Concert Review: A Ninth to Remember

National Concert Hall, Taipei, Taiwan
A while back on this post, I discussed somewhat of an issue with being so excited to hear Mahler’s ninth live. I’ve mentioned it in way too many places to link to the posts, but I’ve become rather enamored with Mahler’s music in the past year or so, and it is now bordering on an obsession. It started with the fifth, the first of his works to appear here, and then the second, then the first, then the sixth. And I am realizing either because of context (understanding of a greater portion of the man’s oeuvre) or familiarity (likely both), that when I wrote about the fifth and the first, there were still large swaths of those works I didn’t quite understand. We’ll get to that again later, probably, but I’d decided after finishing with the sixth a month or so ago that I would take the remaining five in order, and at a slower pace, perhaps a few months apart. I still have yet to digest Das Lied and the other vocal works, but I’ll get there.
I’d decided to leave Mahler’s ninth last, and had kind of a fancified image of how I would first enjoy it, hoping that in that one moment, at one pass, I would instantly understand everything the composer was trying to say.
Well, when I saw the program for the show on September 20th, I had to decide whether to give up that dream listen, a perfect first experience, for a live recording, or pass up a live recording because of a somewhat ridiculous fairytale type vision of what I wanted my experience with the piece to be. And I decided I would go to hear it live.
I am beyond glad I did, and I don’t remember what I paid for the (absolutely fantastic) seat, but

I think it was no more than $40. The program was as follows:

