A stellar Curtis group sticks with Stravinsky

Posted: January 26, 2012

The Curtis 20/21 ensemble probably could perform near-impossible feats with ultramodernist scores by the likes of Helmut Lachenmann and Wolfgang Rihm. But at Tuesday's concert in the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater (presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society), this crack group of Curtis Institute students chose not to do so, instead offering an all-Stravinsky program that felt, relatively speaking, like a nice, warm bath.

The first half was the seldom-heard 1952 Concertino for Twelve Instruments and 1962 Eight Instrumental Miniatures, both written for chamber ensembles dominated by wind instruments, and both having numerous similarities to the main work on the program, L'Histoire du soldat (1918).

One tends to think that Stravinsky went from period to period - neoclassic one decade, serial in another - without looking back. However, the Concertino and Miniatures suggest that certain instrumental combinations dictated particular responses from the composer, regardless of the period.

The playful charm of L'Histoire echoed through the later works. The Miniatures in particular were often lovely, incessantly witty and having an overall sense of a genius composer who has conquered the world, has nothing more to prove, and is just having fun. The Concertino is a bit more severe and sophisticated, and no less interesting.

Turning to L'Histoire, one fundamental difference is that it's a theater work, and was presented with narration by John de Lancie Jr. and minimalist choreography by Bronwen MacArthur. The key player, though, was guest conductor David Effron, a seasoned opera conductor and superb technician who gave each gesture a specific personality and strongly delineated physicality. The score can seem a bit redundant, given that the parable it characterizes often doubles back on itself, returning to where it started. However, Effron located all the subtle, often-buried differences.

Theatrically, de Lancie (son of the onetime director of the Curtis Institute) was a near-ideal narrator, encompassing the numerous different voices and characters in the story without any hammy voice modification. He did it all with inflection. Also, the deal-with-a-devil story, in which a soldier trades his violin for a book that will make him rich, had plenty of modern resonance in a world of corporate bonuses in which people seem to make millions simply by existing.

The choreographic element initially seemed so minimal that it barely existed. Then came the extended pas de deux between the soldier and his wife (danced by MacArthur and Beau Hancock), a fairly magical fusion of traditional ballet and children at play. Nice!


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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