Concert Review: 臺北世紀青年管弦樂團- An Evening of Mahler

 

I went a few weeks ago to hear this ensemble (see my remarks below about the name) play in our National Concert Hall here in Taipei. This past year or so, I’ve been working through an obsession with the works of Mahler. I still haven’t cracked into Das Lied or some of the song cycles much, but have gotten my head around most of the symphonies. It’s mostly three and nine that are left to really be explored, as well as whatever exists of the tenth in its various forms.
I spent most of the summer not going to concerts, so when a coworker plopped the August and September programs on my desk, I was eager to make a to-do list of shows to see, and the first name I scanned for was Mahler (about 80% of these programs are in Chinese, so I had to look over it twice), and was beyond pleased to find both his fourth and ninth (which I’ll be attending THIS WEEK!) on different programs a few weeks apart.
This evening’s program was “An Evening of Mahler” (馬勒之夜)and it consisted of the adiagetto of the fifth for the first half, and the entirety of the fourth for the latter half. Not bad, and as much as I detest plucking individual movements out of the works in which they belong, it would be quite a long evening to try to play two Mahler symphonies in one program, even if the fourth is (one of) his most succinct.
One of the issues I have with going to live performances is that although there is something
wildly magical and spectacular about seeing real people perform before your very eyes and fill the hall with sound, in some ways, it is still hard (or at least somewhat unfair) to compare to a perfectly-crafted recording. The recordings I’ve become accustomed to in ‘learning’ Mahler have been some of the best recordings by the best orchestras in the world conducted by some of the best conductors (Bernstein and Vienna, Kubelik, Chailly, Abbado, Sanderling, Fischer, etc.) so it’s hard for a local orchestra to compare in many ways.
This is what was going through my head as a host of some sort introduced the ensemble and spoke for a few minutes about Viennese traditions, the instruments being used in this evening’s performance, and remaining in keeping with these traditions to remain as true to what Mahler would have heard in his day conducting these pieces.
I thought about that even more as an old Asian man with stark white hair and eyebrows like small visors walked out in a suit across the stage to the podium, on which was stationed a smaller
podium, upon which stood a piano bench. He climbed the podiums and perched himself on the bench, gave the orchestra a look over and a nod, and raised his hands. I must admit I was skeptical, (to my recollection) a baton-free hand began to pull this ever-so-famous music from the purely-string (and harp) ensemble, and it gave me chills. I was blown away at the balance and control and spot-on execution of this fourth movement of the fifth symphony. It was superb. It was balanced and expressive and emotional without being sappy or cliche. The conductor, it seemed effortlessly, drew the sound from his players and molded and shaped it, almost like you could see it pouring into the auditorium.
Our seats for this first half were sub-par, a side balcony facing inward toward the hall, but it put us quite close to the stage, and the angle wasn’t terrible. At only 10-12 minutes, the first half of the program was over very quickly, and the second floor balcony was surprisingly empty. For the second half, we decided to move so we were more directly facing the stage.
Before I continue, I must mention here some difficulty I had with the Chinese name of this symphony. The Taipei Century Symphony Orchestra is apparently one of the oldest ensembles in the country, and is run by the same director as we saw on this evening. However, it has a number of other ensembles also associated with it, among them a children’s something, a youth something, and I think perhaps a chamber group. In any case, the name of the ensemble we saw was 臺北世紀青年管弦樂團. The term 青年 in Chinese refers to “youth” or “young people.” For the years I have been here, I always thought of that ‘young’ in more absolute terms… 18-25 or something. When the ensemble walked out on that Wednesday evening, I questioned this name or thought maybe…. I am thinking of the wrong ensemble. Turns out this ‘youth’ is a polite, flattering term for like… ‘middle aged’, or just ‘not old’… as I was told by my English-speaking local friends accompanying me that evening. It made sense. So it apparently was NOT a youth orchestra, and I’m not sure how this group differs from the actual Taipei Century Symphony Orchestra. What I will say is that their strings are spot on, wonderfully talented musicians.
That being said, we enter the fourth symphony. I was curious to see what tempo the opening of the first movement would be set at, and it was pretty standard middle-of-the-road. After the exquisitely lush adiagetto, I had high hopes for the fourth.
Honestly I don’t remember at what point I began to worry, but I believe it was as early as the horn parts in the first movement, that there were some woeful inadequacies in the winds. Not only were the horns and oboe(s) sharp, but the horn missed almost every single one of her high notes in the most critical and exposed parts of the first movement. Mahler’s writing for horns is stupendous, and I suppose challenging, but the five horns from this evening’s performance should all be replaced. The rest of the ensemble played just fine, and the piece was enjoyable enough. Late (or entirely missed) entries or high notes in the horns, out-of-tune oboes, and perhaps some miscounting in a clarinet or two were obvious, but the second movement retuned violin was nice, and the third movement was beautifully played. What I was most looking forward to, however, was the gem of this piece, and my favorite theme in both this symphony and the parts in the third that this ‘song’ originates from, the fourth movement, Das himmlische Leben. The soprano, who appeared much younger on the program than in real life, floated out onto the stage, sneaking in at the end of the fourth movement, and perched herself on another piano bench next to the conductor. She wasn’t sitting for long before she stood and prepared for her part.
I feel the orchestra could have been held back just a bit to make her more audible. From our (newly relocated) seats (now in the middle of the auditorium), there were passages where it was a great struggle to hear her, and had I not been familiar with this piece, would have lost the melody among the ensemble. This is also where the horns’ missteps and offenses were most disappointing. At least by this point, almost ALL the programs in the audience had been dropped (loudly), and either left there or put away, so that was no longer a distraction. Up to this point, the transgressions of the horns (in a Mahler symphony, no less), were only disappointing, but in this fourth movement, they were almost enough to instill anger. They are supposed to sing along with and answer the soprano in this brief ten-minute (miniscule by Mahlerian standards) final movement of a beautiful, quaint (again, relatively speaking) symphony, and they botched it. I spent the rest of the movement enjoying the soprano’s beautiful voice and half holding my breath in hopes the horns would pull through. We all lived.
That all being said, I must also admit that I admire both the maestro and the soprano for keeping their cool and not missing a beat (literally) throughout the whole piece despite some missteps in the ensemble. The soprano was lively and expressive and very endearing, but didn’t overdo it. As for the maestro, even in his walk, he showed his age, and so I don’t know if he let it slide or had already done his best and just let it be.
We got an encore (twice, actually). The soprano and maestro both came back out for two performances of Rheinlegendchen from Desk Knaben Wunderhorn. It was perfectly executed and you couldn’t have not smiled. Both times. It’s a wonderful little song to begin with, but they did a great job with it.
All in all, it’s always a treat to hear Mahler live, especially in the hands of a conductor who knows it and understands it. That being said, if you’re going to do Mahler, make sure your horns know what’s up. It’s Mahler, after all.

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