Concert Review: NSO: A ‘Great’ Symphony

I’m going to be saying this a lot this season, but this is a concert I’ve been looking forward to for months.

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The last concert I attended at our National Concert Hall was on May 28, over four months ago. Since then, I’ve been to a very few concerts at another local venue, but from June 1 all the way through September, the concert hall was under renovation. It’s about as old as I am and this is apparently her first big facelift (aside from annual spring cleanings).
It is (or I had known it to be) a handsome, mildly angular interior, in handsome dark woods with white marble accents and typical red-upholstered concert-hall seating. It’s a bulky, massive quite clean and classic thing, in stark contrast with the very feminine, delicate prettily accented National Theatre across the courtyard. I quite like the concert hall. I don’t complain about the acoustics, but some have said they could be better. Be that as it may, I was both excited and nervous to get a look at the concert hall after its four-month hiatus. I’d asked around and heard both “no, it’s just a heavy clean-up” as well as “yeah, I hear it’s a complete makeover,” so I didn’t know hat to expect, but I’m mildly allergic to change, even if it might mean better acoustics. (It didn’t as far as I could tell…?)
This is the first concert I have attended since then. Renovation aside for a moment, I’ve missed my NSO. I managed to get season tickets the day they went on sale: awesome package, great discount, incredible concerts this year, and I feel like a true patron of the organization now! Anyway, this program is great. Schubert’s ninth is a symphony that’s been waiting in the wings for ages, having listened to it long ago but been too preoccupied with chronological order to jump to what I feel is one of the greatest symphonies ever written. And pleasantly enough, I now have a chance to hear it live before I get around to sharing my thoughts in a post about the piece in what will be a much later post.
Walking into the concert hall after four months of renovation, my heart unexpectedly fluttered. For one, it’s like watching a favorite movie of yours with someone who’s never seen it: you live the experience because of them as if it were also new to you. Secondly, I’d forgotten how much I love this place, how excited I am before a concert, and was so glad to be back. The most noticeable thing was that all the seats had been reupholstered, which is what I’d expected. Bright, clean, (whatever the name of that cloth is), springy, fresh cushions, all very crisp and welcoming. The organ was also incredibly shiny and clean, and it was the first time in this hall that I’ve heard it so… nakedly. But we’ll get there shortly.
Three pieces on the program this evening:
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黃若 (Huang Ruo) is composer in residence with our NSO (as well as at Het Concertgebouw) and the first piece on the program was commissioned by the music director. I assume (checking program) that this was a world premiere, but the program says nothing to that effect. It was quite modern, not like the Ensemble Intercontemporain program earlier in the week, no spectralism or serialism or anything. It was very much a modern tone poem, with interesting sonorities and the way it developed. The people I went with loved it, especially in contrast with the second piece. It was the somewhat obscure “Prophet Fugue” (so called because Liszt based it on Meyerbeer’s opera Le Prophéte) that Liszt substituted for an incomplete fantasia on B-A-C-H for the dedication of an organ at Merseburg Cathedral. Marcel Dupré arranged it and performed it apparently only once, apparently getting its modern-day premiere in 2007. I’m beyond unfamiliar with the organ as an instrument or its repertoire, but I was delighted to hear/see something that featured it so much. The organ at our hall is quite a feature, so to hear it in a virtuoso piece like this is nice. There were lots of pulling and pushing of stops (is that what they’re called?) by the page turner, who was more an assistant performer than just turner of pages. The piece was much longer than I’d expected, but was quite a production, with plenty of chances for both the organist and the orchestra to shine. To what I could tell, Schmitt did an incredible job, gestured to the organ upon applause, and was delighted to give us an encore, whereupon he did his own pushing and pulling. When I went down to visit them during the intermission, one of my companions commented on the interesting contrast between these first two pieces. Indeed.
I also did one of the things I hate doing. I moved. I don’t go better-seat-hunting during the intermission. I stay in my own seat, the one I paid for and should occupy, but upon walking down to chat, said friend told me the seats on both sides of them were free, so I stayed down with them (excellent seats!) for the Schubert piece, and was it ever wonderful.
As we shall talk about when we discuss that work, it’s one of those pieces that, for whatever reason, I just kept listening to on repeat for weeks on end. It’s really mesmerizing, but it’s a piece I haven’t listened to in ages. I told the people next to me “I might cry, you know.” Having briefly told them during the intermission about this ninth (or seventh or eighth) ‘great’ symphony and how it finally saw the light of day, I was pondering over the success of the work in contrast with the tragedy in the composer’s life, and sure enough, the horns had barely finished their opening line and I was getting emotional. Truly wonderful piece. The horns never faltered, even in the most exposed, delicate, quietest moments, the soloists were wonderful, a very convincing performance all around, a real joy to hear live. Our maestro shaped and directed the piece passionately, but not overbearingly. It was sublime. It’s one of those pieces, like Mahler 3 (most Mahler, really) or Beethoven 3 for me, that no matter how long it is, seems just to blow by. Every single moment, every note, every gesture has meaning, and our NSO got every bit of meaning out of the piece. It was spectacular, a heavenly way to begin what will be a fantastic season.
There are a few more upcoming NSO concerts, but between two of them (on the 11th and 17th) will be two consecutive nights of concerts that I am extremely excited to be able to attend, and I will of course share them here. See you then.
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