Stravinsky’s ‘The Soldier’s Tale’ retold

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The Soldier pleads, implores to the Devil for the return of his violin which he had traded in earlier and the Devil now stoutly refuses to return it and the quandary continues. And every scene has varying orchestral music.

L’Histoire du Soldat (1918) (Translated ‘The Soldier’s Tale’) is a theatrical work which has "read, play, and dance" by three characters and one or several dancers, accompanied by a septet of instruments. The piece was conceived by Igor Stravinsky and Swiss writer C. F. Ramuz based on a Russian folk tale (The Runaway Soldier and the Devil) drawn from the collection of Alexander Afanasyev.

Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) the Russian-born composer, pianist and conductor made a revolutionary impact on musical thought and his compositions were noted for their stylistic sensibility and as a promise of modernism.

This theatrical piece has music scored for seven instruments – violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone and percussion. It incorporates elements of jazz (which was just beginning to emerge into the mainstream) with tango rhythms, marches and a waltz. The story is told by actors playing the parts of the Soldier, the Devil, and a Narrator. A dancer plays the non-speaking part of the Princess. The violin represents the Soldier’s soul and the percussion, the machinations of the Devil.

As in the original, the piece began with the music March du Soldat (Soldier’s March) befitting a deserting soldier and closed with March Triomphale du Diable (Triumphant March of the Devil) where violin slowly fades out and only percussion is heard getting louder representing triumph of the Devil.

Why pick this play?

Adrian Chiang, the music conductor for the event is one of the leading conductors of his generation and Music Director for many well established wind ensembles including Philharmonic Youth Winds in Singapore explained,

“This is the first time I am undertaking this project. It’s also been known that this piece is of a very high level for musicians and conductors and I think we looked upon it as a fantastic learning opportunity for ourselves to do it, and to do it well.

The idea of performing the piece was actually the brainchild of our violinist Liuyi. She was the one that gathered her musician friends, and we got together to put the music together. Initially the plan was to do it without the staging but as rehearsals progressed, I felt that this could be done better if we had the people to act the roles. Hence we got in Kamini and William, two friends with whom I had the fortune to work with previously on another project. They agreed to help us and we worked even harder to put things together.” 

William Ledbetter – facilitator, host , actor and educator, who has worked with many art music ensembles in Singapore , and has participated in over 100  plays in his 35 years of professional experience was impressive in the role of the Devil.

Relating why he took up the role William detailed, 

“I first heard the suite from L'Histoire du Soldat during the Igor Stravinsky centennial celebration at Tanglewood (USA) in 1982.  I was floored by the way Stravinsky made use of such limited instrumentation to create such a rich palette of sound.  As a young trumpet player it became a goal of mine to one day be good enough to play in this piece.  

Life creates challenge and change.  I quit my life as a professional musician, and trained to be a professional actor.  At this time I was introduced to the 1975 recording of 'L'Histoire', performed by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players.  I loved John Geilgud's 'Narrator' but it was Tom Courtenay as the 'Devil' who really stole the show, as it were.  I listened to that recording over and over until it was literally worn out.  And Courtenay's interpretation of the Devil – both in pace and character choice – was a strong influence in my own performance.”

And William added, “I have listened to the recording of this piece perhaps 200-300 times, so the words and the rhythms were deeply embedded in my soul over the last 25 years,”

Kamini Ramachandran the ace Storyteller in her inimitable style took the role of the Narrator. In the story the narrator almost merges as a character giving ‘good advice’ to the Soldier.

The musicians were all senior students from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (YSTCM), currently either in Year 3 or 4 with Adrian pursuing his Masters in Music (conducting) at YSTCM. And the actors for Soldier and Princess were students of Voice Program at the Conservatory of Music.

And William very nicely described his experience of participating in the play…..

“This play as in others followed a pattern:  Excitement-Terror; Discovery-Anxiety; Fear-Creativity; Professionalism-Ecstasy.  The first stage is the joy that comes with being entrusted to perform a great work, and the terror that time and talent will not be sufficient.  Next comes the process of developing the piece – the discovery of the creative process, and the anxiety that there won't be time for the creativity to be sufficiently explored.  Thirdly, the fear that comes when realization sets in that there simply will not be enough time to make it 'perfect, and the creativity that bubbles up from this pressure.  And finally the professionalism that sets aside fear and doubt, and replaces these with connection and story-telling.  And the ecstasy that descends upon the performer upon completion of something that was very difficult, and the knowledge that the audience has been part of a great performance.”

So with 4 rehearsals with the musicians, followed by 3 more with the actors, the piece proved an extravagant indulgence for the audience.

The Conservatory of Music has many shows organised every month. The piece was showcased at the Orchestral Hall at YSTCM (NUS) on 13th of February 2015.

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