I think I have this right — Greensboro Symphony Orchestra Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky fell in love with Stravinsky's 1918 theatrical work, L'Histoire du Soldat ("The Soldier's Tale"), when he was a student at Juilliard, and he performed it many times for school-age children in New York. But he was never entirely happy with the structure of the work, which Stravinsky said was to be "read, played and danced." And, apparently, neither was the composer, who continued to tinker with the work for several years.
The story about a soldier who trades his violin to the devil in exchange for a magical book that tells the future of the economy, was derived by C.F. Ramúz from a Russian folk tale. In the course of the "Tale" the soldier becomes wealthy, but loses his fiancée and mother, and although he believes that he is able to outwit the devil, the devil prevails. The work was originally scored for a septet, which provides musical backdrop to three characters: the soldier, the devil, a narrator (who also acts) as well as one (or more) dancer(s).
Sitkovetsky's arrangement (which he said was "a work in progress") keeps the original instrumentation, and Friday night's performance in the Recital Hall of the UNCG School of Music featured crack GSO first-chair players — Kelly Burke (clarinet), Carol Bernstorf (bassoon), Anita Cirba (trumpet), John R. Melton (trombone), Wiley Sykes (percussion), John Fadial (violin) and John Spuller (double bass). However there was neither dancer (because the stage is too "boomy") nor actors. Michael Tourek's superb many-voiced narration held the entire hour-long work together.
The music is fiendishly difficult rhythmically, chock full of meter changes, and calls for virtuoso playing from each musician; a conductor is usually employed to hold the piece together, which Sitkovetsky did in fine style. One more piece of theatre — Sitkovetsky often played the fiddle, portraying the devil; at this point UNCG professor David Nelson took the baton.
In Sitkovetsky's arrangement, movements from other works by Stravinsky replace some of the current passages in the original score. Thus music from Pulcinella, Duo Concertante, and the first piece for 3 Pieces for Clarinet, took the place of the first reprise of the "The Soldier's March." The addition of this music provided a rare opportunity to hear the composer's entire 3 Pieces for Clarinet, which was flawlessly played by Burke.
The music is decidedly anti-romantic; objective, sophisticated, urbane — all the aesthetics associated with neo-classicism of which Stravinsky is clearly king. Russian folk song lives comfortably with elements of jazz (especially heard in the "Tango," "Valse," and "Ragtime" movements) and fractured Lutheran chorales.
Trombone slides, brilliant martial blasts, spunky bassoon licks, devilish violin outbursts, perky and syncopated double bass pizzicatos, spiky clarinet lines and rhythmic drumming — all were exquisitely served up by the seven musicians.
The moral of the story? Perhaps it is that one needs to appreciate the important things in life — love and family — but the devil will get his due, regardless. In the final "Triumphant March of the Devil," the soldier is led to the abyss, accompanied by virtuosic drumming from Sykes.
The large audience was delighted by the performance and one hopes that Sitkovetsky will program it again, next time with actors and dancers.