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Redlands Symphony, dancers, actor-narrator bring Stravinsky's 'Soldier's Tale' to life

11/12/12 • by Betty Tyler • The Redlands Daily Facts

Take the Redlands Symphony Orchestra, subtract all but eight of the musicians, then add three dancers and Tony Award-winning actor John Rubinstein as narrator, and what do you have?

The answer is Saturday's concert of not quite typical chamber music in the University of Redlands Memorial Chapel. The program, the first in the Redlands Symphony's Masters of Music series, featured some of the orchestra's principal players. And the dancers and narrator in the equation mean it was a concert that concluded with Igor Stravinsky's "L'histoire du Soldat" ("The Soldier's Tale").

"L'histoire du Soldat" was appropriate, in a way, for the evening before Veterans Day, not so much because it concerns a soldier but because it was written in 1918, the year World War I ended.

It was Armistice Day, commemorating the Nov. 11, 1918, armistice that ended hostilities in the Great War, that became Veterans Day after World War II.

The only hostilities in "The Soldier's Tale" were between the soldier and the devil - but more about that later.

The concert began with "La Revue de Cuisine" ("Kitchen Revue") by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu. It's a suite from a 1927 ballet about the romantic lives of kitchen utensils in which the main characters are the Pot and the Lid.

Sandwiched between the soldier and the kitchen was Felix Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 2, a piece much more likely than the other two to show up in a chamber music program.

Jon Robertson, the Redlands Symphony's music director, was the pianist in the Mendelssohn Piano Trio. Concertmaster Jeanne Skrocki was the violinist, and Kyle Champion, the orchestra's principal cellist, completed the trio.
Mendelssohn's music, from the Romantic era of the 1800s, is always beautiful and well-crafted, with rich harmonies.

The combination of violin, cello and piano is a joy to hear, and the give and take among the three players can be as exciting as any symphony with 20 times as many musicians.

Skrocki, Champion and Robertson fulfilled the promise of Mendelssohn in a performance both exhilarating and relaxing.

The Mendelssohn trio also served as a palate cleanser between the Martinu and Stravinsky pieces. Those two early 20th-century pieces, with rhythms and harmonies you don't find in 19th-century Romanticism, might have lost a bit of their sparkle and spice if they'd been played back to back without an interval of Mendelssohn.

"La Revue de Cuisine" was no piano trio, even though it does include piano, violin and cello. Robertson, Skrocki and Champion played those instruments.

They were joined by the Redlands Symphony's principal clarinetist Kathryn Nevin, principal bassoonist Carolyn Beck, principal trumpet player David Scott and principal trombonist Andrew Glendening, who is dean of the University of Redlands School of Music.

The jazzy sound from the kitchen was not like Mendelssohn, but it was lively, fun and well blended.

The program notes give the outline of the story of the Pot and the Lid, a married couple. A violent broom, a seductive whisk and a dishcloth are mentioned, and you can hear their mischief in the music.

But with movements called "Tango" and "Charleston," the music is perhaps even more evocative of the 1920s than of kitchen capers.

Something like that 1920s sound came back after intermission in Stravinsky's "L'histoire du Soldat" ("The Soldier's Tale"), which uses most of the same instruments as the Martinu piece.

The clarinetist, bassoonist, trumpet player, trombonist and violinist returned to the stage. The cellist and pianist were replaced by Mark Breitenbach, associate principal bassist with the Redlands Symphony, and Yuri Inoo, principal percussionist. Robertson exchanged the piano for a conductor's baton.

The timbre of that combination of instruments is enough to set "The Soldier's Tale" apart from the Mendelssohn trio or a Beethoven string quartet.

Stravinsky's harmonies, melodies and rhythms - definitely not from the 19th century - seem to paint a picture of a world somewhat disjointed in the wake of World War I, though the story of "The Soldier's Tale" has nothing to do with that war.

But the music is fun rather than disturbing.

The focus, though, is not on the musicians but on the story told by the narrator and dancers.

The story is of a young soldier with a violin who meets the devil while he is walking home for a two-week leave. The soldier gives his violin to the devil in exchange for a book that will make him wealthy by telling the financial future.

When he arrives in his village, he finds he has been with the devil three years instead of the promised three days, and everyone thinks he is a ghost.

With the book's help, he gains "wealth untold," but he has lost everything that matters, including his girlfriend.

"I have everything, and that's nothing," the soldier says through the narrator. "They have nothing, and yet they have it all."

He later breaks the devil's hold over him by losing all his money to the devil in card games, and he marries a princess. But the devil warns that if he leaves the castle, he will again lose his soul.

Of course, he tries to go back to visit his village, and the devil wins.

One of the winners in Saturday's performance was Kirsten Johansen, who choreographed the dance and danced the part of the devil.

Johansen, who grew up in Redlands, is the daughter of Lawrence Johansen, longtime trumpet player with the Redlands Symphony, and Judy Johansen, a pianist and music teacher who played harpsichord in the symphony's all-strings program last month.

Johansen has done choreography in New York City and other places and is now teaching at Riverside Community College and choreographing the University of Redlands' production of "Cabaret."

I have no expertise in dance, but to my eyes and musical sense, Johansen was a sinuously convincing devil, and her choreography for the solider, danced by Justin Morris, fit well with Stravinsky's sometimes angular-sounding music and playfully complicated rhythms.

Roya Carreras, as the princess, didn't have as much time in the spotlight, but also enhanced the music with her movement.

But there would have been no "Soldier's Tale" without John Rubinstein's narration.

His voice was the tale, powerfully and compellingly told as he walked from one part of the stage to another, almost as if he were controlling the dancers, but not quite part of the dance.

Rubinstein has too many credits to his name in theater, film and television to list here, including Tony and Drama Desk awards for "Children of a Lesser God." He has also composed music for films and television.

And one more thing - he's the son of pianist Artur Rubinstein, whom I heard from a far, far balcony in San Francisco in the 1970s near the end of his long career.

"The Soldier's Tale" is also something I heard performed live in the 1970s - not in San Francisco, but in a far-back seat at the Hollywood Bowl. I don't remember who the narrator was then, but Saturday night's performance in Memorial Chapel, where no seat is too far away, gets my vote.

With Rubinstein's riveting narration, enhanced with music well played and dancers embodying the tale, "L'histoire du Soldat" pulled me into Stravinsky's world and wouldn't let me go until the end.

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