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Ring in the new year with Symphoria, performing the beautiful and moving Mother and Child by William Grant Still and Stravinsky’s masterful L’Histoire du Soldat. Tai Murray will be joining us via livestream and play a piece of her choosing.

*Due to current orange zone restrictions, ensemble size will be limited to 10 or less musicians on stage. We will return to full orchestra as soon as it is safe to do so.

 

 

 


PROGRAM

STILL: Mother & Child
Violin work TBD
STRAVINSKY: L’Histoire du Soldat

 


 

 

All programs and artists subject to change.

PROGRAM NOTES

Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) wrote The Soldier’s Tale (L’Histoire du soldat) in 1918, a time eerily similar to ours—during a pandemic two decades into a new century. He had changed the course of classical music a few years earlier with The Rite of Spring, a brutal work calling for the kind of massive orchestra favored by Mahler and Strauss. But the war, the Russian Revolution, Stravinsky’s relocation to Switzerland, and eventually the pandemic made that kind of extravagance unrealistic—especially since the composer, no longer getting royalties from his Russian works, needed immediate income. So he found himself turning ...
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) wrote The Soldier’s Tale (L’Histoire du soldat) in 1918, a time eerily similar to ours—during a pandemic two decades into a new century. He had changed the course of classical music a few years earlier with The Rite of Spring, a brutal work calling for the kind of massive orchestra favored by Mahler and Strauss. But the war, the Russian Revolution, Stravinsky’s relocation to Switzerland, and eventually the pandemic made that kind of extravagance unrealistic—especially since the composer, no longer getting royalties from his Russian works, needed immediate income. So he found himself turning to music for smaller forces that could be performed more easily.

Still, Stravinsky remained an innovator, and The Soldier’s Tale is not “normal” chamber music. Rather, in a way, it’s a kind of orchestral work. In a way? Well, instead of employing a traditional chamber music group like a string quartet or wind quintet, Stravinsky assembled what we might call a shadow orchestra—that is, one that offers the outlines of a regular symphonic ensemble, without the real substance. Woodwind, brass, and string sections are each represented, but only by a pair of instruments, high and low; and the ensemble is rounded out by a single percussionist.

A shadow orchestra is especially appropriate for the piece, given the association of shadows with the supernatural, and especially the devil. (Indeed, the Devil in Stravinsky’s later opera The Rake’s Progress is named Nick Shadow). For The Soldier’s Tale started out as a theater piece, with three actors and a dancer, that recounts a supernatural fable adapted by C.F. Ramuz from the Russian folk tales collected by Alexander Afanas’ev. The story concerns, Joseph, a young soldier on leave, who is tricked by the devil to trade his violin for untold wealth. As he soon learns, however, in making the bargain, he’s irrevocably lost what really matters. He believes he’s spent three days teaching the devil to play the instrument but it’s actually been three years. As a result, his mother thinks him dead and his beloved has married someone else. Joseph eventually manages to trick the devil and win the violin back; and he uses the curative power of music (something which we’ve all increasingly come to appreciate during our own pandemic) to revive an ailing princess. Even after marrying her, though, he’s unable to accept what he has; he wants, in addition, what he used to have as well. He tries to outwit his nemesis and see his mother once again, but fails and loses everything. The devil, as always, has the last word. As does the percussionist, who ends the piece with what’s probably the first true percussion solo in the standard orchestral repertoire. As I said, Stravinsky remained an innovator.

The Soldier’s Tale reveals Stravinsky’s versatility in a number of ways. Most immediately, there’s a radical shift in idiom. Stravinsky’s big ballets—especially Petrushka and The Rite—were overpowering and richly colored works steeped in Eastern European folk music. The Soldier’s Tale is lighter, more brittle, and more ironic, and it takes much of its inspiration from popular dance music of the time (this is especially notable the the Tango, Waltz, and Ragtime that mark the princess’s recovery). Then, too, there’s Stravinsky’s dexterous handling of this ragtag collection of instruments, and even more, his ability to create a coherent work that draws on so many different musical traditions, from marches to Lutheran Chorales to ragtime.

Shortly after he finished The Soldier’s Tale, Stravinsky created a purely orchestral suite, which keeps almost all of the music but strips away the spoken text. That’s the version most commonly heard nowadays, and it’s the one that closes out our concert today.

Yet whatever we can say about the versatility of Stravinsky, it pales beside that of William Grant Still (1895–1978), whose Mother and Child (1943) opens our concert. Born in a small town in Mississippi, and raised in Little Rock, Still crossed any number of musical borders. In his early years he earned a living as a performer (he played oboe in the original production of Shuffle Along, widely considered the first African-American Broadway hit), as an arranger for pop, jazz, and blues artists (including Paul Whiteman, W.C. Handy, and Sophie Tucker), and as a radio conductor. Even after his career as a classical composer blossomed under the mentorship of such very different teachers as the conservative Howard Hanson and the avant-gardist Edgard Varèse, he continued to work in more popular areas such as music for film and television (including contributions to Gunsmoke).

He broke social boundaries as well. He was the first African-American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have an opera staged by a major opera company, and more. Yet despite his numerous triumphs in Jim Crow America, despite his numerous awards, he lived his life under the cloud of racism. And even though his reputation is anchored in a vast classical output (which includes five symphonies, several operas, and a great deal of chamber and vocal music), his reputation, like that of many pioneering Black composers, has never matched the quality of his music.

Mother and Child is one of his smaller, more personal works—an arrangement for string orchestra of the central piece from a three-movement suite for violin and piano. Like the other two works in the set, it was inspired by the art of the Harlem Renaissance—in this case, a simple but poignant lithograph by Sargent Johnson. Harmonically rich, it has the spirit of a lullaby; yet it’s tinged (as is Johnson’s picture) with sadness, and ends without full resolution. This evening’s performance, by a small ensemble without a conductor, should capture its intimacy especially well.

Between these two works, we’ll hear solo selections performed by violinist Tai Murray. She was originally scheduled to perform the Tchaikovsky Concerto, but Covid restrictions have made that impossible. Instead, she’ll be playing…Well, in a season full of surprises, that will be one more surprise.

Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org

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