Concert Review: Taipei Symphony and Karen Gomyo

Bear with me here. This concert (or the general experience of the evening) was far more outstandingly outstanding than I’d prepared for. 

There are some concerts you look forward to and know will be once-in-a-lifetime chances, like being able to hear Gurre Lieder live last year (quite a production), or The Philharmonia last month, and some you go to just because it’s a nice chance to hear a piece live again, with no real concern for the performer or real anticipation for the program…? Think of it this way. 

There are different kinds of dinner plans: I may make plans far in advance for a fancy restaurant, maybe even save money ahead of time and splurge on the chef’s tasting menu. Other times, I may just call up some friends and to go some local watering hole (in the wall) and enjoy the experience or company more than the actual meal itself. Does that make sense?
That may sound negative, but hold on.
In my recent efforts to widen out my musical tastes and fill some gaping holes (read: Classical era), I saw the program for this show with Mozart’s fifth violin concerto and that was reason enough to buy a ticket. It’s our very own Taipei Symphony orchestra, whom I’ve heard a number of other times, each of which has been absolutely delightful. As for the pieces on the program though, (as of when I bought the ticket) I hadn’t ever heard a single one, which is rare for a concert I decide to attend. In any case, I was looking forward to the concert at the end of a very busy week. As you are reading this (assuming you are reading in within the first few hours of its posting), I am in a plane somewhere over… Alaska? Canada? The North Pole? And spent a week preparing for a last-minute trip, so it made for a nice Thursday evening (fantastic seat didn’t hurt either).
But having planned for just a nice night at the symphony, I had a number of surprises. The first was that the program had changed. There was a piece added to the top of the program, by a late Taiwanese composer, in his honor, and the very last piece on the program was Prokofiev’s ‘classical’ symphony no. 1. Wonderful!
I walked into the hall and heard one of the lectures discussing the first movement and immediately recognized it, but thought… why are they discussing this piece? I got a program and saw it was on the menu for the evening. Seems I would have remembered that, so I assume it was added later.
As I said, I had an excellent seat, perhaps one of the best in the house. First balcony (our ‘third floor’)
front row, just stage right of center. I guess the aisle for that section would technically be the best, but it was darn good nonetheless.
In at least the last few concerts I’ve attended with the Taipei Symphony, I’ve noticed Maestro Gilbert Varga’s habit of addressing the audience prior to the performance. As he doesn’t speak Chinese, he has a translator for him. Last year for a Tchaikovsky concert, it was the sole trumpet in the orchestra; last week it was one of the assistant conductors. I commented in the past on how I felt about this habit. On the one hand it feels…. I won’t say unprofessional, but a bit… casual? That is my initial impression, but I also love listening, so it didn’t take long for me to really enjoy what he has to say. Why? Because he is passionate.
He shares his thoughts or feelings or opinions about the pieces and/or the program and/or the soloist, tells a story, etc. It changes the atmosphere from one of perhaps a stuffy, fancy highbrow affair into one that’s friendly, welcoming, inviting, and passionate. He told a story about the CPE Bach piece (after giving a bit of background about the composer) and how he played in in East Germany and the orchestra was very proud of the piece so they played it standing up, and that when he suggested to the orchestra that they do the same (or just asked if they would be willing to), they instantly agreed, so we got to experience that piece, harpsichord and all. More about that later.
No matter how you feel about breaking the fourth wall, Varga makes the audience part of the experience and shares his excitement for what they’re going to be doing that evening. It’s endearing.
The first piece was the 蕭泰然 piece, a short, pastoral silky beautiful work. The whole evening was dedicated to him. It was the first piece on the program.
Second was the CPE Bach symphony. Lights go down, ushers come out, chairs disappear, music stands come up, harpsichord appears, shuffle shuffle shuffle, place place place, people disappear and lights come back up for a standing and much smaller ensemble. I seem to remember that Varga conducted most of the evening with no scores. Having never heard the piece and being woefully unfamiliar with Baroque and Classical era music (relative to more modern stuff), I was shocked at how… electrifying and emotional and lively the piece was. They played it so crisply and articulately, every thing was crystal clear, and it was a real joy to listen to. One of those performances that makes you think… “I need to look into this further.” One is also reminded of the limitations of the harpsichord…
Lights down. Shuffle shuffle ushers seats music stands shifting clacking back to larger ensemble lights up next piece.
Next was the Mozart concerto. I know very little about Mozart’s (many many many) works, so this one was entirely new. Ms. Karen Gomyo made her way onto the stage and the piece began.
I had heard Ms. Hilary Hahn just a few months back in a solo recital and was blown away by the program, but it was a recital, so only piano (and sometimes not even that). It was wonderful to hear a soloist (equally fascinating) in the context of a full ensemble. The thing that blew me away about Hahn’s recital was how such a tiny instrument fills a concert hall and how the writing (like in the Bach partita) sounds so full and so like an entire string quartet from a quartet of only four strings.
What was so captivating in this piece was not only Mozart’s superb composition, but the violin’s (or probably more accurately, Gomyo’s) ability to stand up to the sound of a full orchestra. While I won’t say I like this one as much as concertos from… oh, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Schoenberg, or even Mendelssohn, and I’d never heard it before, so I have nothing to compare the performance to, except that Gomyo seemed at once intensely focused but also quite… at ease? Effortless? One of those inspiring performances where you aren’t holding your breath hoping everything is okay. It was beautiful and clear and charismatic.
