Billed as “music @ watson: Marching Home” and sub-titled, “Joseph Genualdi and Friends,” this magnificent concert which joined the forces of nine faculty members of the prestigious University of North Carolina School of the Arts will long be remembered by the large audience which filled the Watson Recital Hall on the UNCSA campus.

A brief introduction by Mr. Genualdi cited the importance of Bartók and Stravinsky, probably the two most important “modern” composers of the first half of the 20th Century, and introduced Bartók with four arrangements for violin and clarinet from his Forty-four Duos for Two Violins. Bartók wrote many such works for music students, among them the well-known Mikrokosmos for piano (six volumes) and these 44 Duos. The folk roots of the duos chosen are undeniable, and the transcription of one of the violin parts to clarinet was quite successful!

After this brief introductory incursion, the Three Contrasts for Clarinet, Violin and Piano by Bela Bartók completed the first half of the concert. Joining Genualdi were two outstanding new faculty members at the Arts School, Oskar Espina-Ruiz on clarinet and Dmitri Shteinberg on piano. Commissioned by Benny Goodman, the Contrasts were first performed in 1940 with Goodman on clarinet, Joseph Szigeti on violin and Bartók himself on piano.

This is mature Bartók, well past the stormy rage of his earlier period. The three movements are of contrasting tempos and character. Some of the clarinet writing, especially in the cadenzas of the first movement, recalled the three seminal clarinet solos from the earlier Miraculous Mandarin (1918-23) and revealed the subtle tone control and technical mastery of Mr. Espina-Ruiz. The second movement, Pihenő, translates as “Relaxation,” but is far more explosive and agitated than the first movement. The third movement is a fast dance (Sebes) which makes use of a mis-tuned (scordatura) violin – G# – D – A – Eb, with obvious tritones – as well as a properly tuned violin. Violinist Genualdi dominated this movement and played with vigorous rhythmic accents, reinforced by the modest but accurate piano of Shteinberg. The work ends with both clarinet and violin quacking and squawking at each other, to the amusement of the audience.

The second half of the concert was filled by the hour-long narrated performance of Stravinsky’s popular crowd pleaser, The Soldier’s Tale (L’Histoire du soldat), whence the title of the concert, “Marching Home” – the soldier always seems to be marching somewhere! Whereas Bartók wrote almost no chamber music for wind instruments, but much for strings, Stravinsky was perhaps the opposite, choosing a pair, high and low, from each family of instruments to orchestrate L’Histoire (as it’s known to musicians): violin and double bass, clarinet and bassoon, cornet and trombone, percussion and narrator. Stravinsky composed L’Histoire in 1918 in Morges, Switzerland to the narration of the Swiss novelist, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, who had previously collaborated with Stravinsky to produce Renard and Les Noces.

Originally written for an itinerant group of actors and musicians who toured French-speaking Switzerland during the years of World War I, L’Histoire, has long been a favorite of would-be conductors and of violinists – conductors, because the complex changing meters pose a technical challenge and because the size of the ensemble (7 players) makes it economical. And violinists like the piece because the story is about a violin and its owner, the soldier, who must be some kind of a virtuoso to play the difficult work Stravinsky had written. Indeed, Genualdi was in charge and at the top of his game in L’Histoire, as were all the musicians: Genualdi on violin, Paul Sharpe on bass, Oskar Espina-Ruiz on clarinet, Saxton Rose on bassoon, Judith Saxton on cornet, John Ilika on trombone, John Beck on percussion and narrator Marilyn Taylor – with no conductor policing the entrances. Nonetheless, the ensemble playing was tight. Marilyn Taylor is better known as a great soprano who has given us many musical treats, but as a narrator, assuming a Cockney accent for the soldier, she revealed a new and dramatic facet of her stage persona.

In this Faustian tale, the violin is symbolic of the soldier’s soul while the powerful and complex percussion is most closely tied to the devil, who is disguised as an old man, a farmer, an old woman, and eventually as himself. The soldier trades his violin for a book which predicts the future and makes him rich. He amasses a fortune which he eventually gives away. He gambles with the devil, who this time is disguised as a virtuoso violinist, gets him drunk with Swiss white wine and recovers his fiddle. However, after more adventures, which include three splendid dances, a tango, a waltz and a rag-time, all superbly played, the devil wins in the end, as we deduce by the final triumph of the percussion!

Of course, the big winner was the audience – how rare to hear such perfection of execution and such a daring program!  Thank you, Joseph Genualdi for inviting your friends!