Soundbox / The devil went down to Tel Aviv
On the stage are three pairs of contrasting musical instruments - the high and the low of families of instruments: a violin and a contrabass form the string family, a clarinet and a bassoon from the woodwinds and a trumpet and a trombone from the brass instruments. Behind them is a battery of percussion instruments; beside them is an actor-narrator and in front of them on the small stage there is a dancer. This is a small troupe of artists, a peripatetic theater that at any moment could pack up its few things and move on to a performance in the next village, an ideal troupe for a time of war when every penny is needed and it is necessary to bring art to the people.
This, in 1918, in the bleak last days of World War I, was the plan of two artists whose source of income had been blocked: One was composer Igor Stravinsky, a Russian expatriate who was stuck in Switzerland and unable to continue to perform in Western Europe as he had done before the war. He was without the allowance he had received from his wealthy family in Russia and without the royalties from his works printed in Germany.
The second was Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, a Swiss writer who had lived in France and had returned to his native land to find refuge from the horrors of the war. Thus "The Soldier's Tale," a piece for musical theater, was born.
And thus too a new means of performance was born that became a genre and a symbol of the 20th century: a small, modular troupe of artists that crosses styles and specializations, completely contrary in its modernist outlook to the tremendous and abundantly emotional Romantic ideals of the 19th century, from which the new century aspired to liberate itself.
Another century has gone by and the next two Friday's will see "A Soldier's Tale" performed at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv by the Gropius Ensemble, which includes actor Itay Tiran.
In Vienna a few years prior to "A Soldier's Tale," Stravinsky had heard Arnold Schoenberg's groundbreaking work "Pierrot Lunaire," the harbinger of the new musical theater, and he was influenced by it, as were all the composers who had awakened to the new wind that was blowing in the second decade of the century.
Schoenberg's work, however, was unique: After the pagan "Rite of Spring" and the Russian Orthodox "Les Noces," both of them expansive revolutionary works, in it Stravinsky presented a new, French-influenced, humoristic, dry, succinct, and dance-like style with elements of ragtime jazz and folkdances; a style that was ultimately refined into "neo-classical."
The composer's rhythmical complexity was not dulled here as compared to his great ballets, but only took on a different, sharper and more ironic form.
Marches, a dance scene that includes a waltz and a tango, references the religious tradition in the form of two chorales, the innovative mix of instruments, the imaginative and sweeping melodies with rising emotion despite themselves - all these leave listeners astonished and delighted even today, 90 years after "A Soldier's Tale" was composed. The work, which is based on Russian folktales, in a variation of the Faust motif common to many cultures, tells of a soldier on furlough who meets the devil on his way home and gives him his violin, an allegory for his soul.
In return he is given a magical book that predicts the future and can make any man extremely rich. This happens but the soldier becomes miserable and the money cannot give meaning to his life. Money does not buy the real things.
"He listens to birds twittering in their nests, for free / To the wind plucking tunes in the leaves, for free / To old people in their gardens at rest, for free/ And couples closing shutters for a night of loving, for free."
After a series of encounters with the devil disguised as various characters, the soldier manages to purloin his violin through cunning, chases the devil away by playing it, cures a sick princess and the two fall in love and marry.
However, after the marriage he is tempting into crossing the border of the kingdom despite a warning from the devil, he falls into his net and loses his soul - this time permanently. And all this happens in a musical and theatrical celebration that is entirely suspenseful.
Stravinsky's endless imagination in the colors of the sounds, his melodies and biting harmonies and the intoxicating rhythm is amazing.
The devil's victory march, which culminates in a long solo for percussion that is the finale of the entire work, is not a Romantic happy ending, but it causes immense musical-theatrical delight.
"There are good ensembles for new music in Israel and we realized that in order to play avant-garde, or the classics of the 20th century, or contemporary Israeli music, there was no particular need for us," says Daniel Cohen, of Netanya, on the birth of the Gropius Ensemble, which he will conduct in the concerts of "A Soldier's Tale."
"Something unique was needed, and our artistic direction began to take shape only after actor Itay Tiran joined us. Then everything started to become clear. We aren't just bringing an actor into a musical work or integrating musicians into theater, but we are aiming to create a new performance genre that is a synthesis of both the arts. Like architect Walter Gropius, who blended different techniques and styles and created the Bauhaus style, for us there are no boundaries between music and theater and they become a single entity. Therefore we named the ensemble after him."
"The love between us and Itay is mutual," continues Cohen. "He is part of the ensemble: With our help he has returned to his musical roots, and it is lucky that the Cameri Theater has given us a home and has adopted all of us in this way."
Daniel Cohen is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music in London. Before that, he studied at the Academy of Music in Tel Aviv in place of high school and he completed his matriculation exams on his own.
In London he founded the Eden Orchestra, which he conducts as its musical director; its most recent concert was earlier this year at Queen Elizabeth hall and was comprised solely of Israeli music. He is also the chief conductor of an orchestra on the Bailiwick of Jersey between France and England.
"Jersey is a paradise on earth," he says. "It is an island that is now building a new musical life for itself. The orchestra is associated with the academy of music, in order to increase the number of musicians living on the island, because an orchestra that is not needed by its community doesn't have a right to exist."
"The claims about there being no audience are ridiculous," continues Cohen. "What orchestras lack, or don't have at all, isn't an 'audience,' but rather relevance to a community, and this has to be built up actively. The audience isn't an anonymous bloc that just fills seats in a hall and has to be kept there by diluting the artistic message and lowering the level. No, a mutuality has to develop with the people who constitute it."
Three pounds and a pint
"A Soldier's Tale" in not the only work in the Gropius Ensemble repertoire; there is also an original work, "Kofadam," composed by ensemble member Mata Porat. The work, which is based on a story by Franz Kafka, makes use of the same combination of instruments as Stravinsky's work, but with a greater richness of staging and virtuoso performance by Itay Tiran.
"I don't like traditional concerts," confesses Daniel Cohen. "There is something about the buttoned-up experience of concerts; in my mind, going to listen to a sublime work that one is obliged to admire is artificial. Anyone who says 'Oh, how lovely' of the funeral march in Beethoven's 'Eroica Symphony,' like I was once told in England, and isn't truly shaken, hasn't heard the music. It should be okay to shout 'Bravo' in the middle of the work for a brilliant rendering, or to laugh out loud; the music should be alive and breathing and real - in my opinion, that's listening."
Cohen says "Kofadam" is a new work that causes people to listen differently, actively, and accordingly causes his group to play differently.
"The combination of the arts also gives the audience something to hold on to, and that's important," continues Cohen. "It's always necessary to go towards the audience, to support it. In England, for example, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment offers tickets to students for 3 pounds, with the bonus of a free pint of beer at a local pub after the concert. The musicians also come to the pub and encourage the audience to talk about the music, their instruments and everything that had happened during the evening. It is true that sometimes stupid questions are also heard there but mostly the discussions are meaningful and the intention is that in the end the young people will say that they had never heard music before, come on guys, this symphony is cool."