Igor Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” remains as thought-provoking a piece today as it was in 1918, when it was created just after World War I.
As the third part of a Stravinsky-focused series by the Spring Festival in Tokyo (following “The Firebird” and “Petrushka” in 2012, and “Apollon” and “The Rite of Spring” in 2013), the Russian composer’s theatrical masterpiece provided local audiences with a rare opportunity to attend a performance by New York-based Japanese conductor Shoichi Kubota on March 16 at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan Recital Hall in Ueno Park.
Kubota, 32, won the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first International Sir George Solti Conducting Competition in 2011, against more than 200 young applicants from 40 different countries. As part of the award he received a two-season apprenticeship from 2011 to 2013, studying with Italian maestro Riccardo Muti, who is serving as the orchestra’s music director.
“Maestro Muti told me to conduct as a ‘Japanese samurai’ during the competition,” Kubota said, recalling how the Italian conductor helped alleviate his nerves. During his performance of “The Soldier’s Tale,” Kubota’s conducting style gave an impression of the carefully controlled movements of a martial artist, suggesting clear direction.
Although the music of “The Soldier’s Tale” is scored for a very small ensemble comprising seven players — violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone and percussion — each instrument produced a strong individual presence, creating colorful sounds that conveyed the drama of “The Soldier’s Tale.”
Kubota collaborated with his own “seven samurai” for the occasion. The top-rate instrumentalists included violinist Kota Nagahara, double bassist Shu Yoshida, clarinetist Taira Kaneko, bassoonist Masaru Yoshida, trumpeter Osamu Takahashi, trombonist Hiroyuki Odagiri and percussionist Yosuke Nomoto — all of whom serve or served as the first desk for major Japanese orchestras. He consistently and effectively controlled the music’s tempo — which is rife with changing time signatures.
Besides the septet, the piece “to be read, played and danced” is originally performed by three actors and several dancers. The Bunka Kaikan performance opted for a simpler one-man version, with actor Jun Kunimura narrating the story without the dancing.
While the timing of the prose’s delivery was kept under perfect control by Kubota’s baton and a left hand that shot to the side from time to time, it was unfortunate that Kunimura’s voice was sometimes lost amid the volume of the music.
Still, when it was possible to hear Kunimura, his vocal talent was a delight. He was adept in transforming himself from the Russian soldier Joseph to an old man, old woman, king, princess and devil — sometimes in a creepy voice with a wicked grin.