From Daniel Webster to Faust, making deals with the devil has long been an attractive proposition for the characters in the arts. This weekend the San Francisco Symphony presents another approach to the story in Igor Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale.”
The work, which the composer designed “to be read, played and danced,” premiered in 1918. In it a narrator speaks of a violin-playing soldier who meets an old man on the road homewards. Bargaining and woe ensue.
In 2011, Aurora Theatre Co. presented an intimate production with four musicians, dances by Muriel Maffre and noted Bay Area actors Joan Mankin as the devil and L. Peter Calendar voicing both the narrator and the soldier, represented by an oversize puppet.
For the Davies Hall presentation, Michael Tilson Thomas has recruited American Conservatory Theater resident artist Nick Gabriel as the soldier, rock and roll icon Declan Patrick MacManus – better known as Elvis Costello – to narrate, and screen star Malcolm McDowell as the diabolical deal-maker.
Best known for his work in film (“A Clockwork Orange,” “Caligula”) and television (“Heroes,” “Franklin & Bash”), McDowell is no stranger to the concert stage. In 2013 he appeared in “Angel heart” for Cal Performances in Berkeley.
“It was a piece with…I think it was 10 cellos and a mandolin,” he recalls. “It was extraordinary because the cueing had to be a beat earlier so I had to have a cue light to let me know when to speak. Of course it worked fine on the night.”
The Stravinsky experience is also not his first Satanic encounter. “I’m making a specialty of playing the devil, actually,” he laughs. “I’ve played it a few times and every time it’s different because it’s different requirements to whatever the piece is that I’m doing.
“The devil as we know it in folklore is, of course, someone of great charm who, you know, brings in the innocent and then the switch. It’s that kind of thing, which makes it a fun part to do.”
McDowell is feeling a part of the classical musical world at the moment and not just in a concert hall. He’s playing conductor Thomas Pembridge on “Mozart in the Jungle,” the recently released Amazon series. “He’s a complete narcissist. A great big baby.”
Will he spend any time picking MTT’s brain for anonymous little tidbits of people he’s known over the years for character development? “Well, yes. Of course,” he laughs. Complementing the Stravinsky, John Adams conducts his composition “Grand Pianola Music.”
IF YOU GO
A Soldier’s Tale
Presented by San Francisco Symphony
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 6:30 p.m. Jan. 16, 8 p.m. Jan 17, 2 p.m. Jan. 18
Tickets: $15 to $158
Contact: (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org