Hershey Felder tells Stephenson’s new ‘Devil’s Tale’ at Ravinia

Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” premiered in 1918. It was based on a Russian folk tale titled “The Runaway Soldier and the Devil,” and on Tuesday, Aug. 5, a companion piece played in Ravinia’s Martin Theatre by Chicago Pro Musica will give the devil his due.

Titled “The Devil’s Tale” it was composed by James Stephenson of Lake Forest. The part of the narrator is being taken by festival favorite Hershey Felder, who will also portray both the solider and Satan.

The production is being billed as the work’s premiere, though the piece has had several performances at universities around Illinois. “This will be the premiere of a semi-staged production,” Stephenson clarified, “and it’s being paired with ‘The Soldier’s Tale.’”

Stephenson explained that the concept of a sequel to Stravinsky’s well-known composition “just popped into my head.” He mentioned his idea to a musician friend and within a month a performance by a chamber ensemble had been arranged at Western Illinois University in Macomb.

“Then I thought — oh, now I have to write it,” he admitted, laughing. “The prospect was scary.”

Stephenson is a full-time composer. He is composer-in-residence at the Lake Forest Symphony, which has performed two of his works, “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Celestial Suite,” which was on a program last season that included Holst’s “The Planets.”

Himself a trumpeter, the composer has written concertos for oboe, violin, piano and trumpet as well as brass, plus sonatas for various wind instruments. His works have been played by orchestras throughout the United States and his Second Trumpet Concerto was premiered in Australia and played on five continents.

So he got to work. “’The Soldier’s Tale’” ends with a percussion solo,” he explained. “I always thought that was odd, but I started to think that my piece should begin where Stravinsky’s left off.”

Promising that he didn’t steal from the great Russian-born composer, he had nevertheless found his launching point. “Mine starts with Joe, the soldier, waking up from a dream. He is in a hotel in Las Vegas, dating a showgirl,” he said. “The location lent itself to the appearance of the devil, but don’t worry, this number is very PG. My Joe is pit musician in Las Vegas. He’s given up on gambling, but he is tormented by a dealer named Sam. We all know who that is supposed to be.”

John Bruce Yeh, assistant principal clarinet of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, heard of Stephenson’s project. “He had played my Clarinet Concerto,” Stephenson said, “and somehow he got wind of this.”

When the possibility of a performance of “The Devil’s Tale” by the Chicago Pro Musica at the Ravinia Festival was raised, a narrator was needed. Yeh spoke about it to his wife Teresa Reilly, who immediately thought of her husband’s long-time friend actor and pianist Hershey Felder.

Felder’s innovative portrayals of Chopin and Beethoven have been successfully presented at Ravinia, and he has portrayed George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein at the Royal George Theatre in Chicago. Also an impresario and director, Felder produced “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” there in 2013, followed this year by “Jack Lemmon Returns” a show written and starring the film star’s son Christopher.

“Hershey is an incredibly creative, astute and talented man,” Yeh said. “I thought it might be an interesting project for him.”

“When John spoke to me about it, I accepted because I know him and trust his judgement,” Felder explained. “When I looked at ‘The Devil’s Tale,’ I envisioned it as a semi-staged drama, and I thought it would be fun to act out the characters myself.”

Yeh thinks highly of Stephenson’s work. “He and I worked together on his Clarinet Concerto and I premiered it at Midwest Young Artists,” he said. “James is a very prolific composer. I call him the concerto king. His work is challenging and musicians love playing his music.”

Yeh was also interested because Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” became something of a signature piece for the Grammy-winning Chicago Pro Musica, after it was established in 1979 by composer Easley Blackwood and Yeh, who is now its artistic director. “We’ve played it with the mime T.Daniel. We’ve done it with Carl Grapentine (of WFMT) as narrator,” Yeh said. “So putting it with ‘The Devil’s Tale’ made sense.”

In addition to Yeh playing clarinet, Chicago Pro Musica musicians for the Ravinia performance will be Stephanie Jeong, violin; Robert Kassinger, bass; Drew Pattison, bassoon; John Hagstrom, trumpet and cornet; Charles Vernon, trombone, and James Ross, percussion.

‘The Devil’s Tale’ and ‘The Soldier’s Tale’ Chicago Pro Musica, Martin Theatre, Ravinia Festival, 200 Ravinia Park Road, Highland Park 8 p.m. Tuesday Aug. 5 $60/$40 Lawn $10 Visit www.ravinia.org or call (847) 266-5100

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