Divine decadence with Weill and Stravinsky

Thu Aug 06, 2009 at 11:17 am

By Gerald Fisher


Music director James Conlon had his fingerprints all over the program of Weill and Stravinsky presented Tuesday night at Ravinia’s Martin Theater. The evening was part of the conductor’s ongoing “Breaking the Silence,” project, which features music of composers banned by the Third Reich, and this year is focusing on Kurt Weill.

The pairing of Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel  with Stravinsky’s theater piece, A Soldier’s Story (L’histoire du soldat) was a brilliant stroke of programming (and one that, apparently, was suggested by Stravinsky, himself).

The works have much in common: both are major stylistic road markers in their composers’ careers, as Stravinsky in 1918 turned toward abstraction and Weill in 1927 embraced the popular music of his time. Both are hybrid theater pieces, share many of the same instruments, and are acclaimed masterpieces. And, notably, both composers were banned as “decadent” by the Nazi regime.

Conlon performed the Weill songs—early studies for an opera collaboration with Bertolt Brecht—in unstaged, concert style.  The enhanced Chicago Chamber Musicians were placed on the right of the Martin Theater stage and the male vocal quartet—Bray Wilkins, James Benjamin Rodgers, Jonathan Michie and Paul Corona—-stood on risers to the left. They were dressed formally and sang with gusto and an excellent grasp of period style, sounding like the Comedian Harmonists of Weimar days. They had a lot of fun with the German text, but, sadly, the program had no translation to help the audience understand the saucy things being sung. The Alabama Song (“show me the way to the next little boy”) was the big hit of the time, but Conlon’s performance of the multi-tiered Benares Song showed why it attracted the attention of Otto Klemperer.

In the Weill, the chamber ensemble was a little tentative and not always in tune, but Conlon kept things moving at a brisk pace, and the score’s rich and pungent mixture finished in a brilliant climax.

The CCM core instrumentalists were heard to better advantage in Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Story, which turned out to be the  crowd pleaser of the evening. The well-worn Russian folk tale about an AWOL soldier and his transactions with the devil was given a staging that made about as much sense as it could of the rather opaque text (by C. F. Ramuz) about a magic book that foretells the future and a violin that revives the ailing Princess and obsesses the Devil. 

A small ensemble of young virtuoso actors from the Juilliard School Drama Division dominated the left side of the stage in a wildly kinetic and imaginative staging by David Lefkowich. The Soldier was played with loopy abandon by Amari Cheatom and the handsome, ferocious Devil was Finn Wittrock. Andrea Miller as the Princess threw herself around the stage fearlessly. Christopher Rutherford held things together neatly as the Narrator.

The techniques of improvisational theater reached a giddy high at the conclusion where the devil rolls on the ground (wearing a gas mask and looking like a creature out of H.P. Lovecraft), laughing fiendishly at the poor humans who thought they had bested him.

In the midst of all this activity, the Chicago Chamber Musicians burbled and swooned immaculately through the spacious intervals of Stravinsky’s neoclassical style. Larry Combs was the refined clarinetist, Joseph Genualdi characterized his violin solos with close attention to the action, and Charles Geyer’s cornet solos and grace notes linger in the memory.

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