It just might be that spoken word backed by classical music could be the new rock. And not a moment too soon, now that the tribute bands seem set to take over the old rock, as one legend after another announces their farewell tour.
One of the summer’s highlights was listening to Bill Murray read chapters from American classics in Harpa, accompanied by a trio of talented classical musicians. This was even more fun than it sounds, and a pleasant reminder of why we all intermittently love America.
Ári vs Bill Murray
As any writer will tell you, doing readings is tricky. It’s performing something that isn’t really meant to be performed, transmitting something that’s intended to be enjoyed in solitude to a live audience. One way to make it more dynamic is to have musical backing, and what better backing than a symphony orchestra?
Another form of spoken word is of course stand-up comedy, but unlike literature this was intended for the stage to begin with. Yet, Ari Eldjárn, probably Iceland’s most popular comedian, is currently doing a show with full symphonic backing. How this works out, this reviewer hasn’t yet had a chance to ascertain. Bill Murray is a hard act to follow, but perhaps Ari will pull it off.
Another example of this phenomenon occurred recently with a performance of ‘The Soldier’s Tale’ by Igor Stravinsky on the 100th anniversary of its premiere. Stravinsky is best known for his ballets, and hence was no stranger to multimedia. The present piece was intended for three actors and at least one dancer, in addition to the musicians. The version here by the Reykjavik Chamber Orchestra pares this down to one, read by veteran actor Jóhann Sigurðsson, and cuts the dancers. What we are left with is essentially a musical reading rather than a play or ballet.
Jóhann gives it his all, performing the various parts in different voices. The libretto is written by the Swiss writer CF Ramuz, based on an old Russian folk tale, but updated to a soldier coming home from World War I. But the setting is soon lost, and we are firmly in a fairyland world of demons and enchanted princesses and magical violins. The protagonist receives a book which can foretell the future and make him rich, much like ‘Back to the Future,’ but, unlike Biff, he finds little joy in his newfound wealth. Instead, he realises that only the poor are truly happy.
Station to station
It’s interesting to get a 19th Century Russian folktale transported via 20th Century wars to the (still) early 21st Century. Is it a warning against excessive greed, as apt now as then, or is it rather a reminder to normal folks to know their place and not rise above their station, as many would have it in the current debates over wages?
In any case, the Icelandic translation by Þorsteinn Valdimarsson, himself born in that tumultuous year of 1918, is superb, and one is grateful to the Chamber Orchestra for reviving this piece on the double centenary. Perhaps next time they’ll include the dancers…
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