By Wendell Leafstedt
On Sunday, Oct. 4, Lawrence music and theatre faculty members came together in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel to perform two similar works of chamber music: William Walton’s “Façade—An Entertainment” and Igor Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat,” featuring a rewritten libretto by J. Thomas and Julie Esch Hurvis Professor of Theatre and Drama and Professor of Theatre Arts Timothy Troy.
Both pieces featured a unique narration and an unusual combination of instruments. Earlier this year, the faculty members volunteered for the parts required for each piece. Each faculty recital showcases a different group of teachers and challenges them to work together as an ensemble.
Matthew Arau conducted “Façade—An Entertainment.” Instrumental musicians included Erin Lesser on flute and piccolo, David Bell on clarinet and bass clarinet, John Daniel on trumpet, Janet Anthony on cello, and Dane Richeson on percussion. Academy of Music and Teacher of Piano Linda Sparks and Associate Professor of Music Steven Spears performed the vocal part in alternation.
In this piece, composer William Walton set poems of Edith Sitwell, from her series “Façade,” to 22 brief movements. The movements were scored in a variety of ways. Walton mixed sounds to create the perfect backdrop for each poem.
Some movements’ titles gave away their designs easily—“Tango-Pasodoble,” “Polka” and “Waltz”—and some were more curious: “Lullaby for Jumbo,” “Black Mrs Behemoth” and “When Sir Beelzebub,” to name a few. While the music traveled through a variety of moods, its general tone was light.
Listeners might have found it difficult to focus their attention on any single aspect of “Façade.” What was important was what the individual parts did together. The vocal lines frequently matched the rhythm of another instrument, and the lower voices played off of each other to create an active accompaniment. The faculty involved in this piece made sure to showcase what makes the composition interesting.
The second piece on the program, “L’Histoire du Soldat”—or “The Soldier’s Tale”—involved 11 people: Matthew Arau as conductor, David Bell on clarinet, Carl Rath on bassoon, John Daniel on cornet, Nick Keelan on trombone, Samantha George on violin, Mark Urness on bass, Dane Richardson on percussion, and John Gates, Charlie Aldrich and Troy as speakers.
Stravinsky’s constantly pulsating piece traditionally includes three characters—the narrator, the soldier and the devil—and one or more dancers. The story is based on an old Russian parable. For this performance, Troy wrote a new, modernized libretto, which retains the theme of the original story while transporting the characters into Vietnam War-era America.
The core story is the same in both versions. The soldier sells his violin to the devil in exchange for fame, wealth and companionship. Eventually, the soldier realizes the error in his judgment and wins the violin back from the devil by deceiving him.
The characters deliver realistic lines in rhyme, conversing freely amongst one another. Sometimes, they speak without musical accompaniment. Other times, such as in “The Devil’s Song,” one character’s voice calls out over the angular ensemble sounds.
Here is a representative line from Troy’s modern script: “The cats who know / know when to say no / and when to join in / this human race we’re in.” Lines like these alongside familiar-sounding conversation combined to make a distinct style.
Stravinsky did not hold back when he wrote the instrumental parts for this piece. Frequently changing time signatures call for a conductor, and each performer had spent months learning his or her difficult part.
Assistant Professor of Music Education and Associate Director of Bands Matthew Arau led the ensemble through the toughest sections of the piece and cued the speakers for their mid-movement entrances. After the speaking roles, the violin part was most prominently featured. Facing the audience, Associate Professor of Music and Teacher of Violin Samantha George deftly bowed and plucked in coordination with other players.
“The Soldier’s Tale” and “Façade—An Entertainment” showed two different ways composers utilize spoken word in their pieces. The faculty ensembles demonstrated precise control of every note and motion. Hopefully, exposure to a new type of chamber work will inspire students to seek out and perform other pieces like these.