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A Musical Deal With The Devil

A Musical Deal With The Devil
Stravinsky created "A Soldier's Tale" as a road show, with a pared down ensemble that included actors and dancers. UCSD's Camera Lucida will keep their version on the stage. We'll talk with the musicians and performers behind this musical tale of a deal with the devil.

Camera Lucida Concert

Camera Lucida performs on Monday, March 14th at 8pm at Conrad Prebys Concert Hall on the campus of UCSD.

Stravinsky created "A Soldier's Tale" as a road show, with a pared down ensemble that included actors and dancers. UCSD's Camera Lucida will keep their version on the stage. We'll talk with the musicians and performers behind this musical tale of a deal with the devil.



Charles Curtis is a cellist and professor of music at UCSD. He's a founding member of Camera Lucida.

Dr. Seth Lerer is the Dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of California, San Diego. He will perform the character of The Devil in Camera Lucida's performance of Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. A performance that combines music, the spoken word, and a Russian fairy tale is featured at this month's Camera Lucida retail at UCSD. The Stravinsky's the soldier's tale, other Stravinsky works in favor of a dramatic narrative of a scaled back musical ensemble, we'll hear why the great composer made those choices and why the Camera Lucida players are excited about this performance of the soldier's tale. But before I introduce my guests, let's hear a little of the music. This is the Scottish chamber orchestra performing the beginning of the Solider's Tale. The opening is called soldier's march.

That's just an excerpt from the beginning of the Solider's Tale by Stravinsky, and it's going to be featured at the next Camera Lucida retail at UCSD. Now I'd like to introduce my guests, Charles Curtis is a cellist and professor of music at UCSD. He's a founding member of Camera Lucida, Charles, good morning.

CURTIS: Hi, Maureen. Nice to see you again.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Doctor Seth Lerer is the dean of arts and humanities at the University of California, San Diego. He will perform the character of the devil in the performance of Stravinsky's the soldier's tale. Seth, welcome, thanks for coming in.

LERER: Thank you. Thank you very much.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Charles, the Solider's Tale was actually a piece that Stravinsky actually planned to take on the road.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We usually don't think of composers taking works on the road. Why was that?

LERER: Well, this was the end of the first world war, I think the date was 1917, and Europe was kind of in a shambles. And in refuge, Stravinsky is living in Switzerland, which was a neutral country, and at that time sort of a haven for draft dodgers, weirdos, Dadaists, and artists, you know, Bohemians, and I think he wanted to make some money, and he had this strange fantasy that he could create a small compact piece with very lien instrumentation and put it in a truck like a pickup truck or wagon and go from village to village and set up on the town square, and do this sort of theatrical production, and people would stand there and watch it. I think that was the idea.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Put this if you would, in context with Stravinsky's orchestral works in terms of where he was. He was in Russia when he composed fire bird and rate of string right?

LERER: Uh-huh.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So why was he in Switzerland now?

LERER: Well, you know, he had moved to Paris. And I think of him at that point as being mostly a Parisian composer and part of this sort of milieu of artists, composers, and especially dancers and the ballet in Paris, Diaghilev, and so on. So I think the smartest thing for him to do at that point was to get across the border into Switzerland because of neutrality of it. The other thing that happens at this moment is the Bolshevik revolution, so in other way, Stravinsky is really cut off from the Russia that he knew growing up.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So he is basically in Switzerland sort of taking refuge there and deciding to present a concert like this on the road. So because of the touring ambitions, is that why it has this sort of scaled back instrumentation?

LERER: Yeah, you notice it doesn't even have a piano in it. The piano would have been too cumber as much to put on the truck right?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yeah, exactly. Did this touring -- did his hoping of touring with this work out at all?

LERER: No, no, in fact when it was first performed, the audience didn't really like it that much.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Oh. It's sad to hear that.

LERER: I think they were very surprised by this piece. And it's a surprising piece. And even today, performing it, it's arresting of it's a dazzling and also slightly disturbing piece.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: There are four speaking parts in the Solider's Tale.

LERER: Three, I think.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are there three?

LERER: As I understand it, there are three. Seth?

