The Solider and the Magician: Esperanza Fernandez and the PostClassical Ensemble at Georgetown University, December 4, 2011

In its double bill of Igor Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale” and Manuel de Falla’s “El amor brujo,” presented in three shows last weekend at Georgetown University (I caught the Sunday matinee), the PostClassical Ensemble did justice to two sometimes-neglected scores, playing the hell out of the works and taking seriously their theatrical origins.

As originally conceived by Stravinsky and an all-star cast of Swiss artists, four people acted out “A Soldier’s Tale” with a minimal set; the septet of violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, and percussion played onstage as a fifth actor. For the Falla, PCE artistic director Joseph Horowitz and music director Angel Gil-Ordonez brought in choreographer Igal Perry, to provide a new interpretation of a work Falla originally intended to accompany some acting and dancing.

Both of these scores played to the strengths of Gil-Ordonez and the musicians he assembled last weekend. In “A Soldier’s Tale” (also known by its original French title, “L’histoire du soldat”), the performers brought out the military-band cast of the scoring, with David Taylor‘s trombone snarling and Chris Gekker’s cornet chirping. A beat-up violin symbolized the soldier’s soul in the narrative, and David Salness roughed up his much more refined instrument to match. The score changes time signatures like some composers change keys and throws in constant allusions and subtle changes of tone throughout, but Gil-Ordonez led them in a tight, twisty performance that created a drama of its own.

Sadly, the actual tale in “A Soldier’s Tale” failed to convince me on Sunday. In its favor were the commitment of the Georgetown students who performed (particularly Allie Villareal, throwing herself headlong into everything she did) and resourceful direction from Georgetown prof Anna Harwell Celenza. Still, the story is an old one, about a man who sells his soul for material things proffered by Satan Himself, and it turns out that if a person is greedy, sometimes that person ends up with nothing at all. (I trust Fox Business Channel is going after the PCE once they’re done with the Muppets.) The translation used here featured nursery-rhymish couplets seemingly designed to emphasize the story’s familiarity, but they also trivialized it a bit. I frequently found myself waiting for the music to begin again.

That wasn’t a problem after intermission, since the PCE used the continuous version of “El amor brujo” Falla prepared as an orchestral suite as a base for Perry’s choreography, which in turn reflected the plot of the original version. (It turns out the best way to get the spirit of a dead lover to leave you alone so you can pursue new romantic possibilities is a ritual fire dance. Ladies, take note!)

Smokin! From Fernandez's website

The orchestra expanded to about a score of musicians, hidden behind a sometimes-translucent scrim — still less than a full orchestra, but the volume was not missed, and the stripped-down forces gave the music a raw power more than appropriate to the score. In the latter respect, they almost matched special musical guest Esperanza Fernandez, a flamenco cantatora, who sang the lyrics Falla originally intended for live flamenco performance. Fernandez might not measure up on the traditional classical evaluation scale, since she needed a mic and her high notes could get a little pinched, but on the scale of rocking it she excelled, taking over in the midst of a mad swirl of music and immediately drawing all attention to her impassioned singing. Nothing was out of place, everything flowed from the score, and yet she made Falla’s songs utterly her own.

She also seemed to bend light towards her whenever Perry’s choreography moved about the stage, such was her charisma. Fortunately, Perry realized this and gave her a counterpart among the dancers, with Nikki Holck dancing the character of Candela vividly, if not as fiercely as Fernandez sang it. At this point, I should note that I am definitely not a dance critic, and from my music-critic perspective I wanted to see more of the orchestra doing its thing and Fernandez unencumbered by people dancing around her. In addition, four dancers represented Falla’s original characters, and four others represented nothing, which made me wonder why the latter four were onstage, although all eight were fun to watch. There may be a whole terpsichorean grammar I am failing to understand, though.

Both in the program notes and in a post-concert Q&A, PCE artistic director Joseph Horowitz mentioned the ensemble’s intention to take the show on the road, although he seemed to be referring to other people presenting the staging and choreography rather than the PCE going on tour. Anyone who attends this program, even if the PCE isn’t playing, will be seeing two great pieces of music presented fresh, and that’s the experience of the PCE straight to the core.

Other People’s Perspectives: Paula Durbin. Edited to add: Charles T. Downey, Marie Gullard.

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