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Chamber Trio and Teller Create New Genre

IT WAS CALLED ‘A TRIUPHANT MAIDEN VOYAGE INTO A NEW FORM OF ENTERTAINMENT’ by the Nashville Banner. And ‘a multimedia piece of art in which virtuosity meets unpretentiousness” by the Roanoke Times.

What’s all the fuss about?

How about Connie Regan-Blake telling a version of “Wicked John and the Devil” in partnership with the Kandinsky Trio, a traditional chamber trio composed of pianist Elizabeth Bachelder, cellist Alan Weinstein, and violinist Benedict Goodfriend.

Add in music composed by Mike Reid, a former All-Pro tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals who now writes country-western music, and you have what some are calling a totally new entertainment genre.

According to Regan-Blake, the blending of notes with words is nothing new. Several storytellers have collaborated with orchestras to perform narrative works, including Jay O’Callahan. And, of course, storyteller collaborations with musicians have been common for years.

But, says the teller, “To work with a piano trio like this and perform the kind of work we’re doing, I think it’s very much cutting edge.”

“To work with a piano trio like this and perform the kind of work we’re doing, I think it’s very much cutting edge.”

And many people have tended to agree. The work, called Tales of Appalachia, premiered at the Center for Performing Arts at Penn State University in October 1995 and is now eight performances into its second season.

What makes it so different? For one thing, the story is told, not just narrated, which immediately distinguishes the work from similar classical pieces. Also, using a piano trio makes it easier for the voices to blend and interact. The four performers work more as “a quartet” than as two performing entities, explained Regan-Blake. “There are times when only the trio is playing and times when only I’m speaking or telling, but there are also lots of times when it is very much interwoven. I have a really intimate relationship with the audience, but at the same time I’m very connected with the trio.”

The original idea for Tales of Appalachia came from Mark Baylin, the trio’s manager, who was searching for a way to broaden the trio’s appeal and to change the idea that chamber performances are stuffy and too high-brow.

Above: The Kandinsky Trio, Benedict Goodfriend, violin; Alan Weinstein, cello; Elizabeth Bachelder, piano. Below: Storyteller Connie Regan-Blake

“He wanted to do something related to Appalachia, which is where we’re based, and, of course, one of the first things that comes to mind is storytelling,” confirmed the trio’s cellist Alan Weinstein.

Getting all the major components together, however, was no easy task. Initially, it required lining up nine venues or sponsors in the Appalachian region, even before the creative process could begin. And the right composer and storyteller had to be selected to make the equation work.

Although the trio conducted an all-out search for a storyteller, soliciting some 70 audiotapes to review, they settled on Regan-Blake based almost entirely on word-of-mouth recommendations. They wanted someone who had toured extensively and who had worked with different kinds of people.

Regan-Blake fit the bill.

The selection of ‘Wicked John and the Devil” was a joint effort between Reid, the trio, and Connie. In the end, they settled on a version that Connie had originally heard from storyteller Ray Hicks at the First National Storytelling Festival in 1973.

Once the story was a definite go, the storyteller consulted with Hicks, who maintained that Wicked John wasn’t a bad person; he just had a hot, tedious job. Says Regan-Blake, “Ray said a lot of blacksmiths lost an eye or were burned from fire spitting at them. It (blacksmithing) was a hard job, and yet blacksmiths were necessary for the community. Ray felt that was why they cussed so much and were angry most of the time.”

With this newfound empathy for her character, Regan-Blake developed a taped version and sent it to Reid, who then wrote the score. When the trio didn’t particularly like the composer’s first draft, they sent it back for reworking – something that Regan-Blake believes made all the difference. “Instead of bucking, Mike got down to work and really went through the roof creatively with what he produced next. I think that opened up a new door of creativity for him.”

Most audiences and critics seem to agree. ‘People react to it so favorably,” said Weinstein. “To see that every time we perform has been exciting. People who have never been to a chamber concert before are coming and they just love it.”

Finding new audiences for both art forms – chamber music and storytelling – was a major goal of everyone concerned. They feel they have accomplished that goal. And both the trio and Regan-Blake will continue to tour the work as long as audiences respond favorably to the show. The two may even collaborate on a different story in the future. In the meantime, they’ve been asked to produce a CD of the performance on the D’Note label (San Francisco), as well as a video for the Public Broadcasting Service. Both projects will be released this spring.

For more information about Tales of Appalachia, Connie Regan-Blake, toll-free: 1-800-864-0299

1997 Performances of “Tales of Appalachia”

January 25 · University of Richmond; Richmond, VA
January 28 · Shippensburg University; Shippensburg, PA
February 1 · Roanoke College; Salem, VA
February 7 · Keene State College; Keene, NH
February 8 · Plymouth State College; Plymouth, NH
March 1 · Bradford Creative and Performing Arts Center; University of Pennsylvania/Bradford, PA
March 8 · Ohio University Performing Arts Series, Athens, OH
March 14 · T.B. Sheldon Auditorium; Red Wing, MN

Storytelling Magazine