “I voted today” sticker on his sweater, was the Devil, bearded and smug as he wheedled the young man. Bloodgood (also a CCM drama graduate) inhabited her role as Narrator and Princess easily and naturally, whether leaning casually against the wall as an observer, or lovingly entreating Joseph to share his story with her. Bloodgood and Burnham’s text is filled with references and images straight from today’s headlines. Instructions from the Devil’s how-to book on acquiring wealth: “On spec...sub-prime...artificial demand... ” Joseph: “Have I been running from or running to?” Devil to Joseph: “Don't think you'll ever be OK, those pictures in your head won't go away." Joseph to the Princess: “You’ll never share it, you weren’t there.” All of it proceeded naturally, even logically, from the Princess/Narrator’s observation (echoing the original, Burnham said): “Others might tell you his death was a sin, but his death was just caused by where he had been.” The ensemble played “The Devil’s Triumphant March” furiously as Bloodgood held Joseph’s violin toward the audience at the end.
Concert:nova’s next concert, “Concert:nova on Canvas,” featuring artist Anya Gerasimchuk and music by Astor Piazolla, Manuel de Falla, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Luigi Boccherini and Alberto Ginastera, will take place in May, venue to be announced.
For further information, visit http://www.concertnova.com/.