Violinist MinTze Wu brings ‘Death of the Pugilist’ back to Lyons Sunday

Music/storytelling production was presented at first ‘Sound of Lyons’ in 2009

By Peter Alexander March 23 at 2:24 p.m.

The very first season of Sounds of Lyons, the adventurous and imaginative music festival managed by violinist MinTze Wu in Lyons, Colo., from 2009 through 2017, included a collaborative performance combining storytelling and music.

That performance was based on “Death of the Pugilist,” a story by Daniel Mason. A narrator read the full story, and a group of musicians provided musical commentary with composed pieces by J.S. Bach, Philip Glass and Steve Reich, as well as improvised music that drew from a variety of styes and sources.

Musicians (L-R) MinTze Wu Jem Moore, Joy Adams, Blayne Chastain and Eric Thorin will perform ’Death of the Pugilist’ in Lyons Sunday.

Thirteen years later, Wu is bringing “Death of a Pugilist” back to Lyons under the aegis of BenFeng Productions, the successor to Sounds of Lyons. The new version will use the same script, the same composed pieces by Bach, Glass and Reich, but a new set of musicians who will provide their own newly improvised music to fill out the performance.

This revived and renewed performance will take place at 4 p.m. Sunday, March 27, at the Lyons Middle/Senior High School Auditorium.

The narrator reading Mason’s story will be Jem Moore, who will also be part of the musical ensemble. The other musicians, all playing multiple instruments, will be Wu, Joy Adams, Blayne Chastain and Eric Thorin. Instruments featured by the ensemble include—but are not necessarily limited to—flute, violin, banjo, mandolin, tuba, cello, string bass, drum and keyboard. In addition to the composed pieces, the musical styles will range from traditional Irish to blues.

“We really want to honor the tradition of storytelling,” Wu says of the production. “It’s almost like a campsite when somebody starts sharing a story that he has heard.”

Wu says she was not initially attracted to a story about boxing, but the quality of the writing won her over. “I started by reading it, and it gave me so much opportunity to imagine a production,” she says.

The plot concerns Jacob Burke, a young man who grows up on the docks in 1820s England and is such a ferocious brawler that he ends up being lured into in illegal bare-knuckle boxing matches. The climax of the story is his fight with “Blindman” McGraw, which takes up the largest portion of the story.

MinTze Wu

Wu selected pieces by Bach to open and close the performance, and particularly the Sarabande from the D-minor Suite for solo cello, which is played before the narration of the fight. “The central piece is the Sarabande,” Wu says. “That is at the pivotal part, the most raw, emotional moment. I love taking the most intense moment emotionally and have the most simple sound there.”

In contrast to the written-out pieces, Wu says that the improvised music is “very much like cooking. You can follow the recipe, but it’s really cooking it every time.” And if the music develops too fast, “somebody will go, ‘Oh, I cook it too hot!’ We understand what that means: we have to cook it slower, longer.”

Although Bach forms the bookends and the central piece of the performance, the players come from various musical backgrounds. A graduate of the Cleveland Institute, Wu has the most extensive classical training. Cellist and plucked strings player Joy Adams is a member of an all-female neo-acoustic quartet, Big Richard, who are performing at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in June. 

Bass player Eric Thorin teaches folk and bluegrass bass at the University of Northern Colorado and has performed both jazz and bluegrass with leading artists. Flutist Blayne Chastain studied traditional music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston before moving to Colorado. Narrator Jem Moore has pursued careers as musician, airline and private pilot, and independent film maker.

Wu says the improvisation occurs within clearly defined limits. “It’s just so organic when the five of us sit down to decide our roadmap,” she explains. “We know our destination, but on the way, where are we going to go? There is freedom but it’s within very defined limits. It’s a very tight ensemble piece, very lean.”

Lean may be the keyword. When she approached the piece again 13 years after first developing it, Wu found that she wanted to trim it down to essentials. “When I started Death of the Pugilist 13 years ago, that was my first ensemble piece with a story,” she says. 

“Now having done so many other big productions with literature, and looking at it and still loving the simplicity but being more informed, I realize that all along, what I’m exploring is not confining our imagination. There is always more to discover. If we tap into that curiosity there is just a lot more.

“For me, it’s coming back to it and taking out more things, because they are not necessary. We’re trying to say more by saying less. That really is our passion this time.”

# # # # #

Death of the Pugilist
Based on a story by Daniel Mason
Presented by Peter Baumgartner and BenFeng Productions
Performed by Jem Moore, MinTze Wu, Eric Thorin, Joy Adams and Blayne Chastain

4 p.m. Sunday, March 27
Lyons Middle/Senior High School Auditoriu

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