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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

James M. Stephenson, The Devil's Tale

Something today rather unusual, a kind of sequel to Stravinsky's chamber-and-narrative classic "L'Histoire du Soldat," namely James M. Stephenson and his The Devil's Tale (Ravello 7906). It essentially gives us Stravinsky's "Soldat" in reverse, as far as plot goes. There is no fiddle, instead the main character is a musician in a Las Vegas show band, his girlfriend a Vegas dancer, the devil a blackjack dealer. We get a plot where the devil loses, in a kind of symmetrical reversal of the Stravinsky.

I've said my peace about works with extensive non-sung narratives. I generally dislike the approach. Here the dialog tells the story effectively enough. Narrator Matt Bean is called upon to play all three characters. He is no Laurence Olivier doing "Hamlet," but let me just bracket all that. It is fundamental to a reverse "Soldat" and so it is there. But it is not the strength of the work.

What captures my fancy about the piece is the music. Stephenson manages to convey the period essence, the early Jazz-ish strains of the Stravinsky, the neo-classic elegance and brilliance of the original piece, and make a modern-day analogue that fascinates and enthralls. The seven-member Western Illinois University Faculty Chamber Players under Mike Fansler do an excellent job realizing the score.

Stephenson not only understands the essence of the Stravinsky, he recaptures it and creates a vivid rejoiner. If the music reminds a bit of period Weill as well, so much the better.

The rhymed narrative-play has of course an essential role in the totality. I have followed along in my listens and must say it is quite adequate, though again perhaps a Laurence Olivier would put it all together in a more convincing way. But the music is quite nice and well performed. So we get a good idea of Stephenson's gestalt. And the music triumphs!

If you love "L'Histoire du Soldat" this will give you pleasure. Even without knowing the original there is much to please. Something different!

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