Concert Review: Parabola (Taipei Symphony)

I’m going to start this discussion by talking about bad excuses for Italian food in Asia.

Italian food in Asia usually isn’t. It’s Taiwanese, or Japanese, or Chinese Italian food. It’s sufficiently different from the local food that it makes for a nice change of pace now and then, but it’s “Italian” food that I would probably never revisit in America. Sweet, canned tomato sauces are the greatest heresy, but that’s not the point. The point is that one of these ‘Italian’ establishments opened up just outside my house, and it’s significantly better than many of the other joints, and I hope it stays around. But let’s forget for a moment about how inauthentic it is. To the locals (especially in the part of town I live in), it’s still extremely foreign cuisine, and I wonder how long this little place will be able to stay open. It’s not awful, it’s very convenient, and they serve these delicious French fries (the frozen kind that everyone here serves, from Costco, I think). What at all does this have to do with classical music? I’ll tell you.
I may not love Steve Reich or Gyorgy Ligeti, but when I see a concert with their pieces on the program, I feel almost an obligation to go. Why? Support. Just like that restaurant that for me represents convenience and variety more than delicious cuisine (I cook better Italian food), I may not love to listen to tons of modern stuff, but I am in great support of there being more of it (or with that restaurant, of them not closing shop). Does that make sense? The pieces of the two above composers were the only ones on tonight’s program I was looking forward to hearing, and I heard the tickets were not selling like hotcakes for this program, so I did my part as a patron of the arts and brought a friend along. Two extra filled seats may not make much difference, but one never knows. It’s rare that we hear anything so modern here. I can’t tell you how many piano recitals here (of foreign pianists, mind you) have programs of Beethoven, Haydn, and Bach, or Schubert, Schumann and Mozart, or some other combination of those folks. I get it; they’re masters. I don’t disagree with that at all, but how many times can we listen to the same pieces? Soapbox aside. (That’s exactly why I was thrilled to hear Jean-Efflam Bavouzet play Boulez’s first piano sonata, and to be able to hear the Ensemble Intercontemporain recently. We need more of that here.)

And we’re getting a little bit more of it, those brave souls programming Ligeti here. While I may not be moved the same way I would had it been Schoenberg or Webern or as impressed or bewildered as by Ferneyhough, I was glad to attend. (For another food-related explanation of why I don’t like lots of modern music here, and my justification for not caring for Western-tinged Asian classical music or vice-versa scroll down to the end of the article. I had originally written a huge meditation before the concert based on previous experience, but I was quite wrong. I enjoyed it all quite a lot.)

Little did I know, the performers last night were of our very own Taipei Symphony Orchestra, and it seems they are on a steady, solid right to greatness, with ambitious programming and everything. One piece was a world premiere, and a few were Taiwan premieres. First, though, was the audience.

Kids. I hate seeing kids in the concert hall. That seems like a harsh statement, but it’s true. While I’d love to say it’s great to see kids in the concert hall, being exposed to classical music at such a young age and all that, it’s never that way. What it is in reality is parents making very poor judgment calls with their terribly misbehaved children that they don’t know how to discipline disturbing the concert for other patrons. There is YouTube today. Your kid can moan and kick seats and fidget with his coloring book on the sofa without annoying other people who know how to act in public. Thank you. That is all.

Unsurprisingly, the ticket sales for this concert were not great, so it seems there was some arrangement for some school or schools or something to bring tons of elementary and middle school aged demon children to a concert of über-modern 20th century classical music. Great call. By the time the lights had dimmed (after 19:30), people were still pretending to scold their children and climb over each other into whatever seats they wanted. It was not looking good for a well-behaved audience, but with a few infuriating exceptions, most of the kids in our general area were surprisingly quiet.

The program was as follows:

Piece no. 1 (Serenade Bali, but “Bali Nocturne” in Chinese) was surprisingly lyrical, warm, sumptuously diatonic, like if Schubert had been born 100 years later and gone to Indonesia on a summer getaway. It was for string ensemble, violins all the way down to a few basses, and one or two Asian-ish percussion instruments that exotic-ized the middle section. There were light shows and visual things throughout most of this concert, but for this first piece, what we got was a change in the color of the spot lighting, from a deep oceanic blue, to red, to green and back to rich blue. A simple, straightforward, but very moving piece.

The second (…fallt  über dem Fluß die Nacht ein) was nearly frightening, but absolutely captivating. My recent concertgoing companion was delightfully alongside me again last night and was not very impressed with the piece. Accompanying it were very interesting and somewhat unsettling images of a man and woman on a beach, waves crashing and wind blowing sheer pieces of fabric across their faces and bodies, an empty bell tower, kind of horror-style short-film stuff, with sul ponticello and pizzicato and harpsichord (!), almost Bernard Hermann film score meets Ligeti without the microtonality. The piece was interesting as it was, and before it began, I was thinking baroque: harpsichord, standing ensemble, all of that, but no. Something quite different altogether. It would have likely been far less effective without the accompanying video, which was quite spooky at parts. This is probably especially so in my case having only this week begun to read some short stories and novellas of H.P. Lovecraft. Creepy images of the ocean and empty buildings and people (who, it seemed, eventually drowned) alongside crawling, slithering on-the-bridge strings made for a very rich experience. Bravo.

