Concert Review: 2015師大音樂系交響樂團公演: Phenomenon

The 2015 NTNUSO Concert: Phenomenon

So, this is one of those concerts you go to for fun. I had the same feelings about a concert last month with the Taipei Symphony, and was blown away.

The last concert we reviewed (last week) was the Taipei Symphony’s performance of Mahler 3 under Maestro Eliahu Inbal. This concert was the day after that.
I was invited a few days ahead of time to go with a friend at the university who had tickets. I didn’t know anything on the program, but it was a nice opportunity to go, so I certainly didn’t decline.
The program was as follows:

The Phenomenon- for orchestra was a world premiere of a piece by a professor at the same university. It’s always a bit of a different listening exercise to listen to a literally brand new piece, a piece you’ve never heard by a composer you don’t know, and with very little program notes (save whatever you can read from the Chinese program in the dark during the piece). It was enjoyable, quite dramatic, modern, lots of percussion-y effects. Webern’s Passacaglia came to mind, but not for any reason that the two are in any way similar. It’s kind of like when you suddenly feel one person looks like someone else simply because they happened to move in a way or do something that reminded you of that person; it’s perhaps just a cerebral connection more than an actual similarity. In any case, it was quite nice, and it is always touching to see the conductor turn around and point to a member of the audience when that member of the audience is the composer herself. She came onstage to accept a bouquet amidst a round of applause. Bravo.
The next piece, I will say, was the real gem of the evening. Alexander Rudin was the guest for the evening, and he performed Haydn’s first cello concerto (in C) from the podium while conducting. I’ve never been in attendance at a performance where a pianist conducted from the piano, but have certainly seen them online. I have never even seen online a performance where a cellist (or any other -ist) took on the dual role of conductor and soloist, but it was wonderful. A small, very connected, focused ensemble, and a very passionate performer. I only later did some research on Rudin, and for some reason it surprised me that he is Russian, not for any reason to do with his playing.
The piece was crisp, fresh, easy to follow, and thoroughly enjoyable. There were a few missteps with a horn or two, but for the most part, the entire thing was smooth, together, and excellently executed (for someone who’s never heard the work before). My ultimate takeaway from the piece was to learn just how fast and how high a cello can be played. Rudin’s performance was stunning and quite enjoyable.
The next three bits were parts from Mozart operas performed by a Japanese tenor. They were from Cosi Fan Tutte, Don Giovanni, and Die Zauberflöte, respectively. Of everything that evening, these three little excerpts were the things I know the least about. I know virtually nothing about opera, but I can say they were Mozart-esque, and it was nice to experience some small little bits, have a small taste, of what it just might be like to see one of these live. That was over pretty quickly, and then we had the intermission.
After the intermission were the other real meaty parts of the concert, Tchaikovsky’s overture to Romeo and Juliet (which I should arguably be far more familiar with) and Ravel’s Daphne et Chloe suite no. 2.
The Tchaikovsky piece was performed well. It felt like Tchaikovsky, and it felt like his late symphonies. There were again, some misses in the horn section, but overall, it was an impressive performance for a non-professional orchestra.
I was most impressed with the performance of the Ravel piece. While I’m not terribly familiar with the content of the piece, I am generally familiar with the… style, with how it should feel, and it always impresses me. My first thought when listening to the performance (having heard this for the first time in a very long while) was ‘Stravinsky,’ for possibly the same reasons mentioned above, being not so much an actual similarity as much a mental trigger or connection of some kind. Ravel is (obviously) far more French, and far less Stravinsky than Stravinsky, but part of the reason this came to mind was in recent talks with a friend about their rehearsal and performance of the Firebird suite, also from a university ensemble. It’s an ambitious work, no doubt, and we chatted about the issues of counting and getting the feel for the piece. While Daphne et Chloe isn’t as… outlandish or wind or over the top as Firebird, some of the texture and orchestration and the sounds that Ravel produces are just as amazing. They elicit feelings and emotions and textures that are almost palpable. It’s incredible that one ensemble (rather large, mind you, at least relative to the preceding Mozart and Haydn pieces) can unitedly produce such varied yet interconnected sounds and effects so unitedly. It is genuinely breathtaking. I very much enjoyed the piece.
As I’ve mentioned before in talking about performances (especially of this ensemble, whom I’ve seen at least three times over the past few years, and who has taken on really wonderful and impressive programs), it can be challenging, even unfair to talk about the interpretations of pieces that one is used to from recordings of, oh, say, the Berlin Philharmonic or Chicago Symphony or something. You can’t go into every concerto with those expectations, and if you do, you’ll be disappointed.
Walking into a concert with a university orchestra, one I’ve seen multiple times and possibly even know (of) a few people sitting on stage, it’s hard to be critical. These are young performers, and what’s really so exciting about it is that sitting in that ensemble (of anywhere from 30-100, depending on the night), especially from this university, which is pretty standardly accepted as having the best music program in the country, are at least a few musicians who will undoubtedly go on to have wonderful careers. A few of my friends there are just one generation of teachers removed from people like Earl Wild and Brian Ferneyhough (i.e. students of students of…), and that’s no guarantee of success, but it does say something of the connectedness of the institution and the quality of the training they are getting. I find that inspiring, the interest and dedication of a group of young people who could be (and might still be, I suppose) wasting their time on frivolous or unsavory pursuits instead focusing and training and learning an art that, by some accounts, is dying. Let us hope and pray that is not the case.
Great job, guys, and I look forward to your next concert.

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