Concert Review: Taipei Philharmonic

It’s time to give the Taipei Philharmonic another chance. Let me explain.

A few things. First, our ‘National Symphony Orchestra’ (from the original Chinese: 國家交響樂團) is referred to both in Chinese and English as the ‘NSO,’ but outside of Taiwan, in English they are referred to as the Taiwan Philharmonic. That’s a pretty cool sounding name, because for whatever reason I think ‘philharmonic’ sounds pretty awe-inspiring, e.g. Berlin, Vienna, New York… The NSO is a stellar ensemble who never fails to impress.

The Taipei Symphony is the other big name here in Taipei, and they’re apparently working on building their own hall so they’ll finally have a respectable home. And they much deserve it. Their performances as of late (including last night’s incredible Eugene Onegin) have been absolutely outstanding, a highlight of which was Maestro Inbal conducting the Taipei Symphony in a splendid performance of Mahler 3.

But I’m not talking about either of them. This is the Taipei Philharmonic. And the only concert of theirs that I’ve attended that I can call to mind is their 30th anniversary concert. I don’t want to bash them, because most of the concert itself wasn’t awful. There were some maddening talkers in the audience who pretty much ruined the performance (for me) of Stravinsky’s Firebird, and there was some weirdness from the pianist, but the biggest misstep from the orchestra (or conductor) was the heavy, serious nature with which I recall they took Prokofiev’s first. I was not offended or horrified or anything, no. But of the orchestras here with local names, they seem to come in a bit lower on the totem pole.

Not for any particular intentional reason, I don’t believe I’ve attended one of their concerts since, until this weekend, obviously. I’d told a friend of mine I’d find a concert for us to go to, but there was a problem with that plan: I’ve bought season tickets for both the NSO and the Taipei Symphony, not accounting for anyone else going with me. So the challenge was to look around and find something else to go to, something that would be a good first-timer’s concert (well, maybe not this program), not too expensive, and at a time when we could both go, also hopefully by an orchestra that would not disappoint.

Upon review of the schedule at the concert hall (the program of events), I saw the Taipei Philharmonic was going to be doing Brahms 1, a symphony I’ve never heard live, and quite a standard piece in the repertoire, and that seemed like a good enough litmus test, so I got tickets. (As an aside, two other concert tickets I have been deliberating about buying [as if I haven’t been to enough lately] are a program next week of Steve Reich and other living composers, as well as a performance by some ensemble I don’t know of our recently discussed Winter DreamsMaybe should go. Maybe not.)

The first part of the program was some obscure double piano concerto I’d never heard of, and search as I may, I found nothing about it, not even when it was published. So that was a bit of a gamble, but I figured if nothing else, there’s Brahms 1 to enjoy, if the Taipei Phil does it justice. That’s a big piece.

So the music: the Scholz piece… seemed like it could be interesting if it were more well-rehearsed and played with more finesse, not on the pianists’ parts, but the orchestra. The conductor seemed a bit timid to get his hands into the piece. First of all though, I’ve never seen live (or even, to my recollection, listened to) a double piano concerto, and I must say, this was not a convincing experience. When I think ‘double piano concerto’ or even triple, I think Mozart. And then Poulenc. But mostly Mozart. And maybe the idea of two pianos works better in a Classical-era setting with more transparent music; I don’t know. What I do know is that both of our pianists, Ms. Liao and Mr. Chen, gave us their souls in the piece. They read from the scores, and this is the farthest thing, it seems from a standard piece in the repertoire, having been written in 1928, I think, according to the program. I comprehended very little of it, and while the pianists seemed to handle their parts with poise, overall, the piece did not come together. It sounded like you might expect a non-Second Viennese School late Romantic whitebread Austrian piano concerto in 1928 to sound. People behind me commented afterward about it being “too modern,” although it was still quite Romantic in nature, I felt. It was a bit of a mess all around, though, and I felt most sorry for the piece and the pianists. They hadn’t even made it off the stage before the applause had nearly come to a halt, deflating faster than even the most ardent clappers could revitalize it. To save themselves the embarrassment of standing on a stage and bowing to zero applause, they quickly made an escape, and no encores were given. I was wondering how that would work to begin with, and maybe it wasn’t in the plan, but of anyone on stage for the Scholz double piano concerto, the two pianists should have gotten standing ovations. The rest of the piece was a mess.

Intermission. Came and went quickly. I also must point out here that at this concert, there was some IMC something or other foundation/company/corporation from everywhere all over the island that had made tonight’s concert their field trip. I won’t make any disparaging remarks about old people and how they’re probably worse concertgoers than middle-schoolers, but they coughed and shuffled and dug through their bags looking for (or through) crinkly paper for the entire concert and it pissed me off. It was suddenly as if the concert hall I love and adore, this sanctuary of music and art and peace was overrun by misbehaved, self-centered, entitled, careless or just ignorant chums who acted like the performance this evening was some after-dinner show on a cheap cruise line. So shame on every single last one of you for disrespecting the venue and the performers. And that’s as nicely as I can put it.

I had the very opposite of high expectations for the Brahms. It is a big, rich, deep, complex piece, and I was worried it would be an abomination. I’d listened to a recording of the piece earlier in the day as a refresher, and it really is magnificent. To my shock and surprise, passion and intensity poured out of this hitherto amateur-sounding orchestra. Mr. Lin was almost violent with the passion he poured into conducting the Brahms, and the Taipei Philharmonic responded superbly.

What they lacked in technical ability and prowess, they made up for in passion. Their horns cracked here and their, some of the sounds faltered a bit. The first movement lacked a bit of depth or layering, balance I suppose. The second movement could have been far more delicate, especially during the violin solo and climax of the piece, the third movement could have been crisper, but the fourth was roaring with intensity. Despite all those things, minor imperfections, it was undeniable that this ensemble had passion. The trombone section was gorgeous in their exposed ‘soli’ lines, perfectly on point. Oboe and clarinet solos were pretty solid. The fourth movement was really where they shined, and when that ‘Beethoven’s ninth’ line showed up in the strings, they sounded lush and incredible and rich. The piece ended incredibly, and the star of the show, undoubtedly, was Mr. Lin the conductor, who rung every ounce of passion and ability out of his performers for a performance of a big, heavy symphony that made the night worthwhile.

Then came not one but two encores. I agree with Hilary Hahn, that encores should be a part of the program, an extension of the train of thought or the atmosphere that’s been established, and these two were not. For one, Lin was too eager to jump back up on stage and give the downbeat both times, and secondly, the pieces they played seemed more like throwaways, little funzy pieces more for their own enjoyment than ours (or mine, at least). The first piece was some kind of march that sounded like what would happen if John Philip Souza were to write a spiritual with a marching band, and the second was a Hungarian or Turkish rhapsody, rondo something, thankfully both short and (sickeningly) sweet. I would have been far happier ending on the (albeit imperfect but) glorious note of Brahms’ first.

In short, respect the concert hall. Taipei Philharmonic fans seem to be the worst concertgoers. A passionate, well-meaning conductor can cover a multitude of technical faults. And stay away from the encores for the hell of encores. Go out with a bang, not a fart. Also, many thanks and kudos to the two pianists for the evening, the unsung heroes of the first half of the program who put who knows how much time into learning a piece they may never perform again. Thank you for all your hard work.

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