Concert Review: Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra in Taipei

Once in a while, there’s a thing that you look so forward to that you can’t even concentrate, the day seems to go by slowly, and you cannot wait for this thing you know will be so amazing to arrive.
Perhaps it’s a dinner at a fancy restaurant, or a vacation, or some kind of meaningful thing; it’s different for everyone. But then when you get there and it starts happening, it’s more meaningful and powerful and enjoyable and moving than you had thought it could be. Even the highest of expectations were exceeded.

Perhaps that sounds corny, but it’s exactly how I felt seeing the Philharmonia Orchestra with Esa-Pekka Salonen last week here in our very own National Concert Hall. It was absolutely mind-blowingly spectacular.
I saw the listing on the program back in January, I think, and was worried I was too late. The February and March programs are always listed together here. Chinese New Year falls within those months, and the concert hall closes down for yearly repairs and maintenance, so the programs are condensed down, and I didn’t pick up a program until sometime mid-January-ish, I think. I was so excited to see that they were coming. I had a sudden, last-minute accident of a chance to see the Royal Philharmonic in 2013 for free. Sat front row and got to see and hear Mr. Charles Dutoit himself  stomp and conduct and lead an amazing program, and even got to shake his hand and get an autograph after the performance. That was a phenomenal concert.

I was equally as excited about this one, if not more, because I knew about it six weeks ahead of time, not two hours (literally). Well, I wasn’t too late, but the cheapest seats in the house were almost $60 and way up in the stratosphere.
Let me explain: $60 is the most I’ve paid for any concert here in years. I’ve seen like, Hilary Hahn, Valentina Lisitsa, and the like, and paid for excellent seats, and they weren’t as expensive as this. The other side of that coin is that in the West, $60 is pocket change for something like this. I’m not complaining. Also, I’ve sat in just about every section of our concert hall, and some seats are a little more awkward than others, but there’s really not a bad seat in the house. I’ve paid $10 to sit the absolute farthest away from the stage as it’s possible to be, and it was still quite a nice little vantage point.
I”d probably already had the ticket for a month before I went back to look at the program, and I was a little disappointed. I was originally under the impression that I was going to be seeing
Sibelius’ violin concerto (but that was actually another concert that was already sold out), and the second night, at a concert in southern Taiwan, they’d be performing Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto with Yefim Bronfman. I felt a bit… cheated. But then I didn’t.
Anyway, 19:30 couldn’t come fast enough on Thursday. I was thrilled. I felt privileged and excited to even be walking into the concert hall, the same one I’d been to dozens of times before. I was also quite pleased to have bought tickets to three more shows in the coming months (of which you will eventually hear).
I’m not terribly familiar with Finlandia, and I’m probably the least familiar with Sibelius’ fifth and sixth symphonies, but Beethoven’s third is a piece I’ve recently come to adore. I took the elevator to the top floor, where there was a VIP reception for VIP people or something, and the upstairs lobby area smelled like old books, whiskey and champagne (so, pretty darn good) but I made my way to my seat.
I’m always pleased at the actual not-so-bad-ness of the seats I’m not excited to get assigned. The next big nerve-racker is to see who’s going to be sitting next to you. I was fortunate this go-round: no talkers or coughers or children or anything.
I digress. Lights go down and Salonen walks out. Even from the fourth floor balcony, he has a commanding presence. I know it’s all in my head, but even the lighting seems crisper, brighter, clearer, and he gives us a deep bow before the deep downbeat of Finlandia. It’s an early (certainly earlier) Sibelius piece, so I was familiar with the style once it got going. I had goosebumps throughout most of the piece. It seemed just effortless, but at the same time, the focus and intensity was almost palpable. Salon seems to have an intense personality, which would be in keeping with the personalities of most of the Finns I know. These people just seemed so focused, so absorbed, and it was apparent not only in their expressions, their body language, but in the music itself.
Finlandia was kind of an amuse bouche, an appetizer, as the other two pieces on the program were big works.
I cannot express how deeply satisfied I was to hear them perform Eroica live. I don’t want to get too much into the piece itself, but it’s one of those that… has slowly grown on me to the point that it is one of the most deeply moving, almost spiritual listening experiences that could be had. I was fortunate enough to get a ticket last minute to hear the Asian Youth Orchestra perform the piece back in August of 2014, and it was when I was just starting to appreciate it. The piece wasn’t challenging in the way that Mahler or Bruckner or Schoenberg are. The piece is undoubtedly pretty even at first listen, but the deeper you dig, the more it offers; it has such incredible depth and kind of an understated, reserved (in modern terms, not of the time) perfection. Everything is so perfectly in place, perfectly balanced, that it’s just mind-boggling.
