Concert Review: Munich Philharmonic and 曾宇謙

And the third in a series of two-night features that will continue through into next year. The only difference is that I’m not going to both evenings this time. I can only attend the second night, but a good friend is attending on the first night, the evening I would almost rather go hear.

Both evenings included violin concertos featuring the ‘winner’ or runner up or whatever, the highest-awarded performer from the recent Tchaikovsky competition, one 曾宇謙 (I don’t know his English name), only 21 years old. As an extremely young, recently world-famousTaiwanese violinist (studying at Curtis, playing on a 1732 Guarneri), with the Munich Philharmonic, ticket sales were crazy, like even faster than the Vienna Philharmonic, it seemed. National pride and all that.

Again, I was disappointed not to be able to make the first evening (the Tchaikovsky concerto is wonderful!), but I recently heard the Concertgebouw in their performance of Tchaikovsky’s sixth, so I took the opportunity to hear the Brahms as well as Bruckner’s fourth, since I’ve never heard either live. They’re all great works, no doubt. And I’ve heard lots of Tchaikovsky live, even if it hasn’t been the violin concerto.

My impression of Valery Gergiev has been… not the best. I am sure he’s a fantastic musician, and that’s all that really matters for the two hours he’s standing on the podium, at least for audiences. Politically neutral audiences. He didn’t use a toothpick, but a small, maybe half-length baton.

I have a concertgoing friend who has recently been infatuated with Tchaikovsky and attended the first evening, with the Tchaikovsky pieces. She mentioned, in so many words, that Gergiev seemed to stay out of the soloist’s way, not letting his conducting interfere with the performance, but that he was considerably more lively in the performance of the symphony. Also that our soloist returned six times to receive his undoubtedly patriotic applause, and performed a Paganini piece as an encore, the 24th capriccio, as I recall.

As for me, we did Bruckner’s fourth at just about this time last year as part of our Germanic Symphony Series, and now during our Russian Symphony Series, we have a Russian conducting a German program (for the second night, anyway). To the music!

Almost. The Munich Philharmonic isn’t as iconic as the Concertgebouw or Vienna Philharmonic, but they still have a wonderful reputation. And Valery Gergiev is quite a serious name in the music world. The biggest seller for these concert tickets was, again, the incredible sense of pride that the locals have for their young violin virtuoso who flew halfway around the world to win (sort of?) a music competition of Olympic proportions, and now he’s home and performing with the Munich Philharmonic, conducted by the current president of said Tchaikovsky competition.

The music! 曾宇謙 is a small-ish framed (at least he appeared that way from my seat), unimposing, polite, humble-looking young man, well-dressed, polished, as one would hope. The propriety with which he took his first few bows from an already ecstatic audience were notable, and for the first few minutes of the first movement, he stood, violin at his side, until his time to come in, and when he did, obviously it was exquisite. There was something magical, effortless, and moving about this young man’s performance.

I must say, neither of these pieces on the program last night were favorites of mine in any way; I’d choose the Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Schoenberg, or others over the Brahms, but last night, it wasn’t very far into the piece before I was extremely impressed. As my friend the previous night had said, both the conductor and the orchestra gave the soloist plenty of room. He was never difficult to hear, and they were in perfect step with each other the entire time. The first movement was so stirring that I nearly, without even thinking, felt like wanting to clap (gasp!) after it was over. A large, meaty, imposing but perfectly executed first movement, what one thinks when one thinks of Brahms. The second movement was beautiful, but the real highlight was the third movement. It is so sumptuously virtuosic, so exceedingly Romantic, that I got a little emotional.  There is not another piece I would have rather heard that evening. I was beyond sold. There’s not a single negative thing I could have said about anyone on the stage. Really splendid. I am not a local, but the sense of pride, the glory that the soloist basked in performing in his home country after reaching such critical international acclaim, was touching.

After many returns to bow and accept rapturous applause, we did get an encore, the sarabande from Bach’s second violin partita. Notable, in a subtle but endearing way, was his sense of modesty. Not flashy, not flamboyant, and certainly not milking the already-overwhelming applause. Very admirable. What talent this young man possesses. He will continue to do incredible things.

Twenty minutes later, after listening to the basses practice during the intermission, several more Münchner had joined the party and the phenomenally quiet introduction to Bruckner’s fourth began. The principal horn nailed his solos, incredibly exposed ones throughout the piece, especially at the beginning.

Again, this work is not one I am especially in love with, but after having heard it last night, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. For some reason, during the performance I kept thinking of the late Lorin Maazel, former director of Munich, having listened to his Bruckner (with the Bavarian Radio Symphony). The first movement was roaring and big and bold and delicately quiet and smooth in all the right places, and the contrast and execution could not have been any better. Even after the first movement, I was astounded.

The second movement has always felt a bit funereal to me, and that main theme from the strings comes back multiple times, but it made time stop last night. Wholly captivating. I realized only entering into the scherzo that aside from my knowing from experience that it’s around a twenty-minute movement, it felt like time had stopped. It was exquisite.

The scherzo was fast, lively, and even as one of my least favorite Bruckner scherzos, it came to life, perhaps a welcome change of pace for a few audience members who didn’t realize what they were getting into (a few people left at the end of each movement), and I hadn’t listened to this work in a while, so leading up to the final movement, it escaped me until it started. “Ah, yes, this!” Here I am thinking it might be hard for them to outdo themselves and top the heights they’d already reached, the fourth movement, another very large movement, dramatically, stunning, powerful, towering, with another horn solo at the beginning, quickly roars to grandeur of epic proportions. The first few minutes of the final movement solidified the feeling I’d had from the beginning of the performance that this was to be a highlight for me, one of the greatest, most memorable concert experiences I’ve had to date, and it was.

I walked into this excited to have the chance to hear an orchestra like the Munich Philharmonic, but I own nothing of their recordings, and know very little of them. It was more a ‘fear of missing out.’ However, I was completely off base. A month ago, I wouldn’t have thought that I would have been as underwhelmed by either night of the Royal Concertgebouw, or as blown away by Munich and Gergiev. Very quickly in last night’s concert, I regretted not having attended the previous night. As I’d said above, the RCO performed the Pathetique, so I figured I’d save the price of the ticket (which wasn’t cheap), but… if last night’s Brahms and Bruckner were any indication of the quality of the performance, I missed something truly spectacular.

I feel like, after having heard Bruckner 8 earlier in the year with the NSO, and now the fourth (which I’m much more familiar with), Bruckner’s works are far more amenable to live experiences than just recordings. Last night was truly sublime.

Gergiev and the Munich Philharmonic have etched out a special little place in my heart with what they accomplished last night. Bravo and vielen Dank!



8 thoughts on “Concert Review: Munich Philharmonic and 曾宇謙

    1. I am familiar with his Chinese name. I speak Chinese. That is still a Chinese name; in many cases locals will choose a Western name as well. I have not found that he has one.

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