Concert Review: Dance with Sabine Meyer (TSO)

And they begin.
This was the first concert of the Taipei Symphony season I’ve been able to attend, and really the first concert of the season, but it wasn’t supposed to be. The TSO’s season opener back at the end of August featured Prokofiev’s first violin concerto and works by late Taiwanese composer 蕭泰然 as well as Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye. I had to give that ticket away. Bad week for concerts, but a friend went and enjoyed it very much.
I’ve also been very pleased with the Taipei Symphony in the past year. Their concerts have been excellent, a highlight being Maestro Eliahu Inbal conducting an awesome performance of Mahler’s third.

The first half of their season program for this year (the only half released so far) is also an exciting one, with lots of big-name visitors and pieces that I’m looking forward to. So for me, anyway, this was the TSO’s season opener, with world-famous clarinetist Sabine Meyer. We talked about her performance of the delightful Mozart clarinet quintet, or rather the piece itself, of which we featured her performance. So I was excited and pleased to see she would be visiting us in Taipei, and that the Copland clarinet concerto, a piece we covered almost six months ago, was also on the program.  This is exciting. A coworker, a music major, clarinetist and pianist tagged along for one of the rare concerts it seems she attends. I’d bought the tickets close to three months prior to this concert, so I’ve been waiting for a while, but it finally marks the beginning of the concert season. Lots more to come in October and November. Just you wait.
Anyway, this concert was still not at our National Concert Hall, which still doesn’t open for a few more weeks. I’ll be there soon enough, but for last night, we were back at 中山堂. It’s a nice looking venue, much smaller than the NCH, and somehow more…. relaxed? This is good and bad, since it seems lots more young people attend (cheaper tickets) and families and old people, but also bad: I’ve never seen (or heard) an old man clutching a crinkly loud
plastic bag full of loaves of bread at the National Concert Hall. This isn’t a ‘concerts in the park’ series. Eat your food elsewhere and stop scrunching it in the concert hall. The acoustics also leave something to be desired, but it wasn’t terrible.

There were four pieces on the program. I looked forward to Respighi’s piece, but enjoyed it less than I thought I would. While the TSO’s performance seemed solid, the piece itself seemed to border almost on comedic. Messiaen’s birdsong seemed suddenly far more interesting. I don’t dislike Respighi, and the Baroque origins of the piece were especially clear in the first and final movements. There were some really pretty slow movements, but overall, it’s just not the kind of thing I enjoy listening to a lot.
The big event was next. Lights dim and all the wind instruments disappeared, the piano was rolled into position, and seating adjusted for the strings. After the stage was (literally) set, Mrs. Meyer walked out in a black (or at least very dark) dress with matching…. gloves with no hand part, or else long elegant wristbands, or short wrist sleeves. Anyway, she was tall and beautiful and elegant and very energetic looking. In some photos on the TSO’s Facebook page, she looked very energetic and engaged, and I must say, she looks great for her age in person.
She did, indeed, dance all around the entirety of the space given her for the twenty or so minutes of the Copland concerto. I was quite pleased with (most of) the performance, but my professional companion had hoped there’d be fewer breaths in the long, warm, lyrical opening. This was a bigger orchestra than I’ve heard/seen perform the piece (see above with Martin Frost), but in my opinion, they nailed it. I would agree with said companion that the conducting/dancing of the conductor would have been hard to follow, but the entire piece seems a bit hard to follow in its jumpy jazziness. After the cadenza, the piece bursts to life with jazzy rhythms and syncopations, and they nailed it, save one extra litter flitter of a note after Meyer’s jazz smear to end the piece. She came out a few times for bows, holding the clarinet like it was her Grammy award, and finally gave an encore, the third movement of Stravinsky’s suite for solo clarinet, leaving and coming back for another round, clarinet in one hand, conductor in the other, and they played the last few bars of the concerto once more, with greater cohesion and a much stronger ending. When she left and returned again, she was clarinet-less and gave us a two-handed goodbye. This was the end of the first half, and I went for a potty break.
To be perfectly honest, by the time the second half of the program came around, I’d already heard what I came to hear, but I was still curious to hear the first movement of the late 馬水龍’s concerto for bamboo flute. Overall, it was a pentatonic, kind of typical ‘native’ indigenous music thing, with lots of strong symphonic backing (tuba and all) for the small but piercingly beautiful bamboo flute played by a seemingly quiet, unassuming 陳中申, whose technical ability on the instrument was incredible. Really incredible. I have no criticisms of the piece, and the soloist’s technique was amazing. I’d have liked to talked to him afterward about his experience with the instrument, but there was unsurprisingly no time for anything more than an autograph.

The final piece was another that I wouldn’t hold my breath to hear but wouldn’t mind hearing, Darius Milhaud’s  Le Boeuf sur le Toit. If it’d been a six minute piece instead of eighteen minutes, I’d have liked it, but with the repeated refrain and kind of clicky, trinkety playfulness, it got old kind of quickly for me, but my fellow concertgoers seemed to enjoy it. Again, it’s more my fault than the piece’s, just not really my cup o’ joe.

The funzy, playful program perhaps fit around the clarinet concerto, and the bamboo flute piece was included in honor of the passing of 馬水龍. I can see how the Respighi and Milhaud pieces ‘fit’ as two other related works (in Varga’s ever-present pre-concert introduction of himself and the program, there was mention that Respighi, Copland, and Milhaud had all spent time in Brazil; I have not investigated this). That being said, I’d have still preferred Gershwin or Ravel or Prokofiev, or even something completely different, like C.P.E. Bach for a complete contrast. In any case, it was a joy to hear the Copland concerto live, especially as played by one of the most famous soloists today. The first and final pieces were interesting, but I did not care for them, and that’s no criticism. It would have been an awesome program for a pops concert, outdoor auditorium, that kind of thing.
I suppose, in all honesty, I’m more a fan of the ‘serious’ symphony: Mahler, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff; symphonies and concertos and the like. Either way, it was a good chance to hear a piece I like, as well as some unfamiliar works.
Next TSO concert I’ll be attending is on November 21. See you then?

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