So to have the chance to hear an ensemble like the Philharmonia perform it with such apparent ease was really kind of a once-in-a-lifetime treat, since I don’t live in the UK. I knew I would be pleased and excited and thrilled to have attended, and I generally do a good job of keeping expectations in check, but I was absolutely blown away. We’ll actually be getting around to Eroica in a few months, so I don’t want to get too much into it, but I got teary-eyed.
It actually reminded me of a dessert I had once. Actually on a few occasions. I had the chance recently to visit Joel Robuchon’s L’Atelier here in Taipei for lunch, and needless to say it was exquisite. But my first visit to any of his establishments was his café downstairs, with desserts, tea, pastries, sandwiches and the like. I got a small lemon cake. I can’t even describe to you how good it was. It was unbelievable, and to describe something seemingly so simple in such detail seems almost absurd, but it was like that on each of the occasions that I’d visited. Whatever dessert it was (or even the amazing lunch upstairs), there was such detail and precision. Each dish, each bite, had an overall flavor, but within that, each individual ingredient could almost be isolated and identified individually, it was that clean and balanced and perfectly executed.
That’s what it was like to listen to Eroica. Everything there was to be heard was heard in perfect balance, nothing was drowned out, nothing was missing, nothing was out of place. The horns were stunningly beautiful, every entry, every question-and-answer, every expression was in just the right place and proportion. It’s not like an orchestra of this caliber is going to play a wrong note, or miscount an entry or anything of the kind, but the degree of detail and precision in the performance, balanced with a moving lyricism, energy, and expression was just stunning.
The first movement was so riveting and exciting that it garnered an applause from the audience before the march funebre. They behaved themselves for the rest of the piece and no applauses were given until the end of the fourth movement. It was sublime.
There were two young ladies to my left, and I’m not sure with what regularity they attend, or why they decided to buy tickets to the show, but they were at once quite unfamiliar and interested in what was happening. Their ears perked up at pizzicato passages as they tried to figure out where the sounds were coming from, and during the intermission, I got asked questions like “which one is the flute?” “those are French horns, right?” and “why did the conductor leave and come back so many times?” So they were relative newbies, but quite engaged listeners. The one directly to my left bobbed her head (or just nodded in comprehension of the music) during Eroica at every opportunity she could. The program listed the approximate lengths of the pieces. It had Finlandia at 8 mins, Eroica at 50, and Sibelius’ fifth at 30. They seemed a bit shocked at a fifty-minute piece, and asked me during the intermission “so, they shouldn’t have clapped after the first movement, should they?” We chatted a bit about music and styles and instrumentation during the intermission, and then lights went down and Salonen reappeared, all in black.
His conducting of the Sibelius symphony seemed quite different than the Beethoven. I don’t know what real merit there is in talking about Germans performing German repertoire, Russians playing Russian pieces, or a Finn conducting Finnish music, but I’m inclined to say that his leading of the Beethoven was out of responsibility almost to Beethoven himself, out of honor for a sacrosanct piece of the repertoire, and he did it justice. In contrast, well… they are two radically different works, but that aside, it felt like the music was his. It felt like an expression from him, from the orchestra, it felt personal and kind of ethereally powerful in a different way.
The miss sitting next to me had a much harder time finding a place to bob her head or sway to the music, and I feel they were left a little more perplexed after the Sibelius symphony. It has its moments of absolutely stunning beauty, but there were also parts where my neighbors seemed a bit confused.
There is a succession. of. punctuated. few. chords. at. the end of the piece, and the audience was so into the piece that they broke out into applause after the first, not even waiting for the conductor to lower his baton, but they quickly realized their mistake and waited for the piece to actually finish.

Anteeksi, herra Salonen; I had to snap a photo

We got an encore after three re-entries from Salonen. He stood on the podium and put his finger to his lips to hush the applause, announced a title I didn’t understand and conducted sans baton a wonderful little piece…
I walked around to the back of the hall where the coach buses are always waiting for the performers, and got to shake hands with the timpanist, one Paul Philbert, who I thoroughly enjoyed watching throughout the entire piece. He moved about as much as his mallets did; he was quite intense. We chatted a bit about the tour and their next leg onto Japan, but I was too excited to think to ask about the encore piece. A small group of us had the same idea, and waited for Salonen. After about 20 minutes, he appeared, but once he made his way outside, he apologized, said “I’m sorry, not tonight,” and slipped into his car. I can understand that. But I would have been pleased to shake his hand.
It was an incredible evening, far more enjoyable and impressive than I’d imagined, an evening that currently stands as the greatest musical experience I’ve ever had.
Thanks, Philharmonia. It was spectacular.

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