This is the end of a string of three or four concerts I’ve attended in the last couple of months (the next few aren’t until mid-October and November), and the best certainly was last. First was the AYO, who gave a marvelous and inspiring performance, then the TCO, with its abominable horns (but wonderful luscious strings and an amazing soprano), and then the Evergreen Symphony Orchestra, whose Mahler 5 I heard last year that got this whole ball rolling.
None of them really compare to the Taiwan Philharmonic (known locally in Chinese as the “National Symphony Orchestra”). I’ve paid more and more attention the past few years to different styles of conducting: some overbearing and intense and a bit… nosey, others somewhat un-present. We can get to that in a bit, but I have to say, I felt privileged and honored to be sitting in that same concert hall I’ve been to dozens of times to hear this director lead this orchestra. It was mind-blowing.
I’d been dealing with some kind of stomach issue earlier in the day, and even had a nap in the tub that afternoon hoping I wouldn’t see my breakfast again. I was determined not to miss the show, however, and did get to feeling tons better. I made it there, and was delighted to be sitting in the second row of the balcony, a little right of center. Wonderful seats. There weren’t many people there, and in my entire row there was only one old couple. Turns out they were to my right. I felt silly plopping down next to them with an entirely empty row, but that was my assigned seat, so plop I did. A few minutes later on my left sat down a young lady next to me, again, almost no one else in the row. We were cozy and got all ready for the opening of the show.
The first performance was a world premiere of a young 34-year-old Taiwanese composer, a work which was commissioned from her by the orchestra. It was noticeably modern, full of very interesting textures and rhythms, and lots and lots and lots of percussion. It was about twenty minutes, and was quite interesting. I didn’t mind it, but it is not in the running to become a favorite piece of mine. What I was most impressed and moved by was after the final stroke of the piece, the conductor called the composer up from the audience. She walked up on stage and took a few bows, absolutely beaming with pride and joy. I want to be there some day, so it was kind of amazing to see someone walk up from the audience to rapturous applause, knowing they just sat through something that they wrote themselves, something she created that has never before existed, and shared for the first time with that audience of however many people that happened to attend that evening. It was magical, and that was what was running through my head as the lights went up and the orchestra walked off stage for some serious rearranging.
I was a bit relieved that the first half (only in concept, not in actual time) of the program was over and I’d managed not to sick all over the row in front of me, which just so happens was occupied by a coworker and some of his friends. Small world.
On my way into the auditorium, I grabbed the 2014-15 season program for the Philharmonic as well as what I thought was the evening’s program. It was a one-page front back cardstock-type flyer. During the intermission, however, I saw people flipping through books with similar design and imagery. I asked the young lady to my left if I could borrow it and have a look. I quickly read over the program notes for the commission piece, which helped me to understand the context a bit better, and made me wish I’d read them beforehand. I was curious how long the intermission actually is. For all the dozens of times I’d attended, I never really paid attention, and I’d also never been mildly nauseated and waiting to hear the performance of an 85-minute symphony in the latter half of the program. She suggested twenty minutes, which sounded a bit long to me. She was right. During the intermission, we chatted a bit about why each of us were there (I love Mahler, and she had a friend whose parents had tickets and said friend couldn’t make it). She asked me if I wanted to look at the program again for info on the ninth, and I told her I didn’t need to. It was the sole reason I was in attendance and was looking very forward to it. Prior to this concert, I’d listened to the ninth twice: first with score in hand (on iPad…) listening to Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, and then with MTT and the San Francisco Symphony. She said the only thing she knew of the symphony was that it was famous. I shared some little tidbits of information about it, cool little bits that I hoped would put the piece in context without ruining any surprise. The lights dimmed and tons more people walked out than had been in the first half. The stage was full. Four flutes, four bassoons, three trumpets, six horns, two sets of timpani, the whole thing.
I don’t want to address the ACTUAL piece at this point… I’ve got it scheduled for something like the end of 2015 if I can stick to the current plan (but I’ll probably be too excited to wait three months between each one), but I do find it interesting that after it only being my third listen to the piece, I feel like (at least on a large scale, and perhaps even a more detailed one), I get the piece much faster than I did say, the fifth or the sixth. Part of that is probably because I’m at least somewhat used to Mahler’s work now. I would like to think I have a more trained ear for what’s going on in a piece and can grasp it better. Regardless, when those first few bars of the first movement started, I was almost in tears. It was just… spectacular.
What I DO want to focus on is the AMAZING 呂紹嘉 (Lu Shao Jia), conductor of the Taiwan Philharmonic. Check him out there on his Wikipedia page. I’d read it before, but after coming home and crawling in bed (still giddy), I browsed through some more information on the web, and his bio made me even more excited. It is really impressive, folks. He knows his stuff. While I didn’t pay as much attention to the first piece (or just didn’t know what to look for and when), his conducting of the ninth was exquisite. Back to conducting styles (or just ‘leading’ in general), he was so in control, so perfectly with it, but without being overbearing or interfering, as the case may be. He would be looking in one direction at someone or something going on and give a cue, almost as if over his shoulder, in the exact opposite direction. He was 100% in control of everything, while at the same time, making it look absolutely effortless, and therefore able to focus on the crafting, shaping, and interpretation of the phrases, and the piece on a large scale. He was energetic and vibrant, incredibly expressive, at times playful, at others vigorous, angry, intense, or solemn. A few thuds not written in the score came, not from the back of the stage, but from his jumps at the podium. After sitting through (and mostly enjoying) a few performances of less perfect ensembles, I realized I’m always holding my breath a bit, hoping no one misses their entry or the high note or whatever (as with the horns in Mahler 4; a coworker told me I was far too kind to them in that write-up). Every entry, every expression, every trill was so perfectly nuanced and balanced and fine tuned… they did just an amazing job. I was blown away.
The final movement was upon us, it seemed, so quickly… but it began, and as with any performance, there’s coughing and dropping of programs and the like, and this was no exception, but as we reached the solemn downward climax of the final movement, as the music got quieter and more solemn, so did the audience. It became still, as if the entire room had stopped breathing, waiting for the next note to eek out before the whole thing came to a silent, somber but indefinite end. So perfectly satisfyingly, it held for what felt like minutes with the maestro’s baton not so much in the air but not at his side, as if the music hadn’t so much stopped but floated away forever, and then at the perfect moment, once the maestro gave the orchestra a slight nod as if to say “I put the baton down,” there was the sudden crack of thunderous applause, and I could finally start breathing again. There were smiles on most faces, puzzlement on others. Soloists and section leaders took their bows, and the maestro came back out for a series of thank yous and bows of his own, and the concertmaster (a female, among many other female section leaders; kind of cool) stood up and took her leave. The lights went up and it was over, a very quick 85 minutes.
After the quick briefing I gave my neighbor before the symphony started, I was eager to hear what she thought of the piece with some context. Earlier in our discussion, when I asked her something (to the effect of knowing something about the piece or being familiar with it or coming to the symphony often or something), she said “of course not” and used the phrase “people like me,” so I wasn’t talking with a musician. With that in mind, I was interested to get her thoughts on the piece. The woman to my right was more fascinated with the sounds of certain instruments (she seemed surprised and a bit concerned at a certain exposed contrabassoon line). Certain sound effects and percussive gizmos in the first piece got her attention, and even some in the ninth. The contrabassoon had some strong exposed passages (first movement?), and she sat upright and scoured the ensemble to find the source of the noise, as she did with the piccolo, Eb clarinet, and English horn. She was intrigued. That was right lady. Left lady (much younger, likely younger than me), when asked about the piece, responded with “terrifying.” I giggled and asked what she meant. We talked a bit about how it’s hard for even trained ears sometimes to “get” a piece at first pass, and she said after having experienced a first listen live, it makes her want to go back and listen again or look for certain parts to get the bigger picture idea. I asked what she meant by “terrifying” and we talked about how it is frightening and intense and kind of unsettling but very beautiful and powerful. She said at the end, that it was like she couldn’t breathe. I wasn’t the only one.
All in all, it was an amazing evening. As we walked out, I wrote down my URL and told her I’d be writing about the concert in a couple weeks’ time. I think perhaps it was somewhat rude not to introduce myself. In any case, if you’re out there, symphony neighbor, hello. It was an amazing evening, and I was very glad to have been in attendance at a concert where the energy and excitement and passion in the room was palpable. It truly is an experience, and one that can’t really be conveyed in words. It is ineffable.


Thank you, Taiwan Philharmonic. And thank you, Gustav Mahler.

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