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This weekend, Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony in three performances of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) with Elvis Costello as narrator. The Soldier’s Tale, written by C.F. Ramuz, is based on the Russian folk story The Runaway Soldier and the Devil and marked by three actors: a soldier, the Devil (played by Malcolm McDowell), and a narrator.

Unlike many events held at SFS, the Stravinsky work is essentially a narration complemented by orchestral music. It is a beautiful story told, sung, and heard: a Russian soldier, Joseph, exchanges his violin for a magic book from the Devil, convinced that it will bring “untold wealth in the future.” The story follows Joseph as he tries to reverse the bargain after coming to the realization that wealth does not lead to happiness.

The SFS has previously performed this piece thrice, in 1970, 1997, and 1999. This time, the program will begin in a unique fashion: John Adams, one of America’s most well-known living orchestral composers, will conduct his minimalist Grand Pianola Music with pianists Orli Shaham and Marc-André Hamelin, accompanied by Synergy Vocals. The SFS performed this piece at its inception in 1982, with John Adams as conductor yet again. He describes Grand Pianola Music as a “dream image” of two limousines transforming into “the world’s longest Steinway pianos,” volleying “Bb and Eb major arpeggios.”

The expertise and mysticism surrounding the SFS commission piques all curiosities. Not to mention having Orli Shaham, one of the most gifted modern pianists, and Marc-André Hamelin — one renowned for his explorations of lesser known works of the 19th and 20th centuries — providing a juxtaposition between prodigal talent and curious knowledge of hidden wisdom.

The Soldier’s Tale conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas with John Adams’ Grand Pianola Music will occur Friday, January 16 at 6:30pm; Saturday, January 17 at 8pm; and Sunday, January 18 at 2pm at Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets here.

Article by Nikos Zarikos

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