A Soldier's Tale, Revisited

Tuesday, April 6, 2010 ·

Musicians of The Cleveland Orchestra will join forces with GroundWorks DanceTheater and The Cleveland Play House to present a new production of Stravinsky's A Soldier's Tale, featuring a new libretto by Kurt Vonnegut. The performances April 22-25 are part of the Play House's fifth annual FusionFest. The following preview of A Soldier's Tale at FusionFest appears in program books of The Cleveland Orchestra.

A Soldier’s Tale
by Elaine Guregian

Is it possible to rewrite history? The answer is yes, if it is the history of a soldier, as told in a famous musical play by Igor Stravinsky.

A Soldier’s Tale (L’Histoire du Soldat) premiered in World War I-era Switzerland. From that 1918 premiere until 1993, audiences knew the work as a quirky piece for a narrator, instrumentalists, and actors, including a violin-wielding soldier who signs a pact with the devil. Igor Stravinsky’s jaunty score encourages the seven instrumentalists to play his dance-like writing with an in-your-face energy that has made this chamber work a classic.

A Soldier’s Tale continues to be performed in its original form, with a libretto by the Swiss writer C.F. Ramuz. But this month in Cleveland, FusionFest audiences will hear it in a recent version with words by American writer Kurt Vonnegut, whose style and very reason for writing were forged from his experience as a soldier in World War II. David Shimotakahara, artistic director of GroundWorks DanceTheater, is choreographing the work for these performances, April 22-25.

Early in his career, Vonnegut became famous for transforming his experience as a soldier who took shelter in an underground meat locker during the bombing of Dresden into a novel named after that shelter: Slaughterhouse-Five. Much later in Vonnegut’s life, the New York Philomusica (a chamber music organization in New York City) asked Vonnegut to write a new libretto to A Soldier’s Tale, bringing his own perspective to the tale.

In 1997, Seth Gordon (now associate artistic director of The Cleveland Play House) directed the premiere of A Soldier’s Tale with Vonnegut’s libretto. The 1997 version retains Stravinsky’s music but uses the characters of a Soldier, Military Policeman, General, and Red Cross Girl. Vonnegut based his soldier on the real-life Eddie Slovik, who became famous (through the book The Execution of Private Slovik) as the only American soldier since the Civil War to be executed for desertion.

“Kurt Vonnegut devoted his life, including his version of A Soldier’s Tale, to writing about the folly of war, the ridiculousness or even the silliness of the notion that we can accomplish something or even make ourselves a better society by slaughtering tens of thousands of people in that society,” Gordon says. “He’s not necessarily anti-war. He just said that we should never forget how stupid the notion of war is.”

Vonnegut’s version of A Soldier’s Tale became unavailable for a time due to a copyright dispute, so Gordon is especially excited that he is able to direct it now for FusionFest performances. (A recording of the Vonnegut version, under the slightly altered title of An American Soldier’s Tale, is available on the Summit label.)

Cleveland actors will play the four roles. Gordon sees the April performances with assistant conductor Tito Muñoz and musicians from The Cleveland Orchestra, and artistic director David Shimotakahara and dancers from GroundWorks DanceTheater as a chance to take the FusionFest concept — now in its fifth year — one step further in terms of richness of collaboration.

“My hope is that as you watch the whole thing unfold, you won’t necessarily be able to discern where the music is, where the choreography is, and where the direction is . . . it’ll be all of the performers working together in a way that FusionFest has never yet been able to accomplish before,” he said.

Stravinsky’s choice of instruments to play in A Soldier’s Tale is a distinctively bright, sometimes raucous, blending of winds, strings, and percussion. In 2006, composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen (then music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic) created a companion piece called Catch and Release, using the same instrumentation: clarinet, bassoon, trumpet (substituting for the original cornet), trombone, percussion, violin, and double bass. Salonen’s 22-minute, three-movement piece premiered in Finland in 2006.

Catch and Release shares the FusionFest bill with A Soldier’s Tale, with each work presented by members of The Cleveland Orchestra and GroundWorks. The dancers of GroundWorks will perform Shimotakahara’s choreography for Catch and Release with a video created by video artist Kasumi — a faculty member of the Cleveland Institute of Art — and lighting by GroundWorks lighting designer Dennis Dugan.

Shimotakahara says of Catch and Release, “It’s dynamic, it’s so moving — I was immediately attracted to it. It made me think of a lot of old movie scores. It was almost like seeing a collage of all these wonderful moments from different old films.”

Shimotakahara has responded to Salonen’s writing as a powerful generator of movement and images about moments of experience and the things we cannot hold. The dance promises to be a vibrant companion to A Soldier’s Tale.

FusionFest presents A Soldier's Tale and Catch and Release, April 22-25 (Thursday and Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 5:00 p.m., and Sunday at 4:00 p.m.), at the Baxter Theatre, Cleveland Play House.

Click here to listen to Cleveland Orchestra Assistant Conductor Tito Muñoz, Cleveland Play House Associate Director Seth Gordon, and GroundWorks DanceTheater Artistic Director David Shimotakahara talk about the new production.

For more information, please visit clevelandplayhouse.com.


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