Rembrandt takes on Stravinsky, Marsalis

Chamber group delivers rare performance of classical-jazz merger

by Howard Reich
Chicago Tribune

Fourteen years ago, a large audience crowded Orchestra Hall for the Chicago premiere of Wynton Marsalis’ “A Fiddler’s Tale,” a full-blooded jazz response to Igor Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat” (“The Soldier’s Tale”).

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, with Marsalis on trumpet, performed the new work to enthusiastic ovations, but rarely – if ever – has the piece been heard again in this part of the world.

Until Sunday afternoon, when the Rembrandt Chamber Players revived the work on a program with Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire” at the Music Institute of Chicago’s Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston. The Chicago-based Rembrandt organization did a great service to listeners with this performance, for in pairing the Stravinsky with the Marsalis on a single program, these musicians reminded the audience of the durability of the former and the ingenuity of the latter.

Those who expected Marsalis’ version to amount to a swing version of Stravinsky’s original underestimated the jazz musician’s imagination. Unlike, say, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s jazz-hot versions of Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” Suite or Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” Suite, Marsalis’ opus ventures far from its original inspiration – even while retaining the brittle neo-classical flavor of Stravinsky’s 1918 score. For starters, Marsalis uses the same chamber-music instrumentation as the Stravinsky, with its decidedly idiosyncratic writing for septet plus narrator.

Furthermore, Marsalis evokes the astringent harmonies and transparent textures of “L’Histoire,” even as he inserts certain blues inflections in melody lines that stretch far longer than Stravinsky’s and injects subtle swing rhythm into key passages.

As a result, Marsalis’ “A Fiddler’s Tale” strikes an extremely delicate balance between past and present, classical and jazz, sophistication and accessibility. Apart from “L’Histoire” itself, there’s no work in the jazz or classical repertory quite like it, all the more thanks to the text by longtime Marsalis colleague Stanley Crouch.

Like “L’Histoire,” “A Fiddler’s Tale” explores the age-old, Faustian drama of a protagonist who succumbs to the charms of the devil and pays the ultimate price. But the storyline has become decidedly more contemporary – and wickedly funny – in the Marsalis/Crouch version than in Stravinsky’s original (with its text by the Swiss writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz).

While “L’Histoire” chronicles the demise of a weary soldier in World War I who loses everything

– a withering, metaphorical indictment of war itself – “A Fiddler’s Tale” takes on the American pop music industry. A less exalted target, to be sure, but one that’s ripe for puncturing from Crouch’s sharply satirical pen and Marsalis’ vividly drawn music.

In “A Fiddler’s Tale,” the title character is not a man but a woman, and, more to the point, an accomplished musician of the highest integrity who suffers a fate commonly accorded such virtuosos: small audiences and smaller funds. This makes her easy pickings for the devil, who emerges in the form of a record producer. The exec promises the fiddler the world and indeed produces huge audiences but, of course, at a rather high price: The violinist must dilute her music for the masses, losing her soul in more ways than one.

Chicago humorist Aaron Freeman embodied the multiple characters of Crouch’s script with such relish and gusto – hissing his consonants and growling his vowels – that his performance very nearly amounted to stand-up comedy. Yes, it was that funny. That Freeman managed to portray the comic-book cruelty of the manager at one moment, the wide-eyed naivete of the fiddler the next and the voices of subsidiary characters along the way attested to the high polish of this reading. One just doesn’t encounter such finely honed work in concert narration very often.

That would have been just half a success, however, were it not for the performance of the Rembrandt Chamber Players, augmented by musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. CSO principal trumpeter Christopher Martin faced the unenviable task

of taking Marsalis’ role, but Martin’s jazz-tinged playing proved strikingly effective. Though playing from score, Martin brought an improvisational feeling to the jazzier portions of his part, at the same time drawing snarling, bluesy effects with plunger mute.

CSO violinist Yuan-Qing Yu stood as the heart and soul of both the Marsalis and the Stravinsky, the bracing quality of her tone, sharpness of her attacks and sheer sweep of her lyric lines obliterating distinctions between jazz and classical idioms. Or, to put it in other terms, Yu saw the commonalities between the two works and brought them to the fore, giving this program a degree of continuity it would not have had without her. The violinist’s passages with CSO clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom – who helped stitch together a performance edition of Marsalis’ score – were particularly gripping.

If Marsalis’ “A Fiddler’s Tale” amounted to a tragicomic version of the story, Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire” stands undiminished as a chilling portrait of a hapless, nearly penniless soldier weathered by war and doomed by his hope for something better. Chicago actor Barbara Robertson started tentatively as narrator but eventually found her voice, the Rembrandt Chamber Players and their CSO colleagues offering a crisply unsentimental account of “L’Histoire” and reaffirming its timelessness nearly a century after its premiere.

No one knows whether Marsalis’ “A Fiddler’s Tale” will endure quite so long, but considering that it takes on corruption of the music industry, it would seem to have legs.