So… the Vienna Philharmonic is a tough act to follow.
But I do love our local ensemble, and even though our maestro 呂紹嘉 wasn’t with us, I was still looking forward to the concert. I also have a confession:
I can’t recall ever having listened to Symphonie Fantastique from beginning to end before this concert. Or any of the other pieces on the program this evening, but not listening to Symphonie Fantastique might mean I need to hand over my ‘classical music listener’ card. I’ve had it around for ages, but just never got around to it. Tonight saw Jacques Lacombe on the podium with Gwhyneth Chen at the piano for the concerto.
This was my fourth (and final) concert of the week, after the evening of piano concertos on Sunday and the Vienna Philharmonic (!!!!) on Tuesday and Wednesday, and again, it’s tough to beat two exquisite nights of the Vienna Philharmonic, but I was excited about the program:
After a long day of music theory classes, a meeting with bigwigs at work, finally seeing The Martian (excellent movie but no reviews here), it was finally time for the concert, although we ended up settling for a fast food joint because the restaurant we’d hoped to attend was packed.
As was the stage. As discussed at some length before, Vienna stuck to a quite classically-styled program, even in the more modern pieces they played, so the orchestra was appropriately also Classically-sized. They got a little bit swallowed up on stage, but the sound was still supremely clear and wonderful.
In contrast, however, was the enormous ensemble before us when we walked in. We listened to a pre-concert lecture about the three pieces on the program and Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen was first. The stage was full (looking; we fit Mahler 3 and Gurre Lieder on here, so there was still room), and tons of performers walked out after our lights dimmed: trumpets, trombones, four flutists, the whole shebang.
I saw my vigilante conductor friend, and he was sitting in about the same place as he was on Sunday, but I wasn’t. He was out of my eye line and it seemed he kept the conducting to a minimum anyway. Unfortunately, Janacek’s piece was marred by contributions from the audience: a family (or two?) who in total brought about five or six kids to the hall and sat in the row behind me. They talked and clamored and climbed throughout the entire piece, essentially ruining the listening experience. What I was able to get of the Janacek piece was very nice, and I was glad I’ve been able to hear three or four of his pieces in the past year.
After the first piece was over and seats and stands and things shuffled to roll out the piano, there was no small amount of vitriol poured up on the highly inconsiderate (and almost oblivious) family for their children’s behavior, and they were asked (or perhaps suggested) by the usher to leave. They did not, but the man who I assumed was the (worthless) father said not a word, lifted not a finger, and left the children to his wife and mother (in-law?). It was despicable. They got plenty of glares and scolding from everyone around them.
Piano rolls out, seats back in place and (most) everyone walks back out for the Liszt. Gwhyneth Chen walks out elegantly and beautifully in gorgeous dress that had the added benefit of being just short enough that you weren’t worried she’d trip over it and tumble off the stage. Practical choice. This is another piece I hadn’t heard, but with the mother of the heathens seemingly almost in tears from embarrassment (that made me feel almost bad, though I didn’t say anything to them), it was easier to enjoy the much more serene beginning (in contrast with the first). Be not deceived, however, the piece is thunderous and full of intensity, uses the full range of the keyboard and demands powerful virtuosity from the keyboard, which Chen delivered with poise. It was phenomenal the sound she wrestled from the instrument, not ‘effortlessly,’ but certainly elegantly. The performance was really exquisite and left me feeling a bit exhausted afterward. Despite many applauses and bows from the piano, there was no encore. Maybe she was just tired. It’s just as well, I’m growing to care less and less for encores. The Liszt concerto is a piece that perplexed me for being as little played as it is, at least relative to the first in E-flat (and many other ‘common’ works). It’s a piece full of expression, charm, delicacy, violence, and show. One of the most captivating piano concerto performances I’ve seen in a long while.
At the half, the small army of nose-pickers made their exit, thankfully not to return. Bathroom breaks and chatting among patrons ensued, and the stage was set again, piano gone, more percussion, multiple harps, the works. Thankful that I could enjoy this Berlioz work (the eponymous work for the name of this symphony on the literature for it: “A Fantastic Symphony”) without whispering, talking, climbing, complaining children, Lacombe walks back out to the score-less podium and we begin. (Actually the little kids begged not to leave, so despite their shenanigans, they seemed to enjoy it, albeit at everyone else’s expense. That made me feel bad).
The size of the orchestra, the diversity of the instruments, the range of expression and surprising emotional scope of this piece, even nearly 200 years later, is still fascinating. The first two movements aren’t as shocking and wildly crazy as the final three, but all around, even at (shamefully my) first listen, it’s outstandingly easy to see how this piece has become one of the more enduring, successful works in the repertoire, even if it wasn’t an enormous success at first. Having nothing to compare this performance to, it might not mean much, but I feel our NSO (unsurprisingly) gave a very convincing, solid interpretation of the piece that made it enjoyable not only for a first time classical music listener, but also for someone who’d never seen any classical music besides Fantasia, so… good job, NSO, and Lacombe. It was a very fulfilling, really exciting evening, truly fantastic.