Concert Review: NSO- An Evening of Piano Concertos

I look here and there for good ‘beginner’ concerts, evenings with programs that would be really good for someone whose never set foot in a concert hall before. In thinking about that, I wrote yesterday’s post about what for me and the people I know and might bring to a concert might make for a good first impression for someone less familiar with the concert hall.
This program was one of those evenings, and while I don’t adore everything on the program, it is worth bringing some newbies along to enjoy it. For me, piano concertos are about as good as it gets for a first concert hall experience (except for two complaints below).

Our conductor for the evening was one 陳美安, associate conductor (or something) for the NSO as it seems Maestro 呂紹嘉 has returned to Hamburg for the time being; our pianist for the evening was 安寧 (An Ning), who seems to be very tall but thankfully doesn’t ‘act’ through his performances like some other pianists.

The Ravel concerto was the work I talked about in yesterday’s article, the one that isn’t quite like most of the music my friend a few years ago heard live and enjoyed. It’s not my favorite work by any stretch, not even a favorite concerto, not even one I listen to even occasionally, but it is a fun piece, and a pretty standard work in the repertoire. The performance felt…. dare I say almost canned? It wasn’t emotionless or boring, but felt maybe less than inspired, or I just don’t love the piece as much as I do others. The second movement could have been much more delicate, I feel. Anyway, it has its compelling moments, and I found myself humming some of the lines while the piano was wheeled away and all the additional sound effects and percussion and everything were being arranged for Gershwin’s An American in Paris, which ultimately meant I ended up humming An American in Paris throughout the intermission.

As a symphonic poem from a guy known for his blue rhapsody, An American in Paris was a great chance to view things from the opposite perspective as Ravel, as the title of the piece states. A work like this is very visual, and listening to it, it felt like movie music without the movie: exciting, incredibly lively, and just pure fun. It’s not hard to follow, especially with car horns and jazzy rhythms throughout. My company loved this piece, and the performance was a roaring good time, full of energy. It’s not ‘serious,’ solemn, soul-searching concert music, but it certainly has soul. It feels wonderfully, approachably, inherently, captivatingly musical. You can’t not ‘get it,’ and it made for a very light-hearted end to the first half of the program, a sentiment that would change for the second half.

We had a twenty-minute intermission, time to stretch some legs and relieve oneself before the second half begins. I was quite pleased to share with my guests before they received the concert program the interesting idea behind the three pieces: a Frenchman’s piece influenced by his time in America, and an American’s piece about his time in Paris, both heavily adorned with the jazz that was the craze of the time, and written within only a few short years of each other. Interesting perspectives. After that little set of pieces, the second half begins, an ensemble not terribly different (to a newbie) from the Ravel concerto (lots of orchestra people and a pianist), but an entirely different approach and feel and atmosphere. Again, this is so obvious as not to need stating, but it’s nice to show that even a newcomer can identify and digest music in an intelligible way, even if they don’t think they can.

The Rachmaninoff in Cm, op. 18, a huge beast of a piece, begins dramatically with solo piano, and instantly, we know it’s something altogether different. Perhaps its the Rachmaninoff speaks to me far more than the Ravel piece, but I felt that the pianist’s interpretation of the Rachmaninoff was far more convincing or inspired than the Ravel (although it is, to me, still a far cry from Earl Wild or Nikolai Lugansky or Martha Argerich), a rich, heavy, almost crushing piece relative to the light, fun-filled-first-half.

I digress… perhaps the most famous of all concertos, it’s a real treat for a first timer, virtuosic, lyrical, gushingly romantic, wonderful little solo moments (aside from the piano) throughout the piece, and something like nearing twice as long as the other works on the program. Our NSO did a pretty great job with the Rachmaninoff, taking things a bit slow and heavy at times, but overall, a really decent performance, if not a bit brassy at times. You can’t not be excited about the piece as it charges toward the glorious finale, and the audience quite naturally roared into applause, perhaps even before the pianist’s hands had left the keyboard. Rapturous, I’d say, the applause was. We got two encores.

Two complaints. Well, probably more than that. For one, there are announcements made in two languages before the program begins that there are no photos allowed. And yet, from my perfect perch on the first row of the third floor balcony, I constantly sees screens lit up at different points throughout the program. I admit, I have (as both of my readers know) posted images taken from the concert hall, but I feel I am (or was) incredibly discreet about it, AND… I’ve basically given up on doing that. It’s rude. I always held the phone close to my chest so the screen couldn’t be seen and blindly snapped a handful of photos and hoped I would get something usable, and often did. I’ll be seeing the freaking Vienna Philharmonic two nights this week and my heart a little bit hurts that I won’t be able to get a picture of Christoph Eschenbach (who recently added me on Facebook, as it seems he does anyone who adds him) conducting the Vienna Phil in our very own National Concert Hall, but I won’t do it. I don’t think. So anyway, don’t be distracting! Be obedient and stop taking photos.

Second, don’t freaking conduct during the program, you jackass. As I’ve mentioned before in some post somewhere, there’s this annoying little turd who ends up often sitting next to or near me who insists on flailing his little hands and swaying in his seat throughout the program. I assume he’s a music student, because it seems he’s there as often as I am and he’s about college aged. And I get it. You love the music, you might even know the music and maybe you could actually conduct the work. You’re obviously trying to do it from your seat without the score, but that’s the point: you’re in your seat. I tried glaring at the little jerk a number of times and I think he ignored me intentionally, so when they slipped out at the end of the second encore, I stood up in his way and told him how utterly distracting he was to everyone around him. I was furious, because this is not the first or second or third time this has happened, and… he didn’t even conduct very well, so cut it out, whoever you are. You better not be in my eye line for Vienna. (Also there was one patron who, after a long, safe pause after the first movement of the Ravel [when you finally thought it was safe and no one would clap], insisted on starting an applause and clapped in complete solitude for like… five or six seconds before she got the hint. It was more humorous than anything else. Just be considerate and aware, people. Seriously.)

So that was that for the evening. It was, I feel, a great evening for newcomers: two piano concertos, some fun, some gushing romanticism, lots of contrast. But the (literal, I guess) best is yet to come this week, and another NSO concert on the weekend. See you later.

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