CURTIS: Well, we have three speaking parts, we have a narrator, we have a soldier, and we have the devil. And I'll just correct that I was originally cast as the devil because the belief was the dean should be the devil. But we in the course of our rehearsals realized that at this point in the university of California deans are really more like obedient soldiers than manipulative devils. So I'm actually playing the role of the soldier.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, that's a bigger part, isn't it?

CURTIS: It's bigger part, it's a different kind of part, and it's a younger part. And at this stage of my life, anything that I can do to play a younger part I'm happy about.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Which of you would like to tell us the story of the Solider's Tale? Charles?

LERER: I think Seth would like to.

CURTIS: I think the short version is this, for anyone coming to this for the first time, they should realize this is a very traditional story. It's the temptation of a man by the devil, it's a story of a soldier, but it's story of an everyman. And of course, it's the bargain with the devil. And the key point at least for me is when the soldier realizes that once he has sold his soul and has everything, he really in fact has nothing because everyone is happy except him.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, this narrative is taken from a poem, isn't it?

CURTIS: Well, the narrative is poetic, and the important thing to understand is that in our English translation it scans and it rhymes. And so anybody listening to this will be really listening to poetry performed aloud.

LERER: The one little thing I would add is that the crucial exchange is of a violin for a book. And the book is kind of a prescient symbol, because it is the book that enables the soldier to buy stocks at the price they will have three days later. So it's a kind of a insider trading -- magical insider trading manual.

CURTIS: That's right. It's anal gore of giving up art for commerce.

LERER: There it is.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see. And who wrote this originally for Stravinsky.

LERER: I think it's a fairy tale, it's a Russian folk tale. Of.

CURTIS: It's originally a fairy tale, and there are collaborators, but the English version that we're using is in fact based on a version that was translated by Michael Flanders who was of the team of Flanders and Swan, the great English satiric group of the '50s and 60s. It sounds a little like Doctor Seuss, it sounds a little like a contemporary poetry, it sounds a little like Edward Lear at times.

LERER: Indeed, yeah.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Will you read a bit of your part for us?

CURTIS: I would be delighted. And I'll just read shortly, this is to me the crux of the moment. It's the end of part one when the soldier realizes that even though he has sold everything and has now all of his wealth, he really has nothing. And he says "they have nothing. And yet they have it all. And I who have everything, I have nothing. Nothing. How can that be? Satan, Satan, you've cheated me! What can I do? Does it say in the book? He snatches it up and starts to look. "You must know, you must know, tell me how, everyone, how all others are happy. How is it done? You must know, you must know. You must tell me. Explain! What can I do to have nothing again?" I pause there just to say that you can hear the Seussian rhymes, you can hear the poignancy, and it's the blend of humor and paths on that makes this just a compelling performance.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That was an excerpt of the narrative of the soldier's tale, it's a piece by Stravinsky which is going to be performed by cam radio Lucida at UCSD. It was performed here by doctor Seth Lerer, he's going to by taking on the role of the soldier, he is the dean of art and humanities at the university of California San Diego. And Charles Curtis is also here, and professor of music the UCSD, and founding member of Camera Lucida. You know, Charles, you told us that this was a very different piece for Stravinsky, and that he tried to get audiences involved in this sort of different vision and they didn't go along with him. But what are the elements that translate from this piece to the larger musical body that Stravinsky created?

LERER: Well, I think one of the things that happens here in Stravinsky's music is he's moving to -- this is a sort of a hint of what is coming in his classical phase, in his neoclassical phase. And he starts to sort of persiflage older styles.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What does that mean?

LERER: Oh, well, he kind of samples, we could use a more up-to-date term, he samples older styles. There's a great chorale in here what is really -- basically straight from Bach, only it's sort of blown up with this strange instrumentation and some of harmonies are changed. And he has a ragtime and he has a tango and he has a waltz, and he has military marches, and he has other sorts of dances, and these are all styles that he's kind of copied and distorted in funny ways. And so I think that leads into the next phase of Stravinsky's production. And that's really the modernist thing that's the really very kind of contemporary thing that Stravinsky does. And it is related to sampling, as a matter of fact, and to distorting things.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's fascinating. Now, does -- is this a real departure for a chamber music ensemble to be able to play something from Stravinsky?

