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Haroutunian as Dead Elvis, Plum as all in The Soldier’s Tale


When the bassoonist appeared at the concert, smiles appeared on faces, lighting up with delight. “The bassoon is Elvis (or perhaps an Elvis impersonator)” wrote Michael Daugherty, composer of Dead Elvis (1993). “Did Elvis sell out his Southern folk authenticity to the sophisticated professionalism of Hollywood movies… and Las Vegas in order to attain great wealth and fame?”

The Chamber Orchestra of Boston deferred judgment in its pre-concert announcement: “You be the judge. Ron Haroutunian is the bassoon soloist and rumor has it that Elvis may make an appearance.” He did, before a small gathering on Saturday night, April 24, at First Church in Boston. Haroutunian was dressed to the nines in vintage Elvis: white rhinestone and sequin-studded garb — shades and all. And for the last few measures of the fairly short and very frantic piece, Elvis’s impersonator played on almost bended knee, in a nod to the Rock n’Rolling King.

Such spectacle may explain, in part, why Daugherty receives note as “one of the most frequently commissioned, programmed and recorded composers on the American concert music scene today.”

Also appearing, in The Soldier’s Tale (1918-19) by Igor Stravinsky, was actress, director, writer, and teacher Paula Plum, who has enjoyed 30 years on virtually all of Boston’s stages and has fistfuls of awards to show for her many outstanding performances. Amazingly she took on all the roles herself: the narrator, the soldier who sold his violin for riches, the devil (and his two personas), the king, and the princes. A keen ear for detail and an obvious self-awareness allowed Plum to step back, as it were, in deference to her characters. Though she created her own special affecting touch in an artfully rhythmic and cadenced portrayal of the story, she was not the show.

Dubbed a musical soirée by event coordinator Mary Anne Carlson, a reception of the most unusual culinary treats — Elvis favorites — followed the music. It was then that we learned that Plum’s 90-year-old coach had worked with her the day before, actually joining her to convince her to put some dance into the dramatic mix. And like her reading, her princess’s dancing was done with élan.

Whether it was the acoustics playing out or whether it was his playing itself, Charles Dimmick, violin, took the boring bite out of those short down bows at the frog (the part of the bow closest to the hand, which so many violinists accentuate). Like that of the other performers, his was an eloquent voice in The Soldier’s Tale.

Aline Benoit’s clarinet and Ronald Haroutunian’s bassoon elegantly colored high register notes like those found in “The Soldier’s March.” Steven Emery captured one of the most memorable lines of the entire score, that coming in “The Royal March.” Trombonist Hans Bohn countered Emery’s trumpet with his own ensemble mingling. Fine harmonics and ostinatos figured in Irving Steinberg’s bass part. Jeffrey Fisher’s drums were “tuned” just right. His muffled “footsteps” at the end, where he played for 14 measures completely alone, accompanied Plum’s defeated soldier’s exit.

Looking altogether elegant, David Feltner, Music Director of The Chamber Orchestra of Boston, appeared in tails to conduct this superb soirée. Just the way he looked and led his seven-piece band reflected the evening’s elegance. Stravinsky’s transplanting and transformation of folk into art was realized in Feltner’s recreation of The Soldier’s Tale. As complex as the mixed meters populating the score were, under Feltner’s direction and the COB’s execution, they felt absolutely natural in tango, waltz, ragtime, and all.

This is The Chamber Orchestra of Boston’s continuation of a truly adventurous exploration of “the intersection of classical music and popular culture.” So why weren’t more of Boston’s “Music Nation” present for this singular event?

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston,  was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier  Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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