At sunset on the Mall Saturday evening, a mad woman flailed about with a tambourine while shouting incoherent things about God. It was an image that seemed straight out of Gorky, a mix of the beautiful and brutal and profound in some incoherent but evocative way. Not a bad end to a late-afternoon concert at the Hirshhorn Museum, where the 20th Century Consort performed two 20th-century keystone works--Stravinsky's "Soldier's Tale" and George Crumb's "Celestial Mechanics"--that find sublimity in chaos and incoherence. The program was titled "Heavens and Hell," but which was which?
Stravinsky wrote "The Soldier's Tale" at the end of the First World War, when he was a hungry expat in Switzerland, looking for a quick franc at a time when making music, or art of any kind, was inherently problematic.
The piece he came up with, a melodrama based on quasi-Faustian themes in Russian folklore, was a disaster. He meant it to be a down-and-dirty touring piece that would work its way through provincial Swiss theaters and return a fast and much-needed profit to its creator. Then the Spanish influenza hit and most of the players and audience devoted their time to coughing, vomiting and (all too often) dying rather than making or enjoying music theater.
It's easy to hate this piece. It breaks fundamental rules of taste, such as mixing spoken words with music, combining instruments that don't really work together, mixing musical styles wantonly and telling stories that don't go anywhere.
It's also a piece that inspires apologias, such as: that the mix of several folk tales into a long and wandering story is intentional; that it's meant to express the meaninglessness of grand narratives that use terms like "the soul" and "the Devil"; that it's really just a series of small insights about the little things in life; that the music heightens these insights in compelling and moving ways; and that after the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of young men over some issue that we still don't quite understand, this is all you could say.
In other words, this hour-long piece about the Devil in contest for the soul of a hapless soldier, scored for seven instrumentalists, two actors, narrator and dancer, is actually an affirmative work about quotidian things like tending Voltaire's garden and dealing with whatever mischance the Russian steppes may throw at you.
That would be one apologia, but anyone with a low tolerance for sophistry knows it isn't true. Stravinsky's "Soldier's Tale" is a white-elephant piece that never quite works, despite strong performances such as that given by the 20th Century Consort under the direction of Christopher Kendall. Its story is an all-thumbs mix of different threads of Russian folklore; its music is a desiccated and detached tour of styles that Stravinsky knew mostly secondhand--Spanish tangos that sound like Stravinsky, American ragtime (or is it klezmer?) that sounds like Stravinsky; Lutheran chorales that sound like Stravinsky; and so on. Its message is disconcertingly apolitical for a composer who was fervently White Russian, yet reliant on German publishers for money. In any case, it's a mess.
The 20th Century Consort did its best to redeem that mess. Unlike most performances, theirs included a suave narrator (Martin Goldsmith) and talented actors playing the soldier (TJ Edwards) and the Devil (Robert Aubrey Davis). The difficult interplay between music and words was well rehearsed, and the drama was presented with the right mix of realism and deeply cynical Russian irony. The musicians responded with lightning-quick instincts. Violinist Elisabeth Adkins stood out in particular, especially in the Part 2 dances.
The Stravinsky was, presumably, the hellish part of the evening. Yet George Crumb's masterly "Celestial Mechanics" seemed infinitely more diabolical. This piano score for four (and occasionally six) hands is a tour through the possibilities of the instrument--plucked strings, scraped strings, thumped strings, muted strings and occasionally some traditional hammered strings. The two (and sometimes three) players hover over the piano like a team of dentists working on a particularly recalcitrant molar, yet, all the while, celestially beautiful voices emerge from the objectified instrument, which resonates (with amplification) like a cathedral.
Pianists Lambert Orkis and James Primosch performed the surgery with Jan Orkis assisting. They brought the music far beyond the level of neat effects, giving it real coherence and dramatic sweep. Except for the occasional pause to change equipment, it came off seamlessly. It was a performance worthy of the music of one of America's greatest and most underappreciated composers. Not a bad birthday present for Crumb, who turns 70 on Oct. 24.