A soldier, a violin, the devil and a princess are the central characters in a colorful story that will be told in words and music by members of the Vancouver Symphony and actor Kirk Mouser. They will team up for a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale” this Sunday afternoon at Kiggins Theatre.
Stravinsky wrote “A Soldier’s Tale” in 1918 when he was living in Switzerland but struggling financially because of World War I. To earn some cash, he created of a mobile theater piece that could be performed in small towns and villages. Keeping things simple, he wrote a score for just seven instruments: clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, violin, double bass and percussion.
Based on a folktale by Alexander Afanasiev, “A Soldier’s Tale” has a Faustian theme in which a soldier trades his beloved violin to the devil, who is in disguise, for a magical book. The soldier becomes very wealthy, but he loses his riches. In the process, he beats the devil in a card game and retrieves his fiddle, which he uses to cure an ill princess. They marry, and he drives the devil away by playing his violin. The devil warns him to stay away from his home town, but he visits it anyway, and falls into the clutches of the devil, who carries him off.
The ensemble will be led by Ken Selden, who teaches at Portland State University and directs the PSU Orchestra and its New Music Ensemble. Shelden knows “A Soldier’s Tale” well, having conducted it in New York City and at Marylhurst University.
“It’s a great piece of music and theater,” said Selden, “but it’s not commonly programmed. So it’s pretty rare to have an opportunity to perform it.”
If You Go
- What: Vancouver Chamber concert features Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale”
- When: 3 p.m. Sunday.
- Where: Kiggins Theatre, 1011 Main Street, Vancouver
- Cost: $25 for general admission, $10 for students.
Stravinsky’s music is tricky and requires a lot of concentration.
“The piece has many, many meter changes, and they are quite difficult to manage,” explained Selden. “In addition to various pieces of incidental music, there are three marches, a tango, a waltz and a ragtime. Stravinsky injects them with his characteristic rhythmic style, creating unexpected accents and juxtapositions, and total unpredictability which somehow he fits together perfectly. The dances in particular require tremendous rhythmic and instrumental virtuosity from the individual players. People have commented that what Stravinsky requires from the musicians is superhuman!”
The musician who has to play the most is violinist Eva Richey, concertmaster of the Vancouver Symphony.
“I only started preparing about a month and a half ago due to a very busy musical schedule as well as heavy involvement in my 4-year old’s preschool,” noted Richey. “The result has been completely immersing myself in the piece every day as much as possible. Even my son has been humming one of the passages while he plays with his toys!”
Richey has to whip through passages with many double stops, a devilish technique that requires playing pairs of notes at the same time with fingers on different strings.
“I find that Stravinsky writes for the violin in a way that is refreshing,” remarked Richey. “Yes, there are many passages where the violin has sixteenth-note double stops. In between some of the double stops are open-string double stops or a single note to make it playable at a quick tempo. The last movement has the violin playing very percussive notes. The double stops are very dissonant as to describe or represent the devil taking the solder’s wife away from him and ‘winning’ in the end. The sound is very cool!”
Bruce Dunn, principal trumpet of the Vancouver Symphony, is also looking forward to the concert.
“I’ve listened to ‘A Soldier’s Tale’ many times since I was in college,” Dunn said. “A couple of years ago a colleague performed it and I got a copy of the music and started learning it. I found out later that we were fortunate enough to be performing for the VSO Chamber series and I couldn’t be more excited.”
Because Dunn teaches music at Covington Middle School in Vancouver, he has to be creative about finding time to learn the music.
“I practice in my home studio as well as in my band room before I teach jazz band,” explained Dunn “Jazz band starts at 7 a.m., so I usually start practicing around 5:30 or 6 a.m.”
All of the characters in the story will be played by actor Kirk Mouser, who did a very successful interpretation of “Hamlet” with the Vancouver Symphony a few years ago.
“When I was approached about this project, I was immersed in the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ musical at Stumptown Stages,” Mouser said. “I played the duel personality of that character, and there are some parallels with ‘A Soldier’s Tale’ like the struggle between good and evil — the duality of the soldier and the devil.”
Mouser feels that the message in “A Soldier’s Tale” is valuable for everyone.
“Besides being anti-war piece,” added Mouser, “the story tells of how we are always planning to get more fame and wealth, but what is truly important to us is family and love. When we receive the things that we are striving for, we are quick to lose them, as well, and the price is your soul.”