Concert Review: NSO and Neville Marriner

This season with the NSO is one of big-name guests. Actually, the Taipei Symphony has invited some pretty great soloists to play, a recent visitor being Sabine Meyer.

I didn’t actually know a whole lot about Neville Marriner until right up before this concert, like that he was a violinist with the Philharmonia and London Symphony, or that he studied with Pierre Monteux in America.

I came to be familiar with many works of Mozart (concertos, symphonies) and all the Schubert symphonies via Marriner’s work with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Name aside, they struck me for some reason as this elitist, perfect organization, a pinnacle of musical achievement. So of course, when I saw his name while flicking through the NSO’s program for this year, there was no way I was going to pass it up. He’s actually giving two concerts here this year, another one down south after ours in Taipei. There wasn’t any Schubert on the menu last night, but we did get Mozart:

 The NSO was, as always, spectacular, as was the audience. The NSO patrons are a different bunch of people altogether, very much unlike the horrific Taipei Philharmonic audience a few weeks back. In any case, the orchestra played wonderfully. This was not a surprise. The main difference, however, was the 91-year-old Maestro (he’ll be 92 in about five months) in his element.

For the first work on the program, Mozart’s Haffner, the downbeat came almost unexpectedly, no long pausing or deliberating, just go, and it seemed effortless. The ensemble was characteristically small, as were the conductor’s motions. I’d never actually seen Marriner conduct, but I assumed this was his style, or the style of someone his age: very small, precise, localized gestures, not much body movement, plenty of eye contact, very much not interfering with the music happening, and happen it did.

Unfortunately, I am pretty darn unfamiliar with all the works on the program last night, but while our NSO is not the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, they were still wonderful and Mozart was clean, crisp and expressive, not overdone or outlandishly embellished. Bravo.

The cello concerto. Our soloist Tian Bonian (田博年) is on the faculty at the Hochschule für Musik in Frankfurt am Main. I know virtually nothing about the work, except that it lots of very dialogue-like passages with the orchestra, and Tian seemed to play everything rather effortlessly. It was virtuosic and showy, but not gaudy, and at every moment, he and the orchestra were locked in step. Significant moments where this was especially noticeable were pizzicato emphasis on the solo cello parts, the fantastically romantic dialogue between solo cello and first cello, and the in-tempo cadenza in the final movement. They really had some chemistry, it seems, even for superb musicians, and the piece was very nice. We also got an encore, a movement from a Bach suite, which was heavenly.

Of the three on the program, the cello concerto seemed the most modern, the most fully Romantic, and it’s always a little hard to remember that Mendelssohn was born only a year earlier than Schumann, Chopin, two before Liszt, etc. His Italian symphony, at many turns, sounded far more closely related to Mozart than Schumann, and it was certainly the highlight of the evening. The first movement had a spectacular bounding energy, the second had its spellbinding warmth and delicacy in such contrast with the first. The third, also, was handled beautifully, but the real excitement was in the finale.

Again, the NSO is really a spectacular symphony, so it’s not a surprise of any kind, but they played the final movement with exacting precision. Props especially to the woodwinds, and the flutes specifically.

With each piece, Marriner got more and more expressive, movements became larger. I wouldn’t say he became “more engaged” or anything. He was already engaged, but the manner in which he led his orchestra (for the night) was different. Even a small step on the podium toward the orchestra communicated a lot, and his increasing excitement transmits to the players, and the result was obvious. The man seemed relaxed, and completely not exhausted, but the concertmaster walked him offstage after his second return to mitigate any too-long applauses.

Seeing a visiting superconductor with a local orchestra got me to thinking about what a conductor does. For a few moments, actually, before the concert began, I had expected our regular Maestro 呂 to walk out, but then I remembered why the evening was so special, and it was halfway through the Mozart before I remembered “I have X many of this guy’s albums and recordings, and he’s here.” Unfortunately, I decided not to go wait in line and fight for an autograph, of which the maestro would only give eighty. Really fantastic evening, and plenty to think about that I might expound upon elsewhere.

But there’s more to come in the next few days. It’s now the 19th, and I have at least four more concerts to attend, maybe five. Busy month! See you then.

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