Magical nights at Tanglewood

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LENOX >> Stravinsky said music is about itself, nothing more — just sounds. That's provocation, of course. Music, including Stravinsky's, evokes emotions, images, worlds.

The same could be said about Bach's music — that it's only about itself. It, too, contains worlds.

Two chamber music evenings on successive nights at Tanglewood turned microcosms of these two composers into macrocosms. In Bach's complete sonatas and partitas for solo violin on Wednesday night, Gil Shaham showed how a single player and his instrument could dominate a stage as fully as a symphony orchestra.

Then on Thursday night — again with a violin at the center — a staged performance of Stravinsky's "The Soldier's Tale" belied his dictum. The music and its magical performance — part of the magic was real, involving some pretty amazing conjuror's tricks — enacted a little morality play. Greed, it taught, will land you in the clutches of the Devil.

Tanglewood came up with a doozy — a couple of doozies.

The "Soldier's Tale" is the story of a simple, homeward-bound soldier who sells his fiddle, and thus his soul, to the Devil. The performance was a gift to conductor Charles Dutoit, this summer's Koussevitzky Artist. He conducted an ensemble consisting of his wife, violinist Chantal Juillet, and six Boston Symphony players.

The playing was expert, as you would expect from an assemblage like this. The thumping march that accompanies the soldier's trudge, and the mock-Lutheran chorale that packs him off to Hell, mixed satire and sympathy in just proportion (sorry, Stravinsky).

The Ozawa Hall staging was the kind of thing — perhaps magnified here — that Stravinsky intended when he wrote the 1918 chamber opera on the Faustian theme.

The Soldier and the Devil, Carson Elrod and Nate Dendy, were actors, dancers, acrobats and conjurors all in one, inexhaustible in their pursuits, taunts and fights over the Devil's book containing the secrets of wealth. They were wheeled onto the stage in crate and barrel, clambered out, raced through and out the hall at one point, played card tricks and were finally wheeled out again, into the abyss. The Soldier was costumed as a commedia dell'arte clown; Old Nick was properly a man of many disguises.

Janelle Barry, a dancer, was the sleeping princess whom the Soldier claimed as a bride. Wakened, she leapt from the top of the crates and did a mean tango with him until, emerging from a moment behind a curtain with him, behold — the Devil!

Bill Barclay, also acrobatic, was the director and narrator, speaking in clear, rhymed English couplets. Also imaginatively, Nicole Pierce was the choreographer, Cristina Todesco the set designer and Kathleen Doyle the costume designer.

Dutoit preceded "The Soldier's Tale" with a related Stravinsky work, the 1923 Octet for winds, again with BSO players. The off-kilter marches made it a fitting overture to the Soldier's trudging. Stravinsky was wrong. Music means a lot of things, especially in evenings like this and the one that followed.

Bach's six solo sonatas and partitas (in effect, dance suites) are a summit of the solo violin repertoire. They are capable of infinite variety in interpretation — the more so since Bach gives no signposts beyond bare notes.

If Shaham didn't break the speed record for the set, the odometer needle got pretty close to the red zone. In a feat that usually takes upwards of three hours, he clocked in at 2½ hours with two intermissions. Technical wizardry and depth of understanding combined to make the marathon an engrossing and enriching experience.

Performing from memory and alternating between sonatas and partitas, Shaham went through the set numerically. The energy flowed both from and into his body as he moved about freely on the stage, often stepping up to the lip at moments of heightened effect.

The fast tempos created joyous abandon in music where ceremony normally rules. The monumental chaconne of the D minor Partita (No. 2) was dazzling in sheer exuberance and virtuosity, although at some expense of its darker side and dramatic shifts of direction. Elsewhere, the slow movements, such as the sarabandes, were islands of calm without the sense of suspension in time they can give

Many listeners headed for the gates during the second intermission, and Shaham had to quell — not always successfully — others who were determined to applaud between movements. Nothing could alter the fact: This was an evening of sublime music brilliantly performed.


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