The concerto itself is a piece I will have to listen to a few more times to come to appreciate. As with the clarinet quintet last week, it may take some time, but once I ‘got’ it, in its different, perhaps more understated facets, it proved to be stunningly beautiful. I can’t comment as much about that piece. We then had the intermission.
Upon return, the second half opened with three of Sibelius’ six Humoresques, numbers 3, 1 and 2 in that order. Surprisingly, it was not only Ms. Gomyo’s first time in Taiwan (that’s not so surprising; we live in a small place) but also apparently the first time these pieces had been performed in this country. I found that kind of hard to believe, and don’t know based upon what information this was stated, but Varga mentioned it a few times, so it was kind of a nice treat. He also shared at the beginning of the concert (in his opening statements) that the Humoresques are somewhat un-Sibelius-y in that they aren’t the dark, heavy kind of brooding sound people associate with most of his works, but are generally light, friendly happy pieces, and that they were. I took to them more than I did the Mozart concerto because they are closer to my personal tastes, and they are wonderful little pieces. I thoroughly enjoyed them, and it seems Gomyo did too. She got roars of applause for these.
I noticed Gomyo was wearing flats, which was a good thing, because she walked off stage and back on oh, probably ten times. She gave three encore pieces. We are an audience that doesn’t stop clapping. I’ve seen Lisitsa and Salonen and Dutoit say “goodybe” and walk off stage. Dutoit even grabbed the first violin’s hand and taking the Royal Philharmonic with him after he’d bowed enough. Gomyo was generous enough to give three encores. The first and third were Piazzolla, and the middle was Bach, and they were hands down the highlight of the evening. Just as a cadenza in a concerto is the soloist’s chance to show off and do his/her thing, the encore is a pared down, more intimate, almost spiritual kind of experience. The audience gets quieter, the hall suddenly gets (feels) smaller, and everyone sits on the edge of their seats for the performance. Her performances were no less than absolutely captivating. It was clear she is passionate about these pieces, the Piazzolla in particular. In fact, her website states his works have been a special focus of hers, and rightly so. They were intense. Had the concert been just her playing Piazzolla etudes all evening, I’d have been thrilled.
But there was still more to come. That was the last of Gomyo for a while, and we get back to the orchestra itself. We’re now to the piece I’d been surprised and thoroughly excited to hear, because I absolutely love this piece. I’ve heard lots of recordings, and heard another local orchestra perform it, but wasn’t … terribly… impressed. I’ve met Mr. Varga once before, and like I said, have heard the Taipei Symphony on a few other occasions, so I was excited to see how they would interpret this piece. I am used to Koussevitzky’s recording from ages ago with the Boston Symphony, the outrageously fast one. It’s so clean and crisp and lively. But many people criticize it for being too fast, glossing over all the intricate detail of what Prokofiev put into this piece.
It’s easy to call ‘misstep’ when you’re familiar with ONE particular recording of a piece and a live performance doesn’t exactly match that. But that’s unrealistic. In any case, the downbeat came and the orchestra burst alive into the classical symphony. And how was it?
I had chills for most of the piece. In his opening statement, Mr. Varga so perfectly explained Prokofiev’s idea with this piece: as almost a caricature (well he didn’t say that, but that’s what it is) of a Haydn-esque symphony: the style, the structure the overall idea, but with modern techniques, and that it’s very challenging for an orchestra to do well. He stated that it’s about a 14-minute piece, which made me worry that they were going to take it slow.
The first movement was slightly slower than the Koussevitzky I’m used to, but then again, almost everything is. It was lively and fast, but just not-so-fast-enough that you could savor the detail, and there were some things I hadn’t heard before. It instantly brought a smile to my face. The second and third movements were delightful and delicate, humorous but lyrical and sweet. The fourth was as blisteringly, breathtakingly fast as it should be, but perfectly, masterfully articulated. There was no slop, no dragging, no running-together-of-notes from the flutes with their repeated articulations. Something that literally kind of made me gasp in places was the phenomenal degree of dynamic variation. The music would swell and swoon, or suddenly explode at fff or drop to nothing. This was an interpretation like I’ve never heard before. It packed so much intensity and detail into an admittedly tiny little work. I was blown away.
I had the chance to share these sentiments with both Ms. Gomyo and Mr. Varga after the concert, and I got pictures and autographs, the pictures of the former I will not be sharing because I’m in them. But I will say the two of them are as delightful and friendly in person as they are professional and virtuosic on stage. Really a delight. Also, in both of the recent concerts I’ve attended, Varga has arranged a meet-and-greet. To me, that says something about a person. He’s not just concerned with that persona or aura on stage, waving his hands and pointing a baton. It’s things like the pre-concert comments and meeting the audience afterward that give you the impression that this is a man who cares not about his job as a title or position of authority, but as a responsibility to art, to the audience, and takes the time to meet people after the show. It’s a small thing, maybe, to sit down at a table and shake hands and sign your signature on a picture of your face, but many don’t take the time to do it.

So all in all, it was a wonderful evening, to a surprising degree. The Taipei Symphony is really spectacular, and as I told Varga how impressed I was with the Prokofiev, he was genuinely proud of them, stating that it’s even more an accomplishment when you consider they performed as well as they did at the end of a two-hour concert. He was really proud of what they did. Maybe it takes a person who is as excited about this stuff as I am to appreciate it, but it means something to see the kinds of human qualities in a performance and the performers. It was a surprisingly, exceedingly delightful evening, and I will be in attendance at as many of the Taipei Symphony’s performances as possible.
As a matter of fact, there’s one coming up in just a few weeks that is one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and I’m sure it will bring me to tears. But that’s for another day.
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