Adeal with the devil hits town

Published on Thu, Aug 12, 2004
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A deal with the devil hits town

by Sandy Wolf

In 1918, a relatively young Igor Stravinsky and his equally destitute poet friend, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz collaborated on a traveling show to line their pockets shortly after World War I. Holed up in Switzerland, cut off from royalties and access to their principal supporters, they dreamed up a bare-bones production for the villages of war-torn Europe where the tale of a tired, discouraged young soldier who exchanges honor for wealth would have universal appeal and perhaps yield some income. The score, considered one of the seminal works of the 20th century, reflects the moods of the protagonist and Stravinsky’s genius in powerful, jazzy, and unique musical language.

The New Orleans Dixieland Jazz Band, traveling through Europe at the time, indirectly influenced Stravinsky. In his autobiography, the composer notes though he’d not heard them play in person he was aware of their instrumentation. Perhaps, then, it is appropriate that the Bellingham Festival of Music’s first foray into our little “village” should include a young director’s production of “L’Histoire du Soldat.” Though not generally considered the cultural seat of Whatcom County, Blaine’s streets still echo with the sounds of a recent jazz festival. Though written originally in French, “The Soldier’s Tale” will be presented in English.
The cast will march to a distinguished drummer, Patrick Roulet, accompanied by principal players from some of the most notable ensembles of America and Europe, including Richard Roberts, concertmaster of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Whitney Crockett, principal bassoon of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

The venue, Blaine’s Performing Arts Center, is anything but rural in character, but Stravinsky and Ramuz would delight in this fully staged, beautifully danced and costumed production. The hour-long, folk-inspired musical drama will illuminate soldier Joe’s encounter with the devil who manages to buy his fiddle (a symbol of his soul) in exchange for a magical book that can make him rich. We’ll share the young deserter’s exaltation when he manages to take back his fiddle, restore the health of a beautiful princess and win her hand in marriage. We’ll mourn his discovery that he can buy everything, except “that which cannot be bought,” and he cannot outwit Satan even by abandoning his ill-gained wealth.

When I learned the Bellingham Festival of Music was not sending its artistic director, Michael Palmer, to conduct L’Histoire, I feared Blaine was being slighted. However, I changed my opinion after a lively lunch with Whitney Reader, who will wave his baton over the distinguished chamber orchestra. Reader, who recently earned his master’s degree in conducting from Wichita State University, has all the verve and passion of a young Stravinsky.As intended by Stravinsky and Ramuz, the orchestra sits on a platform, sharing the stage with the actors. Last May, in Kansas, Mr. Reader directed the piece, produced by Marie Allyn King, director of Wichita State University’s opera and musical theater programs. King plays the role of the devil in the Blaine production as well, and Sabrina Vasquez repeats her dancing role of the princess, which she choreographed. The narrator, Drew Tombrello is a recent addition to the theater faculty at WSU and an accomplished actor with Broadway credits. Yannic Dozier, the only student in the cast, plays the soldier with a powerful and endearing naiveté. Reader exudes enthusiasm when he discusses his players. “They exhibit a dynamic combination of expertise, experience,” he muses. In fact, Reader confesses during rehearsals he is frequently compelled to turn away from his orchestra to watch the action on stage

Like Stravinsky, Whitney Reader hails from a musical family. Seven siblings play various instruments, and his father interrupted his medical training to play the organ in Germany, prior to becoming a cardiologist. Young Whitney began playing the piano at five, earned an undergraduate degree in violin performance, and then completed his training as a conductor under the tutelage of Michael Palmer. Fresh out of graduate school, Reader’s already landed a position as substitute conductor with the Sarasota Opera Company..

Whatcom County residents should turn out in droves to support this production, followed by performances of Prokofiev’s Rhapsody on Hebrew Themes and Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro, also conducted by Whitney Reader. Let’s convince the Bellingham Festival of Music to make Blaine’s PAC a regular venue for their superb concert series.
Although Blaine’s Pacific Arts Association promoted “L’Histoire du Soldat” on the 2004/2005 brochure, tickets for the concert are not included in the series. The $20 tickets will be available at the door or they may be purchased from the Mount Baker Theatre box office by phone, fax, mail, or online. Phone 734-6080, fax 671-0114 or go online at www.mountbakertheatre.com. While online, check out the other great events the Bellingham Music Festival is producing from now through August 22.