The University of Southern Maine’s Spotlight concert series opened at the Abromson Center on Friday night with exceptional performances of two major works for chamber orchestra and the spoken word: William Walton’s “Facade” and Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat.”

They were performed by an orchestra of USM faculty members and guests, conducted by Peter Martin and narrated by noted Broadway actor Mark Jacoby.

“Facade” treats the speaking voice as an instrument in the orchestra; Jacoby’s virtuosity turned it into a concerto.

Walton’s composition is a delightful 1920s period piece based on so-called “nonsense” poems by Edith Sitwell. It is said that a parody should be better than what it mocks, and Walton’s send-ups of the waltz, ragtime, ’20s jazz and other fads of the times are virtually perfect — meticulously crafted, instantly recognizable and slightly crazy.

Sitwell’s nonsense poems are part of a long British tradition that includes “Jabberwocky” and other works that often make more sense than literalism.

They contain plums of truth in a pudding of free association, and the atmosphere they create can range from the scurrilous “Country Dance” to the macabre “Four in the Morning,” with satire, irony and innuendo in between.

They seem a little dated now, because they assume familiarity with British music hall turns and the fatuous myths of the seaside, but the composer’s ability to capture the mood and essence of each poem, including their rhythms and metrical schemes, makes each setting more than the sum of its parts. Some of them are hilarious.

Jacoby’s uncanny ability with patter songs — faster than the “Largo al Factotum” in “The Barber of Seville” — was a joy to behold, as were his mercurial mood swings and characterizations that brought new meaning to all 22 of the poems.

His narration of “L’Histoire du Soldat” (“The Soldier’s Tale”) was definitive in a different way, as he assumed the parts of the soldier, the devil, the pal and the princess. The clarity and emphasis of his delivery gave a more profound slant to the folksy script, plus ample space for the music to depict each scene.

The orchestra was also fine, with the most moving performance of the final chorales that I have heard, reminiscent of the triumphant finale to “The Firebird.” But the devil has the last word, in a tremendous drum solo by Nancy Smith.

The performance received a well-deserved standing ovation from the near-capacity audience. 

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:

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