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CSO Chamber Players Ace Stravinsky

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 18, 2007 - 12:00:00 AM in reviews_2007

The Cincinnati Symphony will “encore” its two-week, just-concluded Stravinsky Festival with his blockbuster “Rite of Spring” on the final concerts of the CSO season May 2 and 3 at Music Hall.
   As for the CSO Chamber Players, who actually had the last word on the festival Friday night at Memorial Hall, we can only hope.
   The Chamber Players are the CSO’s chamber music component, with four concerts a year on Friday nights when the CSO is not performing.
   Their contribution to the Stravinsky Festival, held in honor of the 125th anniversary of Stravinsky’s birth, was his 1918 ”L’histoire du soldat” (“The Soldier’s Tale”) about a soldier who sells his violin (soul) to the devil in exchange for knowledge that will make him rich (think insider trading on Wall Street).
   A septet of CSO players plus narrator/CSO violinist Stacey Woolley brought the work vividly to life on the cozy Memorial Hall stage.  They did it without a conductor -- usually a necessity, considering all the changing time signatures and rhythms in the work – but with six actors rolled into one.  Stacey WoolleyWoolley, a talented thespian/raconteur and something of a CSO “secret weapon,” enacted the two main characters, Joseph (the soldier) and the devil, plus the Narrator, whose part encompasses all of the minor roles.  It was a tour de force, delivered in six different voices and gave a powerful, extra dimension to the performance.

     Stacey Woolley 
The work was shortened (a full performance takes about an hour) to accommodate the rest of the program, a rewarding and stimulating one, including two 18th-century classics, both featuring the flute, and a Cincinnati premiere.
   Flutist Kyril Magg, violinist Scott Mozlin and violist Julian Wilkison joined in an affable reading of Beethoven’s charming Serenade in D Major, Op. 25.  It was flutist Joan Voorhees, violinist Eric Bates, violist Stephen Fryxell and cellist Susan Marshall-Petersen’s turn in Mozart’s mellifluous Quartet in C Major, K.285b.
   American composer William Kraft’s 1998 “Encounters XI: The Demise of Suriyodhaya” for English Horn and Percussion featured English hornist Christopher Philpotts and percussionist Richard Jensen.  The four-movement, 19-minute work was inspired by a poem about Queen Suriyothai of Siam who, dressed as a man, gave her life in battle to save her husband.
   It was a captivating performance.   Philpotts’ evocative sound, plaintive as well as urgent, alternated or combined with Jensen on vibraphone, drums and an array of gongs large and small.  Jensen played the vibraphone with single mallets, cluster mallets and bass bows drawn up the side for some spellbinding effects.
   The ensemble for the Stravinsky consisted of violinist Kathryn Woolley, bassist Boris Astafiev, clarinetist Ixi Chen, bassoonist Hugh Michie, trumpeter Doug Lindsay, trombonist Cristian Ganicenco and percussionist Patrick Schleker.  Kathryn Woolley performed on a Stradivarius on loan from Paul Bartel’s Baroque Violin Shop in Finneytown, not an “old brown fiddle worth a few bob,” as the text describes Joseph’s violin.  All played with gusto and precision, having performed with the CSO in a matinee concert earlier in the day (as had all the performers on the program).
   Narrator Woolley, who wore a suitably demonic red tie, spoke Oxford British for the narrator, Cockney for Joseph and a kind of Claude Rains devil-speak for Old Nick, shifting from one to the other with remarkable facility, sometimes in rhymed couplets of his own composition to sum up and paraphrase the text.  He gave the audience food for thought as he recited successive versions of the moral of the tale to the “Grand Choral”:  “You must not seek to add to what you have what you once had,” ” “No one can have it all,” “You must learn to choose,” “One happy thing is every happy thing, two is as if they had never been.”  Joseph’s fatal mistake is trying to return home to visit his mother, having been forbidden by the devil to venture beyond the bounds of the country where he lives with the Princess.
   The devil victorious at last, Woolley retreated into the wings and loosed some formidable satanic laughter
   The concert demonstrated how the Chamber Players and the CSO might work together in the future on thematic programming.  Encore or not, their “Soldier’s Tale,” edited and adapted by Woolley from the English translation Michael Flanders and Kitty Black, should not only be encored, but further developed.

(first published in The Cincinnati Post Nov. 17, 2007)