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Stravinsky's The Soldiers Tale Production Reborn

The Buffalo Chamber Players

The Buffalo Chamber Players, a group consisting mainly of musicians from the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra along with talented local free-lancers, gave their first concert at the Buffalo Seminary in 2007. Since that time, the BCP has quickly established itself as one of the leading presenters of innovative classical music programs in Western New York. One of the hallmarks of the group has been its presentation of neglected works of the repertoire that call for unusual instrumental and vocal forces, as in their recent all-Brahms program, where the Freudig singers joined the BCP in a vrare performance of Begräbnisgesang for Chorus, 12 Wind Instruments and Timpani.

Igor Stravinsky

Wednesday, May 27 at 7pm, the BCP presents their most ambitious program to date, a recreation of a fully staged 1951 production of Stravinsky’s 1918 work, The Soldier’s Tale (L’histoire du soldat). The 1951 Buffalo premiere of the work was a joint production of the Buffalo Seminary, the Grosvenor Library music department, and the Albright Art School, whose students created the sets and costumes designed by Buffalo artist Martha Visser’t Hooft. Then BPO Music Director William Steinberg conducted, and actors from the Studio Theater joined the seven-member ensemble of BPO musicians in the performance. There was a free, full dress rehearsal, on Thursday, May 17, in keeping with the Grosvenor Library tradition of not charging admission to cultural events.

The Friday performance was both a major fund-raising effort for the BPO and a society event, reported as such in the Buffalo Evening News, with tickets selling for the then high price of $10 (equivalent to more that $80 today). The performances were well received; the News reported that on both nights the “audiences could not restrain their enthusiasm and showered ‘bravos’ as well as applause upon Mr. Steinberg, the cast and the orchestra.”

When Janz Castelo, artistic director of the BCP, decided to program The Soldier’s Tale, he started to do some research on the local production history of the work, discovering material about the 1951 premiere, as well as examples of the costume design and set design. He was surprised to learn that the Buffalo Seminary, home base for the BCP, was the venue for the original production. Additional research by local modern art dealer Dean Brownrout, who is the sponsor of the current revival, resulted in the discovery of other material related to the production, allowing a recreation of the original design settings and costumes. The discovery of a copy of the original program led Castelo to contact retired BPO violinist Matthew Tworek, now an octogenarian, and who played the violin part in the 1951 production. Tworek related that then BPO concertmaster Max Miller was busy learning and playing the Khachaturian Violin Concerto, so both Miller and Steinberg asked Tworek to play the all-important violin part in the work, with his practicing of some of the more discordant, “devilish” sections of the work alarming his neighbors.

The performers in the new production are Amy Glidden (violin), Daniel Pendley (bass), Patti DiLutis (clarinet), Ellen Barnum (bassoon), Alex Jokipii (trumpet), Jonathan Lombardo (trombone), and Dinesh Joseph (percussion).

Though written for a small ensemble, The Soldier’s Tale is an intricately counterpointed, rhythmically variable work, most often led by a conductor. Challenging convention, the Buffalo Chamber Players have chosen to perform the work without a conductor. Members of the Buffalo Soundpainting Ensemble, and its director, Christian Brandjes, will take the acting roles, with Brandjes as the narrator and Todd Benzin as the soldier. In an unusual bit of casting, three different actors will portray the devil, in his various guises: Jen Fitzery, Toni Smith-Wilson, and Susan Drozd, with Drozd also taking the non-speaking role of the princess.

The concert will begin with a performance by Amy Licata (violin) and Roland E. Martin (piano) of selections from Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, drawn from his 1920 ballet Pulcinella. Based on music by the 18th-century composer Pergolesi and others, Pulcinella is Stravinsky’s first full-scale neo-classical composition, expanding on some of the elements first explored in The Soldier’s Tale. Working with several of the musicians, the ensemble will also present an example of the art of “soundpainting,” the gestural or sign language developed by Walter Thompson to sculpt improvisational performance.

Stravinsky, already a well-known composer due to the success of his three ballets, The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, spent the war years in neutral Switzerland, renouncing his Russian citizenship after the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917. Early in 1918, with dwindling financial resources, Stravinsky, working in collaboration with the Swiss-French novelist Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, came up with the idea of creating a travelling theater work about a soldier who barters his soul, in the form of his violin, with the devil for immense wealth. Stravinsky found the story, “The Runaway Soldier and the Devil,” in an anthology of folk stories collected by the Russian anthropologist Alexander Afanasyev, which he had inherited from his father Fyodor, regarded as the finest bass-baritone in Russia. He translated the original story into French for Ramuz, who then created his own version, also in French. Forced by economic necessity, the composer relied on using the same small number of instruments, with the exception of the bassoon, found in the eastern European village bands that he remembered from his youth.

The initial idea was to set up outdoor performances in small towns, but this proved impracticable, and a series of theaters were booked throughout French-speaking Switzerland. In the event, the premiere performance in Lausanne in September 1918 was the only performance of the original production. The Spanish influenza epidemic, which killed millions, hit the company hard, canceling all other planned performances. The much-revised work went on to have a life of its own, and the music from it is now heard most often in the form of a suite for instruments alone. Concert performances, usually with one actor speaking all the parts, as in the fine performance given locally a couple of years back by Paul Todaro with A Musical Feast, are the usual way that audiences hear the entire work. Fully staged performances, like that of the Buffalo Chamber Players, are very rare.

Doors open at 6pm, performance at 7pm. Tickets are $15 general admission, $5 for students. For more information, visit

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