LERER: Oh, no, I would not say. It's kind of -- for Camera Lucida, are we see our basic area of focus as, you know, the great nineteenth century chamber music tradition. Of and on this problem, we also have a very beautiful Bach gamba sonata for viola and harpsichord. [CHECK] that we as Camera Lucida focus on from the baroque to the early modern of so these are, you know, not to say that chamber music doesn't extend beyond Stravinsky. It does very much so.


LERER: But there's a particular nineteenth century have been tradition, a whole culture around chamber music, which is what we're interested in exploring as Camera Lucida.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, there is -- we're going to be playing another short excerpt from a soldier's tale, and this is from the devil's dance. Can you tell us where that is in the piece and a little bit about it?

LERER: Well, the devil gets into this frantic dance, which actually temporarily disables him.

CURTIS: That's exactly right.

LERER: Temporarily kills him.

CURTIS: And one of the things that I think your listeners will want to listen for is the way in which the devil's dance is one of the most interesting things for all musicians throughout history, Liszt's Mephisto waltz, Faust. People coming to the concert or listening now should hear the devil's dance in the context of all of that.

LERER: The death dance, the [CHECK].

CURTIS: The dance of death, and imagining that. And so it really is a high .2 thirds of the way through the performance.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's hear a little segment, this again is Scottish chamber orchestra. That is an excerpt from the devil's dance issue it's part of Stravinsky's a soldier's tale. That piece performed by the Scottish chamber orchestra, but the entire soldier's tale going to be performed by Camera Lucida on its next concert on Monday night. And I'm just wondering, Seth, did you decide to play the role of the soldier not only because it's a younger part, but because you didn't want to do the research for the devil?

CURTIS: Well, as someone in my field, which was literary studies.


CURTIS: I would not have needed to do extra research for the devil. But I felt that casting against type would be simply more effective.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Very nice very nice. How much of this have you done, performance wise?

CURTIS: Well, I've done a lot of performing, and certainly as a literature professor and someone who specializes in earlier historical literature, I'm always reading aloud, I've spent a great deal of time teaching Chaucer and Shakespeare, works that were all read aloud.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Certainly, yes.

CURTIS: And so I'm very acutely aware of what it means to perform in public. And so I'm very excited with this opportunity with the members of the San Diego symphony, the UCSD faculty, the core group at Camera Lucida to have this opportunity.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, who are performing the other parts then, Charles?

LERER: Well, we have Steven Schick, Mark Dresser from the UCSD faculty, and Alec Carris will be conducting the ensemble. [CHECK] Valentine Marchef on bassoon, and let's see, I forgot Anthony Burg, we also use his [CHECK] Trumpet player coming in from New York, Peter Evans, [CHECK] Carl Covington on the trombone. So it's a very balanced group between San Diego symphony and UCSD.

CURTIS: And our speaking parts, Eleanor Anton, LA professor of art will be playing the devil, and Norman Briceon will be playing the narrator. And both of them have very distinctive speaking voices, regional accents, and a great deal of stage presence.

LERER: And both extremely distinguished in their fields.

CURTIS: Absolutely.

LERER: Norman [CHECK] Eleanor is a legendary performance artist and conceptual artist.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That sounds fascinating. Tell us a little more of how you're gonna be rounding out this program. You said you were gonna be doing a piece by Bach.

LERER: It's just the two works, so the first half of the program will be the Bach gamba sonaata, then there'll be a little intermission with a nice reception in the foyer of Conrad Prebys concert, which I'd like to add is one of the most beautiful chamber music halls in the country, if not the world. And then after those -- that moment of relaxation and nutritional reinforcement, we'll come back in and hear the entire Soldier's Tale, which is almost an hour long.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you so much for coming in and telling us, it's really a fascinating story. Of and I think this is gonna be a very productive collaboration. Thank you so much.

CURTIS: Well, thank you. It's been a pleasure.

LERER: Thank you so much.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with doctor Charles Curtis. [CHECK] on the campus of UCSD. Now, KPBS f.m. will also rebroadcast this concert as part of our Camera Lucida series, you can see complete listings at If you'd like to comment, please go on-line, Days. Coming up, it's the weekend preview here on KPBS.