Concert Review: Asian Youth Orchestra

Last month, I had the last minute opportunity to see the Asian Youth Orchestra live here in Taipei from just about the best seats in the concert hall (and for free, no less).
I had originally planned on attending that evening’s performance, but of the four events I had decided to go to, it was the least enticing program (up against the likes of Mahler and Sibelius, two of my favorites), so it got the hack. Also, it was a Monday night, which tends to be somewhat more inconvenient.
As it turns out, a coworker had two extra tickets (center of the thirteenth row) he couldn’t use (or had no interest in using), and knew I was “into this stuff” so I got them.
I had enough time to go home a bit early and have dinner before the show. The program was as follows:
Bernstein’s overture to Candide
Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben
Beethoven’s symphony no. 3 ‘Eroica
I honestly had no knowledge of Strauss’s work, and it ended up being the longest piece on the program. I cannot say anything about its performance since I know nothing about it.
I have, however, played the Bernstein piece (in high school), and in, perhaps, TRUE Bernstein style, the piece is energetic and fun. I have watched YouTube videos of the maestro himself conducting it, and it is extremely lively. The lyrical string passages gave me chills.
The thing I was most looking forward to hearing on this night, and the primary reason I had been interested in going to begin with was to hear Beethoven’s fantastic Eroica symphony live. What a pivotal, critical piece of history in the literature from beginning to end. I’ve nearly taken up writing about it on a number of occasions, but just haven’t been able to work up the courage and
understanding. Also, I’ve already done his first, and may as well get to the second before I start doing them out of order. Again, when the composer’s sequential development outweighs the specific order in which I came to enjoy the pieces, then we will go in that order, and vice versa.
The manner in which Mr. Pontzious led his orchestra in a crisp, energetic, lively traversal of the third reminded me in some ways of Riccardo Chailly’s recent(ish) box set with the Gewandhausorchester. While that set is unique in its approach from all the other plethora of Beethoven cycles, I feel it’s in quite a good way. While some (read: Bernstein) may drown the audience in the lush beauty of a passage or a whole movement, that tends (at least to my ear) to be at the expense of a charismatic kind of energy that Chailly’s traversal is brimming with. He defends it in these interviews here and here, and I suppose it’s a matter of taste, but I really do tend to enjoy them.
That being said, it was nice to hear a live performance something in that vein from such a young orchestra. To my ear, it was played wonderfully, not effortlessly, but almost. You wouldn’t know it if you had just watched the conductor though; he made it look the opposite of effortless, but his work paid off. The third movement seemed to be bordering on a barely-manageable speed for the players, but it was exciting; the fourth was exquisite.
We got no encore, but something rather more… inspiring instead. Mr. Pontzious is now 70 years old, but you’d be hard pressed to tell from his energetic and lively conducting from the podium, at one point flinging his own glasses off his stand into the cellos. After a slightly more Beecham-like direction, snapping out the tempo at a few points in the third movement, it was nice to see him come out with a mic, give a quick greeting in Chinese, and begin to thank supporters and friends in English (all after four or five rounds of applause and standing and sitting of the orchestra members).
He then announced that he would introduce the members of the orchestra (“hopefully not one by one,” I thought). I believe ten nations were represented in the ensemble and he had each of them stand up together: those from Hong Kong, (16), South Korea (1), the Philippines (5), Vietnam (3), Japan (20), Thailand (4), China (26), and Taiwan (29) for a total of 110 members. And this is what impressed me the most.
Not only do I find it impressive and respectable and awe-inspiring for someone at the young age of twenty-something to be as accomplished and talented as these young men and women, or to have the experience and talent and dedication that they have, but that they’re also doing it in English. I could pluck any one of the members of the audience and speak to them as nauseam about their experience in the ensemble and their training. That in itself garners enormous respect from me.
Even more interesting is that these young performers are all doing it in English. While Mr. Pontzious may speak some (or a lot of) Chinese, I assume the members of the orchestra from non-Chinese speaking nations do not, and that English is the obvious common language between them.
Even if it weren’t, though, to fascinating to see how there’s another kind of international language that these semi-professionals all understand: music.
During a performance, (unless you’re Thomas Beecham conducting Sibelius 2), there isn’t a whole lot of speaking going on anyway; it’s all gestures and motions and facial expressions, and in this environment you really see the conductor’s place as a uniting, central force to the orchestra, not just to tap out a tempo, but direct (as a director of a film would), to adjust and interpret and adapt in real time, no matter what languages your performers speak.
Not to get into politics, but at different times and different points, some of these Asian nations have had (or still have) strained relations, and as each of the representative players stood up, it was clear they were proud to represent their home countries, and when the representatives of Taiwan stood up in their home country in their national concert hall, making the greatest portion of the ensemble, the audience roared. That aside, their camaraderie was just as apparent as a group, and that was an inspiring testament not only to dedicated, successful musicians, but also to the uniting power of music, not just as a hobby or as an art, but as an endeavor that changes lives, gives people goals and focus, as well as an international view of the world that makes them better people.

 

Thank you, AYO. It was a very enjoyable evening.
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