Storytellers blends folktales, chamber orchestra performance

Joel ben Izzy just can’t help it. Ask him what his new performance piece, “Luck vs. Wisdom,” is about and the Berkeley-based Jewish storyteller launches into the full narrative, twist by twist, turn by turn.

Combining live orchestral music and storytelling, “Luck vs. Wisdom” recounts a Jewish folktale about a king, a princess and a clever lad who embodies both luck and wisdom.

Joel ben Izzy

The San Francisco Chamber Orchestra commissioned it as a companion piece to Igor Stravinsky’s 1918 classic, “Histoire du Soldat” (A Soldier’s Tale), which also features an orchestra and narrator.

Both will be performed in a trio of Bay Area concerts, called “The Storytellers,” starting with the Feb. 21 world premiere at San Francisco’s Nourse Theater. Ben Izzy will narrate his tale, with a score by composer and cantor Stephen Saxon of Oakland, all under the baton of the chamber orchestra’s conductor, Ben Simon.

Technically, this makes ben Izzy a librettist for the first time, a title he wears proudly.

He describes “Luck vs. Wisdom” as a tale he developed “over the years. It’s filled with inside jokes and improvisations. I wrote the script, so there were places I could play with it, and other cues I would be sure to hit.”

As a “companion piece,” it uses the same instruments as  “The Soldier’s Tale,” scored for violin, bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone and percussion.

“A Soldier’s Tale” is based on a Russian folktale about a soldier retuning from war who sells his violin to the devil for untold riches. There’s a king and a princess, too.

“Luck vs. Wisdom” also has a king and a princess, though no Faustian undertones.

“What’s more important, luck or wisdom?” Ben Izzy asks rhetorically when summarizing his tale. “It begins with this same argument: Wisdom says you have to have wisdom. No, says Luck, you need mazel. Finally they decide to have a contest.”

That contest involves a young man blessed with wisdom — he becomes a master carver, tailor and teacher. He needs some luck to win the hand of a princess who never speaks. Her father, the king, will give her to any man who persuades her to speak. Failing to do so means certain execution.

With the executioner’s ax ready to swing, does luck swoop in to save the hero?  There’s only one way to find out.

Ben Izzy will narrate both “Luck vs. Wisdom” and “A Soldier’s Tale,” the latter a task he has done before. His familiarity with the piece led him to team up with composer Saxon nearly three years ago with the aim of creating a companion piece.

The “Luck vs. Wisdom” tale has been around for ages in various versions, with I.B. Singer and folklorist Y.L. Cahan both setting it down in recent decades. Ben Izzy pieced together his version from the previous retellings, adding his own commentary and side jokes along the way.

A Stanford graduate, ben Izzy has been a professional storyteller for more than 30 years, traveling the world to ply his trade. He has written award-wining books and recorded six CDs of Jewish tales. But stories are meant to be heard face to face, which is ben Izzy’s forte.

When it came to programming the upcoming concerts — which are free to the public and also feature the puppets of Lewis Mahlmann Lilliputian Players — even ben Izzy and Saxon’s world premiere would take a back seat to the great 20th-century maestro.

“Luck vs. Wisdom” goes first, ben Izzy says. “We build to Stravinsky. We’re not so arrogant to put on Igor as an opening act.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at