JAMES M. STEPHENSON: The Devil’s Tale – Matt Bean, narr./Western Illinois U. Faculty Chamber Players/Mike Fansler – Ravello RR7906, 54:11 [Distr. by Naxos] (6/09/15) ****:
Jim Stephenson is a very talented Chicago area composer who has written for nearly every instrumental combination including wind ensemble and strings and chamber music and always with attractive and interesting results.
The premise here is both a simple one as well as a wildly creative one. I am fairly sure that one else has thought to pay homage to Stravinsky’s master chamber work, A Soldier’s Tale, by writing what is basically a sequel before.
Stephenson’s version tells the tale backwards, turning the entire program into a kind of mirrored dance with the devil. In this version, though, the protagonist Joseph triumphs in the end over the devil’s constant attempts to bring him down with his tempting but unbelievable offers, by playing a trick of his own. Stephenson’s score does occasionally borrow little themes from L’Histoire du Soldat. However, it is uniquely and quite cleverly his own, filled with many of Stephenson’s “calling card” harmonies, riffs and punchy rhythms that owe as much to jazz as they might – in this instance – owe to Stravinsky. Stephenson begins his tale with the very snare drum action that closes the Stravinsky and then he concludes the piece with the opening line from The Soldier’s Tale, bringing this palindrome-like parable to a catchy conclusion.
The score is engaging and holds the attention quite well throughout its nearly one hour duration. Special compliments have to go to narrator Matt Bean who brings the story to life with wonderful inflection as he captures the very ‘up to date’ lingo and many truly funny lines that punctuate the score.
If there is but one thing that I thought of outside of the music is that the work; narration and all, is maybe just a tad too long. Fifty-five or so minutes is about as long as the coy atmosphere can be carried, I felt. All the more reason, though, to compliment Matt Bean for his part which does take up about fifteen minutes of the total. This is a minor quibble, however. This is a very clever concept carried out really well by James Stephenson’s skilled and creative pacing of bits of melody, snappy rhythmic momentum and harmonies that are delightfully “Stravinsky meets jazz” which met Stephenson.
The faculty players from Western Illinois University in Macomb are quite good and a pleasant discovery. This is not an ensemble we get to hear nearly enough. Kudos to Ravello for bringing this entertaining gem to our attention. I know that Jim Stephenson has a lot a very interesting projects on his plate right now, including a tribute work to the late, brilliant principal trumpeter with the Chicago Symphony, Bud Herseth; Stephenson being a trumpet player himself. I am anxious to hear more!