When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra artistic staff asked James Earl Jones II about performing in Igor Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale), the Chicago-based actor-singer was surprised.
Known primarily as a Broadway and regional theater artist, Jones admitted that he didn’t know the work. But he didn’t care. “To be on that stage with those amazing musicians and with Erina Yashima, who is an amazing conductor, and in a time when no one is performing on a stage, it was the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said.
With Yashima on the podium, the Chicago Symphony will present The Soldier’s Tale on Nov. 19 as part of CSO Sessions, its weekly series of small-ensemble concerts streamed on the CSOtv video portal.
The Soldier’s Tale, which had its premiere in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1918 during a devastating influenza pandemic, was meant, as Stravinsky wrote at the time, “to be read, played and danced.”
Drawn from a Russian folk tale featured in Alexander Afanasyev’s collection, The Runaway Soldier and the Devil, the hybrid work tells the story of a soldier who trades away his violin — and ultimately his soul — to the devil for a book that foretells the future.
The Soldier’s Tale calls for a septet composed of the unusual combination of violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone and percussion. Typically, three actors play the narrator and the main characters of the soldier and devil, but in this presentation, Jones will handle all three. While that’s unusual, it’s not uncommon. For instance, Pink Floyd founder Roger Waters recently recorded a version of The Soldier’s Tale (Sony Masterworks, 2018) in which he took on the roles of the narrator, soldier and devil.
Before going any further, let’s get something out of the way. Despite what his name might suggest, Jones is a third cousin to the famous actor who voiced Darth Vader in the “Star Wars” series and Musafa in “The Lion King” (1994 and the 2019 remake). As might be expected, he is actually named after his father.
A native of Chicago, the actor has lived in the city his entire life, except for time at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he majored in vocal performance, and later, during national tours of the Broadway musicals, Come From Away and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.
He regularly performs with many of Chicago’s top theaters, including the Court Theatre in the Hyde Park neighborhood where he resides, Porchlight Music Theatre and the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.
Looking for someone to play the three main roles in The Soldier’s Tale, Jim Fahey, the CSO’s director of programming, reached out to Bob Mason, casting director at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Mason, in turn, referred Fahey to Jones’ agent, Sam Samuelson.
Fahey and Jones then discussed the project, and the actor said, “Oh, my goodness, that sounds amazing. What do they want me to sing?” Fahey replied, “Absolutely nothing.”
Considering this was the Chicago Symphony, with music as its central mission, Jones was momentarily baffled. Fahey explained that the assignment called for Jones to act, not sing, but acknowledged it was a daunting prospect. After Fahey sent the score to Jones, he studied it and spoke to Fahey again: “I said, ‘Wait, I’m a little confused. I’m playing the narrator. But who plays the soldier and who plays the devil?'” Fahey responded, “You. You play them all.”
The actor was unfazed. Several times during his career, he has played multiple parts in one production, including Come From Away, where the cast of six men and six women performed 70 roles. “Characters are something I love to do, so to me, this was an amazing opportunity,” Jones said.
Although Jones as an adult had never appeared before with the CSO, he did have a few connections to the orchestra. Early in his career, he won an audition with the Chicago Symphony Chorus but remained a member for only a week or so, because of other performing obligations.
In addition, as a member of the All-City Elementary Youth Chorus, he performed annually at Orchestra Hall for several years in concerts that included members of the Chicago Symphony. “It was amazing to be on that stage again, having not been on it for almost 30 years,” Jones said.
Jones and CSO musicians taped their performance of The Soldier’s Tale on Oct. 29. Before rehearsals began, he met with Yashima, who serves as assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra (and previously was the CSO’s Solti Conducting Apprentice), to discuss the work and their approach to it.
“It was really a joy to work with her,” he said. “She was super open and receptive to my ideas, and I think the final presentation is going to be beautiful.”