Concert Review: TSO’s Passion for Tchaikovsky

Taipei Symphony Orchestra under Gilbert Varga
Anna Vinnitskaya, piano
November 15, 2014

I shamefully have waited over a month to get around to writing some little bit about this performance. It’s a bit of a break from our Germanic thing we’ve been on for a while, and now it’s been so long that I may not be able to do it justice, but it must be written!

It was not at the National Concert Hall, where most performances take place, but was down the road a bit at another venue. I’ve attended there before, and while it doesn’t have the beauty and magnificence of the big concert hall I’m used to, it is a nice venue, significantly smaller, but pleasant in an inviting and more intimate way. It feels… perhaps somewhat less highbrow (?) (that is not at all the word I’m looking for, but it feels more like a place I wouldn’t mind seeing an entire family with kids that might be loud all coming to enjoy a performance, whereas I expect everyone in the concert hall to behave and shut their mouths and pay attention; perhaps that has nothing to do with the hall, but it’s a nice place nonetheless.)
I’d heard the Taipei Symphony before, and I bought this ticket way in advance, around mid-September, I want to say. It was around the time I was preparing to write about
Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, and so I thought it appropriate, even though it wouldn’t be in time for my article. Also, I’d never heard that piece live.
In keeping with what I’d already explained to be a more…. family-friendly (or relaxed?) atmosphere, Mo. Varga and the principal (and only?) trumpet came out onto the stage for a bit of an introduction. Mr. Varga does not (to my knowledge) speak Chinese, so the principal trumpet, Mr. Deng, interpreted for him. His messages were of thanks for their supporters, both emotional and financial, and there was clapping for important people in attendance, etc., but the most touching thing was what came next. There’s a lot of politics everywhere, and the standing and recognition and applause was lost on me, but Mr. Varga’s next plea was for a home.
The TSO is a homeless orchestra. I’m not sure where they were referring to as their home for rehearsals, but it apparently is less than ideal. Mr. Varga communicated that tactfully. When it came time for it to be translated, Mr. Deng presented it something like this:
“Yes, Mr. Varga says our accommodations are quite nice. We have a water fountain, and some carpet, and a window…. It’s really great.” The humor was appreciated, and the point made. It’s a shame that an ensemble of this caliber doesn’t have their own performance venue.
It got me to thinking about the idea of an orchestra as… well, there’s the proverbial starving artist, and everyone hears about struggling orchestras and folding music programs, but the TSO is really top-notch; they just need facilities. Of course, that comes with a price tag, but how wonderful it would be if they had a much fuller regular season in a place of their own. That’s politics galore, but as a paying member of the audience, I’d be in attendance.
They talked for a bit about the program being an all-Tchaikovsky program they are (well, were; that’s done now) taking on tour through Japan and are actually planning on staging the entire Eugene Onegin at some point. In any case, they also had three encores, a Taiwanese one, something else, and then another Tchaikovsky excerpt from The Nutcracker. 
And we get started. The Polonaise from Eugene Onegin was a nice start. Overtures at the beginning of programs not including the rest of the work always feel like a bit of an appetizer to me, but how could one not be excited by an all-Tchaikovsky program? This was a nice start.
The real reason I’d attended, as mentioned earlier, was for the piano concerto, and Ms. Vannitskaya was introduced (perhaps before the overture, actually). Mr. Varga was proud to say he’d worked with Ms. Vannitskaya before and performed this piece in the past. The program had originally included Prokofiev’s frighteningly difficult second piano concerto, but Mr. Varga said Ms. Vannitskaya was pregnant at the time, crossed his arms in front of him at about the elbows and said “there was too much of this,” for her to be able to play it with child, so they performed the Tchaikovsky.
I don’t know if it’s perhaps an unfounded cliche or some kind of musical placebo effect, but it felt like… a Russian woman playing a (very famous) Russian concerto was so perfect. That doesn’t necessarily mean she has some innate insight into the music, but she certainly has a pedigree that would make you think so: both of her parents are pianists, and her list of awards at international piano competitions is impressive. Needless to say, it was a stunning performance.
There’s always something… uniquely different about attending a live performance for me. I am not super literate when it comes to score-reading (perhaps it would be easier if those scores weren’t on an iPad), so even following along in the score, I may not always see when an instrument comes in, or hear the difference between two sections’ orchestration or something, but it’s hard to miss that live, when you’re watching everyone work together. It’s much clearer when you’re hearing the sound and see in real time that it’s the cellos making that sound that maybe you thought was the basses or something. I don’t know. I just mean to say I enjoy live performances of pieces, especially if I’ve recently given them quite a bit of attention.
Lastly was Tchaikovsky’s famous sixth symphony, the pathetique. Why in the hell haven’t I given this piece more time? I’ve listened to it before, obviously, and was impressed, but… never got around to really paying it much attention. I love his fourth and fifth symphonies, and so I’m not sure why I didn’t ever get around to making a more concerted effort with the sixth. Perhaps it was just the experience of hearing it live that blew me away. I heard the fourth and fifth multiple times in the past few years on various programs, but never the sixth for some reason, and the piece (and/or the performance) left me in awe, kind of dumbfounded as to why I hadn’t had this realization with the piece before. It’s obviously quite a famous piece in the repertoire, but I walked out of the auditorium (after three delightful encores) with definite intention to get around to writing about the pathetique. 
I was able to shake hands with and get autographs from the beautiful Ms. Vannitskaya and Mr. Varga. I am hoping to get in touch with him again and have a chat, but just being the principal conductor of an ensemble in my city doesn’t mean he’s always around, so that may be challenging. He also has some connections to my hometown orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony. In any case, it was nice to hear him speak for a while about his passion and his orchestra and share some anecdotes. It’s not often that you can have that kind of interaction, and perhaps in some settings it would be considered… inappropriate or not appreciated, especially if it went on ad nauseam but it didn’t. It made him seem human, and approachable, and passionate.
I’ve realized there are TONS of orchestras and ensembles here in Taipei. Perhaps there were back in Atlanta, too, and I just wasn’t as aware, but I will say I’ve been to some performances here with ensembles that… left something to be desired. However, I left the hall that night, autographed program in hand, thoroughly impressed with the evening; not just that it was as good as it should have been, but that it was a privilege to be in attendance, that there were only however many seats there with only however many people there, and I was one of them. The TSO gave a wonderful performance, and I am eager to hear them again soon.

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