Christmas cheer can be an illusory thing in Taiwan. The sight of a tree decked out in bows and tinsel at a downtown department store fails to elicit Yuletide joy if you saw it there all summer long. Hearing Jingle Bells makes the average resident of Taiwan reach for their cellphone sooner than it makes them think of dashing through snow.
Still, for those of us who grew up celebrating Christmas, the traditional music of the holiday has a way of dusting off emotions we've collected since childhood. This weekend's production at the National Concert Hall, What Happened the Night Before Christmas? puts those emotions center stage in a show ideally suited for local audiences and their foreign friends.
Rather than a straightforward concert of Christmas classics, Taipei's New Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philharmonic Chorus have wisely chosen to tell the stories behind the music.
Polar Express, Chris van Allsburg's 1985 children's book which Robert Zemeckis has brought to the screen this season, is the newest of these tales. It's the story of a boy who boards a magical train bound for the North Pole, where Santa Claus offers him any gift he wishes. He chooses a sleigh bell but loses it on the way home. When he awakens on Christmas the next morning, the bell is under his tree. The boy's mother believes the bell is worthless because it doesn't ring. What she doesn't know is that only those who believe can hear it.
Robert Kapilow composed music for the story, which the orchestra will perform under the baton of guest-conductor, John van Deursen.
Van Deursen has spent most of the past 17 years in Taiwan but now divides his time between conducting duties here and in his home country, Canada. In addition to his resume as a musician, he brings another unique qualification to this weekend's production; he is one of the few performers in a cast of some 100 with a childhood connection to the stories and music in the program. Despite this, he says his job is not to educate local audiences about the meaning of the holiday, but to let them experience it themselves.
"Over the past five or six years, Taiwanese have started developing their own thing around Christmas as a holiday that's about spending time with friends and family," he said. "I don't like to think of the program as teaching the audience about this music. It's more just sharing it."
The stories and music, he said, speak for themselves.
"Some Christmas music is just fun and doesn't necessarily have a lot of content. ? But Kapilow took the message seriously. Polar Express is about much more than fun, it has the spirit of love in it."
Su Hua-chien (徐華謙) will tell the story of the boy and his special bell as well as other, generations-old stories like T'was the Night Before Christmas, to an audience who may be hearing them for the first time.
Su has worn the boards of Taipei's better-known theaters, acting in a wide range of productions from Off Performance Workshop's Dancing Mermaid (
He'll be joined on stage by the Taipei Philharmonic Chorus, under the direction of Dirk DuHei (杜黑). DuHei has the distinction of being the first recipient of the Literature and Arts award, presented by the National Culture and Arts Foundation (國家文化藝術基金會).