Concert Review: The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

How quickly things happen.

Just a few weeks ago, I was able to enjoy my first two-night concert set ever, and who better to enjoy it with than the Vienna Philharmonic? I’d gone to separate concerts back-to-back before, but never the same ensemble and conductor the second night for round two of a special evening.

And now there’s this. The Concertgebouw. Again, another solid candidate for the ‘best orchestra in the world’ title if you were going to be pressed to give it. And they came to my town, much farther away from them than my real hometown. For two nights. With Yuja Wang (for one night). I was a little bit disappointed we didn’t have Maestros Jansons or Chailly or Gatti on the podium, but that’s only because I know them and have recordings of the two former with the RCO. And we’ll get to Gimeno later.

When I’d originally heard of the RCO coming to Taipei, the whispers were of one night, the night of the sixths (Beethoven’s and Tchaikovsky’s), but upon inspection, there were two, the second with Wang at the piano, and to be honest, I’d probably not have gone had they not been playing Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto. I’ve talked recently to a few people, music-ish people, who didn’t even know Tchaikovsky had composed a second piano concerto. Or a third. As it turns out, I’ve heard the second before, but was entirely, purely, completely unfamiliar with it. In any case, as one of the rarer concertos (granted, not as rare as like, either of Babbitt’s, or Catoire, Beach, Pierné, etc.), I was eager to hear it, especially by such a high-profile roster, so I bought a ticket (really crappy seat….).

I was more excited about the evening of symphonies, to be honest, but also curious what kind of crowd this event would draw. Vienna did indeed bring the fancy rich old people with their private drivers out of the woodwork to enjoy the event, but it was also managed and sponsored by some very hifalutin organizations; the Concertgebouw was being brought in by our very own 兩廳院, of which I am a gold member (thank you very much). In any case, I did get a discount and some other perks for these tickets, and still had to wait (at least) three months for these two evenings to come around. And they’re here.

And this week was a busy week indeed for concerts. These two evenings may, like Vienna, get split up into separate posts. We’ll just have to see how wordy I am about it, but there are also two more evenings of concerts right after this one, meaning I have four consecutive days of concerting. Stay tuned for the others.

Not our local hall….. Image via Amsterdam Municipal Department for the Preservation and Restoration of Historic Buildings and Sites

Anyway, seeing the Concertgebouw did get me to thinking about their beautiful hall. It and the Musikverein are as iconic as the ensembles that call them home. I could be really picky (ungrateful?) and say “Well, it’s still not like seeing them on their home turf,” but I wouldn’t say ‘home turf’ and while that’s true, it’s still an incredible experience to hear such a highly regarded ensemble. It’s just that their concert hall is really very handsome.

So I went. Got there early (like my seat was going to get taken or something, and sure enough, there are shawl-adorned high maintenance women hung on their husbands’ arms, a feature of only the more high-profile concerts here, as well as a line of fancy cars and professional drivers. The place was abuzz, and also packed. The program, which I’d expected to shell out some unpleasant amount of pocket change for, was free. Blue on the first day, reddish the second.

I made my way to my (fantastic!) seat. I’d forgotten what I’d spent on this first evening, and while the better seat may have been more worthwhile for the evening with the pianist, I enjoyed just as much being up (relatively) close and personal with Gimeno and ‘the best orchestra in the world’ according to Gramophone, as quoted in the program, playing a very different program from Vienna’s, and a very different orchestra.

I didn’t really notice it until we were already some way into the Pastoral, but there were a few major differences between the RCO and Vienna ensembles: the RCO seems to be a much younger orchestra, and it is also probably close to half female. As I recall, in the roster of the Vienna Philharmonic that graced us with its presence last month, there were only two women, I believe a cellist and a woodwind of some kind, each of whom were, in an extremely gentlemanly gesture, given a bouquet by Eschenbach during the wild applause at the end of each night. ‘Close to’ is an exaggeration, but with the exception of bassoons, clarinets, trumpets and trombones, every section had at least one female in it. Awesome. I’d say it was at least 30% female, likely more.

Secondly, it seemed a much younger ensemble. Either that or the Dutch age incredibly well. It’s quite international though, so not all Aryan, but it seemed to be made of many players who are quite young! That’s cool.

The comparison ends there, though, because the programs were so incredibly different (even though Vienna gave us a Tchaikovsky piece too). On the first night were two sixths, as stated earlier, that of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. For a piece that premiered in Vienna in 1808, it seems still like a very forward-thinking piece, winking at the ideas of symphonic poems and Impressionist idioms, far more modern than what we got from Vienna. They (Vienna) presented a polished, velvety, supreme and delicate crystal perfection, music from heaven, and almost effortless, most of whom with smiles on faces (if there wasn’t an instrument there).

The Concertgebouw was in some ways no different, but it’s hard to compare with such vastly different programs. Both sixth symphonies of the first night feature exposed horns and woodwinds in delicate pianissimos and gorgeous fortes, and all of this intricacy, from the fluttering birdcalls in the pastoral to bassoon and bass clarinet lines in the Pathetique, were exquisitely performed. And those horns….

I got to thinking about the Pastoral and the Pathetique as pieces I don’t listen to nearly enough as I should, but more the Pastoral. As an even-numbered symphony of Beethoven’s it seems destined to get less love than either of those that came before or after it, but it really is a work of genius. I’ve spoken before about the seemingly infinite possibilities available to an ensemble for interpreting the Eroica, as it is so full of music, but that I tend to dislike those that go over the top with the Romanticizing or over-gilding to create something bordering on grotesque. There were a few moments in the Pastoral where I expected a bit more bite, some flare and some passion. The last three (especially the scherzo and the storm) got more off the ground, and this large scale contrast helped.

