2015/16 Concert Season: Salon Concert

This is apparently an NSO tradition: the salon concert to kick off the season and/or celebrate the release of the program for the upcoming year, and I was thrilled to have been included. The program is below, followed by some thoughts I had during the program, followed by a recap.
click here for a readable version

I didn’t know much about it before it was mentioned to me, and to be perfectly honest, it seemed like something I wouldn’t be too interested in. I’m not a fan of medleys or performances of excerpts and all that, and this ‘salon concert’ was just that: individual movements of pieces by different performers interspersed with talks and introductions about the composers and the works at hand.

But then I got a connection. A friend was able to get me a ticket, which was a good thing. You see, the day was a very busy one for me, and the concert is first-come-first-serve. I was also able to get my season ticket for the NSO (yay!!!) earlier that day (20+ concerts on this year’s program) but wasn’t able to procure a ticket for the evening’s event.
After an extremely busy day of work-related things and a few changes of attire, I was barely able to make it to the national theatre by 7 pm, and there was a line winding through the lobby and out the door for people waiting to get in. Doors open at 7 pm, 200 seats, first-come-first-serve, #201 gets turned away. Free tickets, no assigned seating.
I go to the desk and ask some faces I know how this works. Thankfully, the very helpful lady I asked earlier in the afternoon saw me and gave me my ticket, and said I don’t need to wait in line for a ticket since I already have one, but there may only be seats in the back left once all the early birds get in. Apparently people started waiting in line two or three hours early.
Long story short is, I get in after the masses, and plan to sit in the back, but the usher ushers me to the front since my ticket is apparently for seats reserved for employees, etc. I get my seat in the third row and am very pleased.
Anyway, concert begins. “Salon concert” apparently means a more relaxed presentation of excerpts of pieces, individual movements of works, interspersed with conversations and discussions between the NSO’s resident lecturer, one 焦元博 and music director 呂紹嘉. The first half of the program was organized chronologically: Schubert, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann (x2), Brahms. The pieces represent composers whose works will be performed this year, and were chosen by the music director as representative of that composer’s style. That is to say, the works performed that evening (excerpts from Midsummer Night’s Dream and Othello aside) are not the works that will be performed throughout the season but are good representations of the composers whose other (generally symphonic) works will be performed this year.
Overall, it was a fantastic chance to get to know (well, see) the performers more intimately and listen to a man who is almost completely silent throughout all the fantastic performances I’ve ever seen of the NSO, our music director. It was a rare chance to hear his thoughts, impressions and reflections on the composers and some of the pieces to be performed. Very enjoyable, very insightful. I just wish he’d had the chance to speak more, or even alone. I had originally included this at the end of the article, but I feel they are more universal and salient observations of the evening than the actual content of the program itself, so I’ve moved it up. The recap of the evening follows:

* * *

1. Classical music is not dead, at least not in Taipei. While it’s very small scale compared to pop music concerts, there were people lined up out the door, giddy with excitement to rush in and get their seats. There was a general buzz of energy in the small, intimate setting, with the audience jammed together and the performers up close. It was encouraging to see a very devoted fanbase for a truly wonderful local ensemble with a strong interaction with their listeners. The date was also the one on which season tickets were released. It felt like an anticipatory celebration of a really great orchestra, an organization dedicated to providing and producing exceptional music for us, not just the “paying customers” but with some sort of, almost a camaraderie. The point was made that it’s not an aristocracy or some stuffy elitist affair. While it was limited, the reserved or employee seating was not all reserved for the front rows. Those were for the people who had the determination to wait for three and a half hours and skip dinner to attend, and I found that forethought endearing.
2. The diversity of people in attendance was nice. While the vast majority of people there were at least my parents’ age (or someone’s parents’ age, or even grandparents’ age…), there were some junior-high school aged people in attendance, folks who probably weren’t old enough to be drinking, but were well-dressed and very happy to be sitting in attendance. While I assume most of
them are music students, it was nice to see younger crowds represented and showing a strong interest in the arts.
3. Put your $#%*&!ing phones away and just enjoy the damn concert. Be there. While I was originally pleased at the prospect of being able to take photos of the performances freely, I found myself unable to do so. It seemed inappropriate, a distraction, and I still resorted to covertly snapping a few photos that were not even worthy of keeping. In contrast, however, was a youngish, gawky woman sitting in front of me who must have taken hundreds of photos throughout the evening. She’s snapsnapsnapsnap and swipe swipe swipe to delete the crappy photos she took, all the while paying almost no attention to the generally fantastic music being performed not three meters away. I found rude and infuriating and generally disrespectful.
4. Not everyone is a great speaker. While passion generally accounts for a ton when you’re speaking, there is much more to being a captivating speaker or presenter than just knowing your stuff. This is not a place to review or discuss public speaking, but I will say the most frustrating aspect of the evening was what I’d chalk up to a lack of professionalism by one of the presenters (who was not the music director). Poise, clarity, logical development, respect and a general polish all go a hell of a long way in making a good orator, as well as not trying to interrupt or finish your co-hosts sentences or gesture through his speaking. Part of the appeal of hearing someone speak is in valuing their opinion, and everyone very much values the opinions and words of our music director. This is not the case, at least for me, with the other individual, and I feel it was the great misstep of the evening.
That being said, it was a fantastic evening!

