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Friday, November 4, 2011

Concert Review: The Devil Went Down to Wall Street

Occupy Stravinsky performs at Zuccotti Park.
The Devil is a blonde: Elizabeth Stanley (center) tempts Nick Choksi (left) as Erik Liberman (right) looks on.
Photo taken at Occupy Wall Street, Nov. 3, 2011, © the author.
"Mic check!"

"Mic check!" 

"We are...Occupy Stravinksy!"


These words came from conductor Ryan McAdams, who brought a small chamber ensemble and three New York theater actors to the south-east corner of Zuccotti Park for an outdoor performance of Igor Stravinsky's L'Histoire de Soldat. This was not the first performance of a classical music work at the encampment, which has been in the park protesting current global economic traditions, but it may have been the first piece of musical theater from a classical composer.

Written in 1918 and set to a libretto by C.F. Ramuz, Stravinsky's work is a one-act morality play about a soldier who sells his violin to the Devil in exchange for wealth. Of course, he loses everything in the process. The work is spoken, not sung, with instrumental passages in between (and occasionally under) the dialogue.

Mr. McAdams picked Soldat for its message: that nothing good comes from a Faustian monetary bargain. He led a minimal ensemble: (violin, clarinet, bassoon, upright bass, trombone, percussion) that sometimes battled to be heard above the clamor of the occupation.  In its pluckiness and determination to be heard, the performance captured the spirit of the Occupation perfectlym succeeding against tremendous odds.

 The performance had to compete with:
  • New York City rush hour traffic.
  • Police sirens.
  • Anti-rape protest march (complete with bongo player.)
  • A nearby trumpet player (who clearly wanted nothing to do with Stravinsky.)
  • The omni-present crash-clatter-bang of the Occupy Wall Street drummers, amplified by the surrounding urban canyons.
Conductor Ryan McAdams (facing left) leads the little orchestra in L'Histoire du Soldat.
Photo taken at Occupy Wall Street, Nov. 3, 2011, © the author.
Despite all that, this was a successful performance of this melodramatic morality play. Evil takes many forms, and in this production it was that of Elizabeth Stanley, a bright-eyed blonde whose sparkling energy belied her role as the Master of Hell. Nick Choksi was the hapless title character, damned by his decision to sell himself out. Finally, Erik Liberman was well-suited to the role of the Narrator, occasionally stepping into the drama at appropriate moments.

When audible, the players were tight and involved with Stravinsky's delicate score, and occasionally managed to project some of its subtleties. In all fairness, the drum session (at the other corner of the encampment) knocked off at 6pm, allowing the last bars of the piece to be heard without impairment.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats