The Mount Vernon Chamber Orchestra presented two significant 20th century works Saturday night at St. Louis Catholic Church in Alexandria, including Igor Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat" (The Story of a Soldier), which presents an allegory of human existence in its curious tale of a downtrodden soldier's deal with the devil.
The plot is full of twists and turns. At first the soldier seems to lose: He trades his old violin for a book containing future financial information, such as tomorrow's stock prices today, but for some unspecified reason does not use the information -- he just continues to tread wearily through life.
The devil then teaches him the value of the book, and the soldier becomes rich and meets a beautiful princess. To top it off, he wins his old violin back from the devil and masters the devil with his playing. He is finally safe and contented.
The only condition is that he not visit his native village. But, in a scene reminiscent of the myths of Orpheus or of Adam and Eve, the princess begs him to take her there. He does, and loses the violin to the devil, who then leads him away.
The tale is told in six scenes by a cast of four, three of whom speak (the princess is mute), with Stravinsky's wonderful music between and occasionally accompanying the scenes.
The work has been performed in many ways: as ballet, theater, mime, even a cartoon on videotape. In the Mount Vernon production, the actors had simple costumes and props, but there was no scenery. This kind of staging can work, but in this case there were problems. It seemed that the actors were improvising their movements. The soldier's wanderings were more than just aimless, they were random, and some scenes were played with the actors facing completely away from the audience. It desperately needed the hand and eye of a director (no director was credited on the program).
But individual performances did stand out. Charles Williams, as the narrator, told the tale with relaxed but clear diction and good sensitivity to the subtleties in the plot. Jan Forbes was an animated and raspy voiced devil, who gleefully took his prize in the end.
Orvel Lee's portrayal of the tired and world-weary soldier was unfocused and unconvincing, although he spoke well. Jeanne Forbes was suitably languorous in the small role of the princess.
The orchestra, made up for the most part of the volunteer group's principal players and conducted by Ulysses S. James, was excellent.
The instrumentation is unusual: violin, bass, clarinet bassoon, trumpet, trombone and percussion (all jazz instruments, which provided Stravinsky inspiration), but two dominate the texture: The important and extremely challenging violin part was played with fire and accuracy by Peter Haase, and James McKenzie's expressive trumpet added great poignancy to the odd but compelling story.
The program opened with Benjamin Britten's early "Sinfonietta, Opus 1," which was given a sparkling performance by the small ensemble (more conventional than for the Stravinsky). The style was angular and often dense (Euoropean contemporary, of 1932), but with lyrical and rhythmic elements that presaged Britten's mature, very personal style.
Conductor James kept a good pace and, except for a few ragged entrances, managed the ensemble well.