Concert review: NSO’s Fireworks from Russia

This is another one of those concerts I have (very proudly, I  might add) managed to gather people together to attend. Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin enjoyed quite a fantastic turnout on its opening night, and I was very glad at that performance to have been able to gather, directly or indirectly, six more people to tag along, and some of those have more recently continued to show interest in what is not nearly as highbrow and arcane an art as you may think. As discussed previously, I also managed to round up some folks for Mahler 2, but I’m not sure which of these two would be the more ‘challenging.’ In any case, three others came along with me for the concert.

It’s also quite an appropriate concert for the coming weeks of our Russian Symphony Series. In fact, with Scriabin’s first symphony having been posted last week, and something else coming up this week, this concert seems perfectly placed.

So Scriabin. This ticket was part of the season ticket package I bought this past summer. I’d seen his piano concerto on the program and that was enough. I bought one ticket for myself and that was also enough.

But after recent concerts and bringing some new blood along to the concert hall, there were other folks interested in going, and I acquired tickets for a coworker and her father. I’d totally forgotten (or not even looked at) what was on the program aside from Scriabin’s op. 20, but was elated to see that two of Stravinsky’s works, Fireworks and The Firebird suite were also on the program, as well as Scriabin’s Prometheus! How awesome. Another recent convert to the concert hall also decided to come along.

Just a few months before I started writing this blog, back in the summer of 2013, I had just begun to attend concerts here and there and acquired tickets to go see the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra (the NTSO of yesterday’s Mahler 2 performance) perform Prometheus with Hüseyin Sermet at the piano, with the light show (Debussy and Tchaikovsky were also on the program). Although having at that point not yet undertaken either a serious or even a casual study of music, I still knew Prometheus was special, and was delighted to attend, but at the time it was mostly a mass of sound.

And now, our delightful, wonderful excellent NSO is giving us their reading of the piece. While the NTSO had the lights and the organ (as I recall) in the works, there was no chorus; NSO gave us chorus, which we had lots of last night and will continue to have next weekend. You’ll see.

And The Firebird is just kind of a favorite. Heard it live many times. On both sides of the world. One of the concertgoers last night (the aforementioned father) had never listened to Mahler before hearing the second last night, and I heard “it broke him.” His daughter, my coworker, also said The Firebird was the orchestral work that did the same for her. (I’ve heard this one a lot, and yes, I get it: it goes with the ‘fire’ theme of the concert, but I’d really love to hear The Rite of Spring in concert).

Before the concert, a fellow concertgoer and I had dinner, and I did my best to describe, in five minutes or less (or more), the concepts of common practice tonality, the harmonic series, consonance vs. dissonance, and what makes the sounds of Scriabin’s Prometheus so unique.

Okay. So the music. (If you’re a regular reader and don’t want to hear me blather on about tenuously related concert stuff, scroll down about halfway. Like to around here, where the music stuff starts.)

Fireworks is a cute piece, but an important piece for Stravinsky, as it kind of earned him the Firebird commission that began his hi-profile career. In the concert hall, at the beginning of the program, it felt like an encore piece at the beginning instead of the end: fun, fast, lively, musical, and engaging. It was only the second or third time in my life that I’d heard the piece, but it is a nice one, and I think one can hear so distinctly some of what was to come in the composer’s more enduring works.

Next was the Scriabin piano concerto, a truly lovely work. Kun-Woo Paik, or 白建宇 or 백건우, walked out to join Maestro Lü, with whom it seems he has a great relationship. Maybe not, but they were very huggy and hand-shaky. He seemed to handle the piece effortlessly, as did the orchestra, with the drippy Romantic swells of the very Romantic-like, almost academic-ish writing of this really beautiful work. The first movement was exciting and vigorous, and Paik played with a calm, collected assertiveness, nothing showy or gaudy, but accurately and smoothly.

All the pieces on the program for the evening (Fireworks aside, actually) are pieces I’m quite familiar with, but just haven’t listened to in ages, so to hear the horn solo at the beginning, then strings enter, the whole thing… it brought a smile to my face. Surprisingly, unexpectedly, the second movement brought tears. The strings at the beginning of the slow movement were heavenly, like honey, and the clarinet entered, and the whole thing was solemn, almost sacred it was so beautiful. A theme-and-variations, the movement has its livelier moments as well as some more tragic sounding minor-key passages, all really wonderful. I had not  prepared to get teary-eyed. The finale was lively and pretty perfect, ending a virtuosic, cleanly executed, and deeply felt performance that would satisfy greatly if it happened to be the last time I ever hear this piece in the concert hall. It baffles me that it’s not ubiquitous.

Turns out one of our clan excused herself immediately at the half because she’d gotten a little too teary-eyed during the performance. No encores, but lots of bows, probably because Paik will be back for Prometheus. 

20 minutes and some potty breaks later, we’re back for Prometheus. No colors. But chorus. And I must say, after having listened lately to Babbitt, Webern, Stockhausen, Schoenberg, Nono, etc., there’s very little that seems challenging or wildly novel about Scriabin and his mystic chord. While I was a little disappointed we didn’t get the color effects, I was absolutely stunned and blown away by the ethereal heights they reached in the piece with full chorus and organ. I nearly shuddered. It was amazing, and without a single consonant harmony, still manages to sound elegant and moving and wonderful, and that final F major at the end really did kind of knock my socks off, not in a way that makes you want to weep, but rather gasp. I might have. Truly wonderful, a pleasure to hear.

Lots of applause, still no encores. I’m fine with that.

And then, finally, The Firebird. A piece that even little kids know. It was in Fantasia, right? I got to thinking about the piece, how it was an instant success for Stravinsky, and how it’s now a standard piece in the repertoire, perhaps one of the pieces I’ve heard most in the concert hall, so then… what do you do with it? How do you make it fresh? The energy that the NSO brought to the piece, the intricacies of detail, were not beyond my wildest expectations or shockingly amazing, but just perfect, satisfyingly spot on. A trumpet did enter too early once. But it worked.

They played with passion, focus, and tact, everything from the low menacing figures in strings that begin the piece up to the highest trills and twinkles from piccolo or harp or celesta; everything fit in place, everything was heard, and it was an inspired performance. Had you never ever heard this work before (first, what rock have you been under, but second), you would have understood it at an instant in this performance, nothing muddled or unsure or unbalanced about it. Everything from the violent attacks to the mournful, beautiful bassoon solo was spot on, and when the horn enters with that theme at the end that has eventually metamorphosed into this triumphant regal thing, even at the first instance of its appearance, gave me chills. It really is no wonder why this one is so famous.

A smaller program this evening, short pieces, no encores, but full of emotion and variety and color and personality. What a really great concert to enjoy, and oh how appropriate for what’s coming up this week in our Russian Symphony Series. Check it out. Thank you again, NSO, and we’ll see you in just a few days.

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