The Soldier’s Tale

This is the second concert lately to feature works from Russian composers (singular in this case), and there’s lots more Russian music in the next few weeks.

First, I have to say that the cast (as it was sort of a cast) of performers this evening, musicians, actors, and otherwise, should be available at the official page for this evening’s event. If it disappears at some later date, I’ve saved screenshots and will post them. I’ll say that the artistic advisor and actor 王宏元 and narrator Nicolas Drouet deserve outstandingly special mention for their stellar performances this evening.

Also, this concert comes at an interesting time, because aside from the eponymous Stravinsky work on the program, there was also Beethoven’s op. 16, a quintet for piano and woodwinds. I say it’s timely because I recently decided that knowing Beethoven’s opus numbers is one of those things that real classical music nerds do, so I’ve started committing them to memory. Within a week (or slightly more), I’d gotten the first 111 pretty well memorized (or that is to say, all but the latest works), and something that you would realize if you were ever inclined to do something like that is how much stuff Beethoven composed that you’re not likely to have heard unless you play one of those instruments. For example, the notturno for viola and piano (op. 42), a serenade for flute, violin and viola (op. 25), sets of variations for flute, etc. There are so many pieces from Beethoven’s pen that are so famous that some of the more obscure stuff doesn’t get through unless you’re one of those people fortunate enough to have a Beethoven work written for your instrument. There’s no bassoon sonata, but there’s a horn sonata. There’s some stuff for flute and piano, or other instruments, and there’s his opus 16 a quintet for winds and piano. There’s a handful of other more obscure chamber work, like the septet, an octet, but I guess what I mean to say by all that is that it’s nice to hear one of the lesser-performed chamber works after having recently learned of its existence.

But that was not at all the main event for the evening. The first piece on the program, from 賴德和, was titled Leisure for Woodwind Quintet, and you might feel a little bit unimpressed with it if you didn’t read the title. It’s only in two movements, a short piece, with plenty of motion (almost non-stop) and color from the ensemble, a textured, ornate little piece. The composer was in attendance and I watched him every now and then for any particular reaction, but he stood up to accept the applause before things were shuffled around for Beethoven.

As mentioned above, the op. 16 isn’t really one of the composer’s most famous works. It hasn’t really stood up against the quartets, trios, sonatas, etc., but that’s not due to any deficit on the quintet’s part, as we saw this evening. I’d actually never heard the work until tonight’s performance. Lina Yeh played the piano part and seemed focused and passionate, and the piano stood out as the single most Beethovenian element of the work, so I was pleased to have her at its helm. The four other soloists, for oboe, horn, clarinet and bassoon, played beautifully, and the work was expressive and engaging, if not maybe slightly lacking in a teensy bit more fire I might want from an early Beethoven work, but again, never heard it. ‘Twas lovely.

But the main event…

…was obviously Stravinsky’s ‘stage work’ The Soldier’s Tale. It’s not an opera because there’s no singing, but there is musical accompaniment that comes and goes, and forms the basis of the performance, with a narrator and actors (tonight only one, the aforementioned exceptional 王宏元)  presenting the Joseph’s story and his run-in with the devil, and the decisions that he made as a result.

The primary reason I purchased a ticket for this evening was because we don’t have nearly enough chamber music in Taiwan. So I wasn’t going to pass this up. Also, it was kind of a ‘dream team’ of performers, soloists gathered from local orchestras (or currently independent performers) to present the material.

I learned from tonight’s program that The Soldier’s Tale apparently has a bit of a history here in Taiwan, being performed about every ten years or so in a similar ‘supergroup’ fashion, so while this collaboration wasn’t the exact same roster, it was a good one and the performance, not ballet, not pure stage, not just chamber music, but definitely theatre, was a stunning thing to see and hear, visually, musically, artistically, strategically, technically,  morally. I cannot say enough about how creative and vivid and ingenious and engaging the setup was for the stage, Drouet’s narration in French (causing me to listen to the French and read the Chinese and see which of those I could manage faster) and his interaction with 王宏元, who stole the show. The two of them filled shoes for what are usually at least three actors, and the performance from the musicians was spot on. It’s an hour-long piece, seeming with about as many shifts in time signature as there are bars in the work.

Aside from how visually captivating it was, how compelling a performance 王宏元 gave, listening to the French delivered by Drouet, and thinking all the while about a Russian composer setting a Russian folktake in French being performed by an Asian ensemble, the message of the work is a powerful one. It’s not the time to get all analytical about the piece itself, or pull out any soap boxes, but Wikipedia shares the moral of the story from the text of the piece as follows:

Il ne faut pas vouloir ajouter
A ce qu’on a ce qu’on avait,
On ne peut pas être à la fois
Qui on est et qui on était

Il faut savoir choisir;
On n’a pas le droit de tout avoir:
C’est défendu.

Un bonheur est tout le bonheur;
Deux, c’est comme s’ils n’existaient plus.


(You must not seek to add
To what you have, what you once had;
You have no right to share
What you are with what you were.

No one can have it all,
That is forbidden.
You must learn to choose between.

One happy thing is every happy thing:
Two, is as if they had never been.)

It also got me to thinking about the bittersweet uniqueness of every performance of anything ever. No one else aside from those…. less than 2,000 people in the hall tonight will ever have the exact same experience of a performance of this work as we did. Ever. Even if it were performed on consecutive nights, back-to-back, it still wouldn’t be the same, much less at a different time, in a different hall, with different performers and interpreters, so I left my seat this evening thinking about how in the hell I was going to try to communicate the impression left by something like this. And I can’t. Sorry. It was amazing, and a tip of the hat and many bravos to Stravinsky, to producer (and bassoonist) 徐家駒, to all the performers this evening, conductor 張佳韻, set designer 陳慧, and everyone else listed on the program whose Chinese names I should probably figure out how to write so I can list them here. What I can do, though, is provide a little snapped photo of the stage before all the action started. It’s down there. Thank you again, everyone, for an incredible, fascinating, surprisingly enjoyable but also deeply thought-provoking evening.

There were projections, shadow puppetry, dancing… the use of space and intelligent design of the props and surfaces made for a set that was functional, came alive and played a part in the story, never actually moving, but always changing. Just brilliant. 

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