Atlanta Chamber Players and Atlanta Shakespeare Company. Tuesday at the Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern. www.atlantachamberplayers.org
By Pierre Ruhe
Atlanta’s arts community has a rich and self-congratulatory history of talking about collaboration between disciplines. They are unequivocally good things, the more the better. Yet for reasons of funding or logistics or institutional turf wars, actual fusions of the arts have been relatively rare.
When it has happened — such as when dancers from gloATL performed with musicians from Sonic Generator in the High Museum’s atrium in December — the result is electrifying.
Suddenly, it’s starting to look like a trend. Across its 34-year history, the Atlanta Chamber Players has often performed in nontraditional venues, from art galleries to sacred spaces around town, but Thursday evening, the group took it to a whole new level.
The chamber players hooked up with actors from the Atlanta Shakespeare Company in its Elizabethan-style theater, the Shakespeare Tavern in Midtown. The show was sold out for Igor Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale,” based on Russian folklore and borrowing from the Faust and Orpheus legends. Stravinsky and Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, who wrote the text, crafted the extraordinary little entertainment to be portable: seven musicians, three actors and a dancer. Brilliant idea: It fit perfectly for the Tavern’s stage and ambiance.
The story resonates across cultures: selling your violin (or your soul) to the Devil yields short-term pleasures but long-term misery. A naive young Soldier (the wonderfully earnest Matt Nitchie) trades his fiddle for a book filled with future stock tables; he gets very rich but realizes he has nothing of value — a typical yuppie midlife crisis.
The Devil, played by Drew Reeves, doles out satisfaction but, inevitably, brings home his prize. As the meddlesome Narrator — who can’t help but advise the hapless Soldier — Clarke Weigle spoke as both an authority figure and a confidant. Becky Cormier Finch offered a modest, girl-next-door dance as the Princess. It wasn’t an ideally realized collaboration — the actors hadn’t memorized their tricky, musically precise lines and mostly read from scripts — but the work’s potential was devastatingly apparent.
And the chamber players were brilliant. The group is drawn mostly from Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians. Justin Bruns set the standard with gritty and soulful (or comically squeaky) violin playing. Bassoonist Carl Nitchie (father of Soldier Matt) delivered sweet, plummy lines.
The evening opened with a Flute Sonata in C Major of uncertain authorship. It’s sometimes attributed to J.S. Bach or one of his sons. Eschewing any of the now-fashionable “historically informed” trends for performing baroque music, ASO principal flutist Christina Smith, rounded all edges and offered a stream of warm, purring tone. Her backup continuo was cellist Brad Ritchie and the chamber players’ founder Paula Peace, playing a plug-in digital “harpsichord.”
Their playing lacked bite but was in all a darling performance, rhythmically alive and contrapuntally witty and balanced.
Smith and Ritchie returned for Elliott Carter’s seven-minute “Enchanted Preludes,” a knotty, charming work from 1988 that explores the limits of each instrument and pushed the musical partnership far outside its comfort zone. It took a while for the duo to seem relaxed and to thus let the music speak on its own terms. But by the end their playing was confident, maybe even spunky, and won over a crowd that had come to experience something new.
Pierre Ruhe blogs about classical music at www.ArtsCriticATL.com.