Lighthearted Storytelling in Words and Notes

Notes echoed words, and words echoed notes. The building blocks of sonic and narrative stories riffed, forming a cadence of their own.

These notes and words, presented by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra Chamber Players, interwove fluidly during a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat” in Paine Hall last Friday. Written in 1918 as World War I tore across Europe, Stravinsky’s piece unfolds a Russian folktale about a soldier who loses his violin to the devil, embarks on a quest to save a sick princess, and ultimately pays the price for trading the joy of music for wealth. The subject matter is rooted in fantasy, yet C.F. Ramuz’s repetitive libretto coupled with Stravinsky’s darker, dissonant music seems more representative of the piece’s real-world, historical context.

For the Chamber Players’ rendition, conductor Elias Miller ’16 recruited music professor Thomas Forrest Kelly as the narrator. Kelly in turn asked music professor Anne C. Shreffler to read the soldier’s lines and University organmaster and choirmaster Edward E. Jones to play both the devil and a mysterious old woman who also appears in the story. “Stravinsky says you have to have three people,” Jones said. Incorporating costume touches such as Shreffler’s red cap with gold filigree and Jones’s red capelet—actually a tiny Superman cape belonging to his son—the professors kept the storytelling light and entertaining.

“Marche du Soldat” (The Soldier’s March) anchored the soldier’s journey in rhythm and plot. The theme appeared three times in the piece—as the opening to Part I, right before the conclusion of Part I, and again as the opening to Part II. “Down a hot and dusty road / tramps a soldier with his load,” Kelly intoned, his voice gravelly with the weight of the soldier’s journey. On the heels of this narration, trumpet (played by Andrew Heath, the brass instructor at the Dedham School of Music) and trombone (played by Topher W. Colby ’20) kept the soldier’s pace and at times aggrandized the march to a triumphal one. The violin (played by NaYoung Yang ’18) and percussion (played by Kai Trepka ’20) undercut the soldier’s walking music with the edgy melodies of an anxiety-riddled homecoming.

After the soldier traded his violin for the devil’s book of secrets about attaining untold wealth, the soldier realized the bargain took more than the three days the devil had promised. “It wasn’t three days, I’ve lost three years,” Shreffler read, accentuating the frustrating and destabilizing passage of time. In the ensuing “Pastorale,” the clarinet (played by Erica L. Chang ’19) underlined the loss with soft, wistful notes. Words and notes worked in tandem here as an emotive, layered form of storytelling.

Throughout the program, the professors’ adapted libretto enhanced the music and the narrative with Harvard-specific references to engage the audience on a contemporary level. Bartering with the devil, for example, the soldier asks what kind of food the devil will share with him. “Mr. Bartley’s every meal,” Jones replied, smiling that his devil was familiar with Harvard Square establishments. Sheffler also made reference to a Harvard t-shirt carried in the soldier’s pack, and when it came time for the soldier to save the king’s sick daughter, narrator Kelly described the monarch’s desire for a Longwood-trained physician. “What they want is a Harvard M.D.,” Kelly said.

To make this long story short, music and narrative combined with humor from the present for an enjoyable and relaxing evening of sound and storytelling.

—Crimson staff writer Melissa C. Rodman can be reached at melissa.rodman@thecrimson.com. Follow them on Twitter @melissa_rodman.

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