Concert Review: Taipei Symphony- Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff

Concerts have become a bit slow-going in the summer. I’m pretty okay with that, though. There are some big ones coming up soon that I need to save up for. But perhaps aside from one or two graduation recitals (which I think were actually in May, so no), this was the first concert of the month of June, and one of perhaps only two. Let’s talk about it.
Mr. Gilbert Varga is back in town with our Taipei Symphony Orchestra. Last time I heard them play was under The Great Maestro Eliahu Inbal. What a pleasure, a privilege to see/hear him lead the performance of Mahler’s enormous third symphony. It was incredible. Their prior performance was with the delightful Karen Gomyo, who performed Mozart’s fifth violin concerto, and Prokofiev’s first symphony was on the program, a piece they nailed.
In any case, I’ve been increasingly more impressed with their concerts and have been looking very forward to hearing more of them. This same day, I went to the ticket counter at the national theatre and bought tickets to seven or eight of their concerts for the upcoming season. Sabine Meyer will be performing the Copland concerto, Håkan Hardenberger will be performing someone’s trumpet concerto (at different events!), and lots more really good stuff, so I’m increasingly more proud of another of our local ensembles, and last night’s concert was no exception.

Only two pieces on the program: Shostakovich’s first violin concerto, and Rachmaninoff’s The Bells. I had never listened to either of these pieces, and I decided earlier in the day to keep it that way.
As usual, Maestro Varga came out to give us a small introduction of the pieces with our soloist and translator for the evening,  Cho-Liang Lin (林昭亮). They spoke briefly about the four distinct movements of the Shostakovich as well as its exceptionally long cadenza, and then about Rachmaninoff’s Bells, and its four-movement structure. Varga expressed his joy at being able
to work with Lin, as well as the chorus for the first time. They then disappeared and the program began.
Having recently heard Shostakovich’s eighth symphony performed by our National Symphony, I had done some listening to that work and some of the others of that relative time period. And it’s heavy stuff. Doing a little bit of reading about the history of the pieces during that time period (40s-50s), one can see why. Lin spoke about the fear and dread that Shostakovich lived with, always prepared to run from whatever authorities might decide it was time to apprehend him, and it was this preface to the work, introduction of the DSCH theme, and things of a similar nature that probably helped the audience to come to get the work more. He spoke of the ‘nocturne’ first movement and said “It’s no Chopin nocturne, no, it’s a dark, eerie piece. The composer is looking for something, but we don’t know what.” I paraphrase.
So hopefully everyone knew at this point that we weren’t going to be enjoying a violin concerto like Mendelssohn or Bruch or Tchaikovsky or even Sibelius. Lin also mentioned that, along with Berg, Bartók, (maybe he mentioned Schoenberg?), this is one of the more… unique, iconic 20th century concertos, and I think it helped some folks be a bit more patient with the work. It felt like it wasn’t until the third movement that there was really a flowing sink-your-teeth-into-it kind of whole-orchestra melody that most ‘classic’ violin concertos offer. Again, I’d never heard the piece, but it was intense, the performance from everyone involved was spectacular. Lin was in the piece, especially during the cadenza, the entire performance a pleasure to see live. Well, except for the heartbreaking dark sorrow of the piece. It’s beautiful in a very painful way, but it’s also the kind of music that makes you feel like you’ve experienced something. That is a feeling I don’t get from watching the Mendelssohn, Bruch, etc. This was a special moment, with a phenomenally accomplished violinist who bared his (and the composer’s) soul in a more intimate setting than the National Concert Hall, for better or worse. It was a joy to be in attendance. The encore after his performance, with help from a violinist and some other first-row musicians, was a movement from a Vivaldi piece, needless to say in great contrast with what had just been offered up. It was a much-needed lighter feeling for some.

I wanted to fast-forward through the intermission, with people on phones and waiting in lines for potty breaks and chatting with people.
How exciting it is to see risers filled with people dressed in black and white walk towards the center of the stage in opposite directions. The only times I’ve been at choral+symphonic performances were Gurre-Lieder, Mahler’s third, and some excerpt of a Bruckner piece somewhere…?
In any case, it’s exciting. Rachmaninoff’s The Bells is certainly an interesting piece, and with the tenor, soprano, and baritone, chorus and large orchestra, it reminded me of something Mahler-esque. The first two movements were surprisingly… light, or more so than I expected. It was the third and fourth that got really heavy. It was really something to see Varga in complete control of the entire ensemble, chorus and all, during a movement as stormy as the third. As successful and popular a piece as this is, I’m not sure how often we would have occasion here in Taiwan to hear it, so I was delighted to be in attendance.
An entirely Russian evening it was. The three vocal soloists were all Russian as well, and it struck me… the contrasts between two so very Russian composers. I think of a symphony like Rachmaninoff’s second, a big, modern, Romantic piece with all its emotion, dark corners, sweeping melodies… and of Shostakovich’s symphonies, from a man who greatly admired Mahler. The contrast between these two Russian composers and their styles is obvious, as are the reasons: climate change (of a political nature). I don’t have a ton to say about that because I haven’t done enough research, but Rachmaninoff died in 1943, just a few years before this piece is to have begun being written. Shostakovich was also just coming into his career as a musician of note while Rachmaninoff was already in America. How would Rachmaninoff have reacted in Shostakovich’s situation? What would Rachmaninoff’s output would have been like in Shostakovich’s shoes (and had he lived another three decades)? It’s quite a contrast, and while each of these two works mourns different things in different ways (granted, not all of Rachmaninoff’s bells are mourning bells), the way they go about it is very different.
But still very Russian.
I’m looking very forward to more from the TSO this fall. Hope to see you there!

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