* * *

The string performers for the ensembles (quartets, trios, etc.) were members of the NSO, while the other soloists (vocalists and pianists) were invited to take part in the evening as a result of their past, present or future associations with the orchestra.
The Schubert performance (the second movement of his 13th string quartet) was rich and smooth. From my seat, the only performer’s face I could see was the violist, one Jubel Chen (陳猶白), and he was extremely focused on his performers; I’d say he watched the first violin or cellist seemingly as much as he looked at his music, and rather intensely. All of their performances were excellent.
Next was Berlioz’s La Mort d’Ophelie, performed by Grace Lin (林慈音) with our music director at the piano. I wished they’d included the original-language lyrics on the marquee along with the Chinese translations.
Third was Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of Mendelssohn’s scherzo from Midsummer for piano, performed by 嚴俊傑, a local/international pianist and professor. It’s not a piece I’m familiar with, but it seemed… technical. An interesting combo, no? Rachmaninoff’s adaptation of a Mendelssohn scherzo. I can’t comment on the performance, as I don’t know the piece.
Next were the first five songs of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, performed by the regularly-appearing 湯發凱, again with music director at the piano. This was a highlight of the evening. I’m not familiar with the piece, but I know the performer, and I enjoyed it muchly. It was perhaps one of the more intimate or personal pieces on the program by nature, and was performed very well by tenor and pianist alike.
Sticking with Schumann, we get to the fourth movement of his E flat major piano quintet, with 嚴俊傑 back at the piano with the NSO quartet from earlier. When that’s done, one of our violinists disappears and the quintet-turned-quartet performs the final movement of Brahms’ first piano quartet, a meaty, intense gypsy-like thing that made me very eager to get more familiar with Brahms’ chamber works. I’d have to check out the score to be sure, but I think there were a few moments of unintentional syncopation between the strings (who were immaculately together) and the pianist, but they got their sync back after a few bars. The pianist seems quite heavy-handed for someone of surprisingly smaller-than-I-expected stature. The first performance I attended of his was at this concert, and of a piece I was at the time completely and still rather am quite unfamiliar with.
By this time, after having spent six or more hours in kitchens in far-too-formal attire for kitchens, and likely dehydrated, I feel a headache and some slight dizziness coming on. The fifteen-minute intermission still seemed too long, and we come to the second half of the program.
I also might interject here that I was less than impressed with our lecturer, and this facet of the evening wore a bit on my patience.
The second half of the program started with another highlight of the evening, the second and fourth movements of Shostakovich’s second piano trio. We switch pianists now, bringing out 葉孟儒, a gentleman I’ve seen multiple times, both at this concert and this one. Russian music is his thing; that’s all I’ve heard him play, so it was appropriate, then, for him to join the party. Fascinating work this is, and again, makes me very eager to get to know Shostakovich’s chamber stuff more. The final movement was incredible.
Strings leave and we get the pianist on his own to perform the last real gem of the evening, for me, two Scriabin pieces. Unfortunately, by this time, my head was pounding, and I felt quite certain if I’d stood up too fast, I’d have passed out. I half-endured, half-thoroughly-enjoyed the excellent interpretations of the Scriabin works.
Next on the program, as you see above were two names. 黃若 is composer-in-residence (or artist-in-residence…?) for this year, and our two leaders for the evening chatted a bit about him and generally making the audience quite excited about his presence for the year. Unfortunately, the excerpt of the work chosen to be played to represent him did very little to garner interest. I’m not sure if the fault was of the work itself or the excerpt of the work, but it was assuredly far too modern for most in the audience, and a gesture was made to ‘enough’ that portion of the program. The same treatment was given to Jörg Widmann, whose excerpt incited far more interest from the generally geriatric audience. Lastly was a duet from Othello, with the tenor part performed by Kor-Jan Dusselje, who will be playing Florestan in this month’s staging of Beethoven’s Fidelio. He was a substitute for someone else who couldn’t make it, but you wouldn’t have known it. By this point, all I could think was ‘headache,’ but they gave a very nice performance.

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