Concert Review: TSO’s Trumpet Calls on the Wasteland

with Håkan Hardenberger

The takeaway from this concert: Håkan Hardenberger is a classy, really nice dude who makes beautiful sounds on the trumpet. Like a Swedish George Clooney.

As with every Taipei Symphony performance Maestro Varga leads, this one is preceded by a small introductory greeting, with a member of the orchestra as translator, this time the second trumpet. They spoke of what a joy it is to have Mr. Hardenberger with us, as well as a bit about each piece, which I will share shortly.

The first piece Varga described as an amuse bouche, admitting the other two pieces were significant enough to make up a whole program. However, ha if loved and worked in the Basque region, he was eager to share a short but interesting dance piece, five beats to the bar, with the stress on the second, of all places; he claimed that along with the Basque’s unique and mysterious history and language, that they are also the only people in the world to have a five-beat dance with the accent on the second bar. It was a short, stringy, fun, generally quiet, subdued thing, pleasant and interesting, calling Ravel to mind for more than just the significant use of snare.

The next work was the real feature of the evening, the Fisher King, essentially a concerto for trumpet. A troubled, complicated, texturally and rhythmically interesting work, it involved Hardenberger’s silver trumpet and what appeared from my seat to be a piccolo trumpet, some extended technique and multiple mutes. I found the very interesting program notes for the piece, and they say in part:

A horn player once said to me: “The trumpet doesn’t have any secrets.” I was at first provoked, being myself a trumpeter, but the comment tells a lot about the French horn’s wonderful merits of magic in orchestral and chamber music. Not only do the horn players send the sound away from the listener, they also muffle it with their hand, making it sound like emerging from a deep forest.

He continues to speak about how “the role of the trumpeter has been confined to depicting festive parades and dramatic battles, and to blaring crude fanfares through its almost obscenely protruding bell.” The most recent performances, this evening’s included, are also listed at the bottom of the page. A nice review of the piece is found here.

It’s more like a tone poem, really. It doesn’t (seem to) have separate movements or anything, but it is interesting for a few reasons. For one, I definitely understand the title of the program for the evening, Trumpet Calls on the Wasteland. It’s a dark-ish piece, played (unsurprisingly) exquisitely well by Hardenberger, at times furious and bright, the way most everyone thinks of a trumpet, at times soft and supple, like a brassy English horn (not a French one). The use of the rest of his equipment brought some very interesting timbres and expression to the work.

I used to be able to play a few scales on the trumpet, but I’m more used to instruments with keys for specific notes, without concern for harmonics or embouchure stuff, so to hear the seemingly effortlessness with which these very technical passages were executed, and so delicately and quietly, was fascinating. And, as usual, the Taipei Symphony played with fire and passion, careful never to get in the way of the star of the evening.

We got three encores and many many returns to bow for applause. He is a generous, patient, and gregarious man. Two of the encores sounded almost dirge-like, at least one muted, quiet, serene, at some points barely audible. An encore doesn’t always have to be bombastic or comical or loud; at times, in keeping with the mood of the program, it is fitting to be quiet, pensive, even solemn, and they were all gorgeous.

After the break came Beethoven’s Pastoral, which I heard only a few weeks ago in our National Concert hall performed by the world-famous Royal Concertgebouw, and while the virtuosity of the musicians can not be doubted (they’re some of the best in the world), they lacked the energy and fire that the Taipei Symphony had tonight in spades. Varga was passionate, beaming with pride and joy during the first two movements, practically dancing himself during the second; he reeled and pushed and pulled and drive the orchestra through the scherzo. They raised hell during the fourth movement and brought an outstandingly convincing open, blue sky to the final movement. After watching and hearing his genuine excitement to share his passion and pride of the orchestra with the audience, and hearing performances like this, I was very glad to shake his hand for the nth time and tell him what a joy it always is to see him. I told him that even I was surprised to say if I had to choose between hearing the Taipei Symphony’s Pastoral again or the Concertgebouw’s, I’d probably choose Taipei’s.

Just not in the old, run-down 中山堂. It’s really a pretty looking place, but the whole rickety building creaks and groans, and it sounds like everyone is sitting on old wooden suitcases. The acoustics aren’t spectacular either, and with the caliber of performances the Taipei Symphony has been delivering the past few years, as well as inspired, adventurous, fresh programming, it’s time they get a home of their own, and I hear it’s on the way. I can’t wait. Very excited to see all of you again soon. Thank you.




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