Friday, December 2, 2011

Art of Elan Performs Wynton Marsalis' "A Fiddler's Tale"

Being tempted by the Devil in some unexpected disguise is the oldest story in the Book—literally. From folklore to grand opera to pulpit oratory, tales of Satanic deception have enjoyed an amazing shelf life. So it is hardly surprising that jazz composer-performer Wynton Marsalis latched on to Old Nick as the heavy in his musical morality play “A Fiddler’s Tale,” which Art of Elan presented Tuesday (Nov. 29) at the San Diego Museum of Art.
Music history buffs will easily pick up the link betweenMarsalis’ “A Fiddler’s Tale” andIgor Stravinsky’s chic 1918 theater piece “The Soldier’s Tale,” a clever musical entertainment for seven musicians and narrator that ushered in the neo-classical fad in Europe’s post-World War I musical landscape. Written for New York’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in 1998, the new Marsalis piece was intended to give "The Soldier's Tale" a jazzy update, but in truth it is too much homage to Stravinsky and too little Marsalis to make it more than a curiosity.
The only serious departure from the Stravinsky “Tale” is a brand new narrative, written by columnist and critic Stanley Crouch, who transformed the old Russian folk tale and its war-weary soldier (who was only an amateur musician with a fiddle) to a distinctly American topography set in the deep South. The new protagonist is a female musician, a fiddler named Beatrice Connors, who is tempted by a smarmy recording executive, Mr. B.Z.B., who lures her away from playing simple, heartfelt music that “warms the soul” to snappy commercial fare that sells millions of records.
Even those who daydreamed through their Sunday School lessons will not miss the code here: “B.Z.B.” is nothing less than shorthand for Beelzebub, that Prince of Demons (or more literally “Lord of the Flies”) who is the bad guy in many a New Testament story. And huge credit is due Hassan El-Amin, the skilled actor who delivered Crouch’s oratorical narrative with panache and credibility in Tuesday’s performance. Although Mr. B.Z.B. spouts bloated, cliché-ridden wisdom and fawning deceptions, I thought his rhetoric paled in comparison to that of the current crop of political candicates vying for the Republican presidential nomination.
But I digress. Marsalis copied Stravinsky’s instrumentation precisely: violin, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, bass and percussion, and, like Stravinsky, he kept the musical momentum going with a perky march whose crackling counterpoint came to the rescue just when the ear required relief from the blustery narration. His set pieces struck me as the most compelling, e.g. the languorous tango, the acidic, tipsy waltz, and the rowdy “Devil’s Dance.” In terms of style, we heard quite a bit of polished ragtime and some gentle swing meditations, but far too little of the edgy, straight-ahead jazz at which Marsalis the performer excels. While it is dangerous to tell a composer what he should have written, this composition left me with a sense of great potential only modestly realized.
Concerning the Art of Elan performance, I have no reservations whatsoever. Artistic Director and violinist Kate Hatmaker turned out snappy riffs and silvery melodies with assurance, a winning incarnation of Crouch’s protagonist (referred to several times as the “beauty with the bow”). Clarinetist Terri Tunnicliff mastered the score’s thorniest licks, and trumpeter Andrew Elstob burnished his solos with grace that too often eludes muscular symphony trumpeters. The ensemble included the deft bassist Jory Herman (no relation!), suave bassoonist Valentin Martchev, thankfully understated percussionist Andy Watkins, and tastefully assertive trombonist Kyle Ross Covington.

San Diego Arts | Art of Elan Performs Wynton Marsalis' "A Fiddler's Tale"

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