Curtis 20/21's All-Stravinsky concert

Learning from a master

Effron: Swishes of the hips.
Effron: Swishes of the hips.

Igor Stravinsky's piercingly brilliant 1918 chamber work, L'Histoire du soldat, is best known in a purely instrumental version, but it was conceived as a small-scale stage work, with narration, acting and dancing. That version was presented by a band of superb young Curtis players, augmented by a pair of professional dancers and narrator John De Lancie.

This was a rare performance of the work's original construction, and despite some odd aspects of the production and some technical issues with the ensemble, it served as a wonderful illumination of the composer's large vision for the seemingly modest venture. For those in the audience who, like me, have long loved this music, the performance added permanent depth to the way we will hear this music going forward.

Let's get the glitches out of the way. First, to the source.

Stravinsky's adaptation of a Russian folk version of the classic Faustian legend strikes me as dramatically diffuse. The plot line skips ahead with jaunty indifference to the massive gaps in any semblance of a logical sequence of events.

De Lancie (yes, he is the son of the late Curtis director John De Lancie Sr.) is a decent enough actor, but his voice picked up a distracting sibilance in the Pearlman acoustics that made his narration over the music somewhat grating. This wasn't much of a problem when he spoke alone.

Much of the dancing was delightful. Beau Hancock had the most stage presence, and he was joined by the program's choreographer, Bronwen MacArthur, toward the end of the piece. MacArthur, whose eponymous dance troupe includes Hancock, had the protagonist spend the bulk of his time gracefully marching around the stage with loping gaits consisting of an endless series of right angles, as if he was slicing up giant pieces of cornbread. Finally, when MacArthur took to the stage, in the role of the Princess, the dancing lit up, and the drama that was already consistently threading through the musicians found concrete theatrical expression.

Effron's body language

The evening's conductor, David Effron, coaxed a kind of focused joy out of his beautiful young creatures. His feet firmly planted, he sent his complex rhythmic directions out with his whole body, with a basic beat delivered with his hands, conveying secondary pulses with quick dips of his shoulders and evincing yet more subtleties with little swishes of his hips.

Stravinsky throws an extraordinarily diverse range of influences — including early jazz, folk material, church hymns and Renaissance dance — into a breathtakingly concise package, and I cannot recall hearing it performed with as much pungent clarity and disciplined vigor.

More delights remained in the first half of this all-Stravinsky program. The evening opened with the composer's late in life (1962) chamber music adaptation of his youthful children's piano work, Les cinq doigts. This music is superficially simple, elegantly pared down to just the sounds that the composer deemed necessary, and not a note too many.

The performance, while beautiful in tone, seemed a tad under-rehearsed, and presented with a kind of expressive phrasing that the music did not need.

Like Kandinsky paintings

My sister-in-law, Susan Alyson Stein, who is curator for European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, once told me that if you hold your hand in front of a Kandinsky painting and block out any section, the whole composition falls apart, because the individual components are so closely knit together. So it is with Stravinsky.

His exquisite 1952 arrangement of a string quartet that he originally wrote in 1920, reconfigured as a Concertino for Twelve Instruments, is like a handmade watch that stops working even if you remove one tiny gear. No other composer other than Mozart wrote with such precision, which might explain why the audience for this concert was rife with local composers, paying homage and continuing to learn from a master.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.