The last piece before the break was Reich’s Eight Lines. My concertgoing companion said afterward in describing it, “repetitive.” And that it is. It was interesting to hear the strong rhythmic nature of the piece, and how it complexified and simplified in swells, with instruments entering and dropping out to create different textures. It was very helpful to see the conductor work at driving this chugging train of persistent music, but I couldn’t help but have the impression that this is a piece more suited to excellent headphones, staring at a stark white ceiling from my bed, something like Charlemagne Palestine’s Strumming Music rather than something for the concert hall. A few people walked out. As it changes and ups and downs, you begin to wonder how it’ll end… will the instruments slowly drop away one at a



Nope. It just ends. Very effective, I must say. Intermission. Some children asked if it was time to just rest or “can we go home?”

First piece after the intermission (during which many more chairs and stands were added) was Ligeti’s San Francisco Polyphony. While I had the overwhelming impression that I was privileged to hear the Taiwan premiere of this work from 40 years ago, I must also say I did not understand a single moment of it, as could probably be said for most of Ligeti’s works for me. During the intermission, my company and I spoke briefly about quarter tones and microtonality. After explaining intervals smaller than or between a ‘half step,’ she asked “So what would that sound like?” and I said “wrong notes.” After the piece, she agreed. My ignorance aside, it was clearly an incredibly complex, intricate piece that must have taken much time and effort to prepare, and I must give the maestro enormous props for her seemingly effortless direction of a somewhat overwhelming piece.

After that was a flute solo, The Blind, a rather interesting piece in three movements, on a completely black stage, with a spotlight that intermittently illuminated our soloist. There was a video of interpretive dance (human clothed all in black in a stark-white room) interspersed with video of a flautist (our soloist) playing the flute in a completely black room. The accompanying video seemed rather silly, in my opinion, but worked in keeping with or at least seemed to reference the piece’s title. It was a nice enough and rather challenging-sounding solo. Bravo, ma’am.

The final piece, the somewhat aptly named Perpetuum Mobile, was the most approachable of them all, by far, and the most driving, inspiring stirring of them all. Seriously, it sounded exactly as if Shostakovich had grown up in the mountains of southern Taiwan around aboriginal people with a flair for classical music. But it was, alas, not Shostakovich, and the composer stood to accept an applause as the lights went up. An interesting and quite enjoyable piece, but with rhythms and themes that felt like they’d been pulled from a high school concert band piece and spruced up for the concert hall. It was very interesting, but not my favorite. It certainly did make for a big, nice, far more crowd-pleasing finish than anything else on the program would have.

I must say, the conductor, one Ms. 廖曉玲, was fantastic, focused, and intense, and the members of the Taipei Symphony, in various combinations from the small chamber groups to the enormous ensemble, were focused and passionate. Very interesting stuff, and I hope we get more of it. Thank you!


What I thought i needed to say about certain types of classical music, especially by non-western composers

I don’t like fusion cuisine. Almost at all. I love, love, love food, to be sure. I don’t really like fusion cuisine. I’m a purist at heart. Let’s not do Chinese-French fusion. Let’s not do Korean-Mexican or Thai-Italian or whatever. Give me a solid, excellently-prepared Italian dish, a French dessert, a real mole sauce, whatever it is, but pure, genuine, unadulterated food. Fusion stuff is so subjective, and frankly, to me, a bit of a gimmick. I’m sure there’s outstanding fusion cuisine, and I’ve even had some, and I’m sure there are some very interesting, unique creations out there, and that’s great. But I’ll stick to traditional stuff.

The same is true for my tastes in music: I’m not a really huge fan of fusion music, say, Chinese or Japanese or African or Hawaiian instruments and ideas in classical music. The individual music of each of those cultures is fine. Again, I have nothing against any of that. I even listen to Inuit (and Mongolian) throat singing every now and then, but they’re apples and oranges to me. Even people like Boulez, with the gamelan or other indigenous, native Balinese or wherever-ese instruments. Anyway, it’s no prejudice or anything; I don’t even care that much for that newfangled ondes Martenot in Messiaen’s Turangalîla. Just not my thing.

So when we have Asian composers on the program, many of whom have studied in Austria, Germany, France, etc., at many well-respected institutions, who come back to their home countries, the result, I feel, is writing X music with Y flair, and ending up being neither. The same, I think would be true of a white guy who studied traditional music in Japan or Korea, then moved back to America to work at Juilliard or whatever. It’s just kind of a novelty thing, to me. Hovhaness had his cultural phase, right? Anyway, I’m probably sounding bigoted or insensitive, but I just feel the result ends up being less than the sum of its parts, an oddity, a mish-mash I don’t comprehend, and that was the majority of the evening’s program.

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