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Utah Symphony, NOVA series will give the devil his due

Published September 24, 2013 8:46 am

Music • How Berlioz and Stravinsky addressed the nature of temptation.
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The idea of the devil — or, to be more specific, the idea of selling one's soul to the devil — has beguiled poets, dramatists, composers and other humans for centuries.

The Utah Symphony and the NOVA Chamber Music Series will present two takes on the age-old tale next weekend, when the orchestra performs Hector Berlioz's epic music drama "The Damnation of Faust" a couple of days before NOVA kicks off its season with Igor Stravinsky's chamber piece "The Soldier's Tale."

"It's a total coincidence, but I love the idea," NOVA artistic director Jason Hardink said of the dueling devils. "The tales are so different."

Berlioz's 1846 version, based on Goethe's telling of the Faust legend, has a "more heroic, monumental feeling," Hardink said. "At the moment when he makes his decision, the protagonist is more aware of what he's trading away."

Seventy-two years later, Stravinsky took on similar subject matter when he set a Russian folk tale to music. In that version, Hardink said, "the soldier has four or five interactions with the devil and keeps making the same mistakes. When he makes his deals, they're more casual day-to-day decisions."

In other words, it's like the difference between armed robbery and unreported income.

Hardink believes the notion of selling one's soul piecemeal is more relatable to modern audiences, though the central idea of both pieces — "giving away an essential part of yourself for a thing you really want" — is the same.

Musically, the interpretations are radically different.

"The Damnation of Faust" is Berlioz's "most subtle orchestral composition," Utah Symphony music director Thierry Fischer said. But it's still a blockbuster.

"We can read and study Goethe's 'Faust,' but to hear the story in the concert hall is to see all the righteousness and virtue come to life," Fischer said in an email. "The story … is written and projected in such a ruffling way, expressing comfort and discomfort to great dramatic effect, yet in a creatively ambiguous and unusual manner. It is a vastly imposing and unsettling masterpiece. It is so spectacularly written that when experienced live, it is felt to the very core of your being."

Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, whose credits include three Metropolitan Opera HD broadcasts, will sing the role of Faust's beloved Marguerite in Abravanel Hall. In an email interview, Lindsey said she's impressed by Berlioz's skill as a dramatist.

"I don't think [Berlioz] really thought of this as a fully produced opera, necessarily, but rather he was working to fulfill an undetermined theatrical vision that only came to be understood through the process of creation," she said. "I think he composed in a way that put the drama (or the 'opera') in the music so that one didn't necessarily have to have all the extra visual elements that come with an opera production."

Britain-based baritone Roderick Williams, who will portray the satanic figure of Méphistophélès, also was struck by the composer's descriptive flair.

"The score is full of wonderful, quite impossible stage directions — flights of fancy and changes of scene and location that would tax even the budgets of Broadway, let alone 19th-century Paris," he said in an email. "But in a concert performance … the orchestral music does all that work for you."

"The Soldier's Tale" has more intimate ambitions — and Hardink said NOVA's presentation, a collaboration with Plan-B Theatre Company, will be more minimalist than usual. In the original production, a dancer played the role of the princess.

"We've decided not to physicalize that, but to let the music tell that part of the story," said Hardink, who believes that NOVA's discerning audiences won't have any problem making the leap. "I like that sort of cleanness."

Christy Summerhays will direct Plan-B's actors: narrator Doug Fabrizio; Jay Perry, who portrays the soldier; and Jason Tatom, who plays the devil. Steven Schick will conduct the performance, which will include seven instrumentalists.

Because violin and percussion figure so prominently in Stravinsky's score, Hardink rounded out the NOVA program with music for those two instruments. Schick, who Hardink said is "like a god in the percussion world," will play two selections by 20th-century Greek composer Iannis Xenakis; violinist Kathryn Eberle will play two movements of solo Bach.

"Stravinsky used the violin to represent the soldier's soul, but it doesn't play a lot of classically beautiful, soulful music," Hardink explained, so he will let Eberle's Bach performances set the stage. That way, he hopes, "it will be resonating in the audience's ears what the violin represents in the story."

David Burger contributed to this story. —

Symphony for the devil

The Utah Symphony and the NOVA Chamber Music Series take a look at temptation next weekend.

'The Damnation of Faust'

Thierry Fischer conducts the Utah Symphony in Berlioz's music drama.

With • The Utah Symphony Chorus, prepared by Susanne Sheston and augmented by singers from the Utah Opera Chorus and the University of Utah; mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey (Marguerite); tenor Michael Spyres (Faust); baritone Roderick Williams (Méphistophélès); bass-baritone Adam Cioffari (Brander); and soprano Tara Stafford-Spyres (Celestial Voice).

When • Friday and Saturday, Sept. 27-28, 8 p.m.

Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $18 to $69 ($5 more on concert day) at http://www.utahsymphony.org.

Learn more • Fischer and Utah Symphony VP Toby Tolokan will chat about the music onstage an hour before downbeat.

'The Soldier's Tale'

The NOVA Chamber Music Series opens its season with a concert production of Stravinsky's music drama in a collaboration with Plan-B Theatre Company. Also on the program are works of Bach and Xenakis.

With • Actors Doug Fabrizio, Jay Perry and Jason Tatom; director Christy Summerhays; and percussionist and conductor Steven Schick.

When • Sunday, Sept. 29, 3 p.m.

Where • Libby Gardner Concert Hall, 1375 E. Presidents Circle, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $20; $18 for seniors, $5 for students (free to University of Utah students); at the door or novaslc.org