Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra’s A Soldier’s Tale
Can anyone beat the devil and have it all?
The Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra in collaboration with In Tandem Theatre sought to answer the question to a sold-out crowd at the Calvary Presbyterian Church Sunday afternoon.
Stravinsky wrote L’histoire du soldat in Switzerland when he found himself cut off from family, friends, and a steady source of income from his Russian publishers due to World War I. In collaboration with novelist Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, he set a Russian folk tale about a man who tries to trick the devil by making him drink too much vodka. Add a little Faust, a few allusions to Russian refugees unable to return home—and there you have it.
Stravinsky was very aware of his intended audience and the circumstances of musical life at the time. The instruments are easy to tour with. No set is required. Only three actors are needed to tell the story. It’s not Rite of Spring. It’s a lighter, more playful Stravinsky. It still fits his modernist style, but without such bite.
In Tandem Theatre was a delightful addition to this concert. A Soldier’s Tale is usually performed as a concert suite or ballet. Seeing and hearing Stravinsky’s original intent was a rare treat. The dramatic action and music compliment each other very well.
Chris Flieller was a skillful and precise Narrator. He spoke in rhythm with the ensemble at times, but never lost dramatic intent or clarity. Michael Coty, as the Soldier, was very capable. The Devil, played expertly by Bill Watson, was a calculating and shrewd businessman, snaking around and waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. A stringy mop stood in, to great comic effect, for the usual female dancer as the princess the Soldier woos.
Under the direction of Richard Hynson, the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra was spot on. The complicated rhythms never seemed scattered or frantic. Phrasing was impeccable. Violinist Jeanyi Kim dazzled the audience with particularly virtuosic playing, and solo passages by percussionist Thomas Wetzel in the final moments of the piece were skillfully delivered.
This is the second full season in the rebuilding of the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra. Programming and performances like this give us hope for many more.