The second piece, after twenty minutes of shifting (and adding) seats and music stands and walking outside the hall for cellular reception was Tchaikovsky’s sixth, arguably (and in most ways, I’d agree) deservingly, one of the most famous symphonies in the repertoire. The Beethoven had been set up with what looked to be quite a small ensemble, but it seemed they packed an enormous amount of people into a small stage footprint. Pathetique, on the other hand, truly was large in comparison.

There were moments of beauty in the Tchaikovsky, and this is really a piece that a lover of the dramatic and spectacle can get behind and sink their teeth into, but it was…. only fantastically executed. The solos, entrances, execution all no less than perfect, but I found both of these really incredible works… a bit lacking, and I didn’t even realize it at first. More on that later.

Night two

Last night was also made up of two large pieces, Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto, played by the almost-always scantily-clad nowadays Yuja Wang, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

I must say the most captivating thing about the concerto was the solos, obviously the pianist but also the violin and cello. As I’ve stated before, this concerto I feel is such an odd piece, so episodic. The piano jumps into its cadenzas like small piano sonatas among a giant ballet, then disappears, coming back to splash around some more with the orchestra for a while, a fantastically flamboyant, incredibly virtuosic piece very suited to Wang and her bare-leggedness.

Seriously, folks. Her dress, if it can be called that, had a slit that was cut so high you could almost see her ass. High cut there and low cut everywhere else. I’m not complaining or anything; she’s got an incredible body, it seems, but maybe it’s just a bit lacking in taste for the concert hall, to most people. Anyway, the piano disappears for large swathes of the second movement, and Liviu Prunaru (violin) and Gregor Horsch (cello) take over for a large portion of the time. Again, soloists: wonderful. The final movement is the one I think finally starts to seem more like a real piano concerto or recognizable as a rondo or whatever  it is, and Wang’s performance (probably in general but of this work in particular) was mildly exhausting, as was the seemingly neverending applause that came after. The negotiation between audience and soloist that led to three very short, showy encores lasted probably fifteen minutes; I feel that’s not an exaggeration. Maybe more. In any case, you can’t fault her for her musicality, force, and perfection at the piano. Serious confidence.

The intermission was a welcome one. My fourth-floor perch (first row of the balcony) was an excellent seat, but unless I was just sandwiched between two large-shouldered people (one of whom had terribly halitosis issues), the seats must be a bit narrower.

After the break was Scheherazade, another piece that could really benefit from some fairy-tale like fantasy energy. It seemed a much heftier piece than I remember it being. The louds were loud, the quiets quiet, the soloists and the sound all perfectly clear and velvety and warm. There’s an incredible amount of really virtuosic stuff in this piece, be it rhythmically (tonguing/bowing), lyrically (crazy long lines for clarinet and bassoon and more) but the performers were, unexpectedly, not the least bothered by it all. We got two encores from what looked to be an ever-increasingly tired conductor, and two wonderful encores, neither of which I could identify.

So: yeah, the Concertgebouw is one of the best orchestras in the world, and that was readily apparent in their execution of two nights’ worth of really wonderful music, full of solos, lush strings, all presented nearly perfectly.

Nearly. As I said earlier, it wasn’t Jansons or Chailly or Gatti (or Mengelberg, obviously) on the podium. I don’t mean to compare Gimeno to the above names, Jansons and Chailly being some of the biggest, most celebrated living conductors. But what is readily obvious is that a world-class orchestra, with a charismatic, seasoned, visionary conductor, can do spectacular, otherworldly, unforgettable, transcendent things, as evidenced by Vienna under Eschenbach last month, or the Philharmonia under Salonen earlier in the year. Even an only ‘very good’ orchestra, like the Taipei Symphony (really impressive lately but by no means world class) can do outstanding things with a world-class conductor like Inbal.

The lack of inspiration or live or sparkle or that special, ineffable something in the performances these past two nights might just be due to jet lag, but I doubt it. Taipei is the first stop for the RCO, and was nearly the last for Vienna. To me, it is proof of the importance of not just a conductor as timekeeper, but as leader, an inspirer, a visionary, and for all of his accuracies and things he did right, it seems Gimeno lacked that unidentifiable something, perhaps not as an individual, maybe just with the ensemble of which he used to be a member, but I doubt the latter.

In any case, I can at least mark it off my list. Seen and heard them, and had it been almost any other ensemble on that stage, I’d have been very pleased. It was not a bad performance in any manner, technically, and I would have not been disappointed by this performance by many a lesser orchestra. However, I was left still with both my breath and my words after this concert. Neither were taken away like they were with the Philharmonia, the Vienna Philharmonic, and some others. My expectations for Vienna were absurdlyperhaps  unwisely high, and they were still exceeded. My expectations, for whatever reason, for the Royal Concertgebouw were not as fantastically, storybook high, and that is for the better, because I would have been even more disappointed. It’s proof that, even with the best orchestra in the world, a solid leader with a clear vision is vital to an inspired performance. It breaks my heart to admit it, but I was mildly let down. Maybe I do need to see you on your home turf to appreciate in full this gem of an orchestra.

I hope to see you next time, RCO, wherever that may be.

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