Concert Review: NSO’s New Year Concert- A Midsummer Night’s Dream

As with last year, I didn’t go on the actual New Year’s Eve night, but decided to go the day after, on 1/1. The New Year’s Eve showing starts at 10 pm, and as with last year, it’s a long piece, so it’s done and wraps up in time for the ball to drop and usher in 201X, in this case, ’16. That’s so scary to say. 
In any case, there’s been lots of Mendelssohn in the concert hall lately. First, about a month ago was Elias, and then in a much smaller showing was his Hebrides overture in this concert on Christmas eve. And now, tonight, much more Mendelssohn.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream in midwinter (a midwinter that feels like midsummer. Seriously, it was 24ºC today).

My impressions of Elias from last month was that Mendy really loves (and was very good at) counterpoint. He and his thing with Bach, I get it. He’s a conservative, sure, but it was a really long piece for what it was. It’s a famous work, and I was glad to hear it live, but it’s very unlikely I’ll ever go dig it out from a record collection and buy myself a copy, just because. It doesn’t get me going like Das Lied von der Erde or something else would. Gurre-Lieder was certainly a treat last year, the Taiwan premiere. This year we’ve moved back (more than) a half century to another large work.

I’m going to be quite negative about the concert tonight, for now. I didn’t go out partying or anything wild on New Year’s Eve. I stayed at home, had dinner, and surprisingly managed to stay up (actually unintentionally) to hear all the fireworks. I hate fireworks.

But I’d almost rather have just stayed in, ordered take-out and sat in front of my computer today than go hear more Mendelssohn. Had it been Mahler 8 or Das Lied von der ErdeWozzeck, Brahms’ Requiem, something with a little more oomph, I’d have been more motivated. That aside, I wasn’t going to miss it; I just wasn’t much in the mood.

I’ve gotten to know more and more people at the concert hall: employees, music lovers, ushers, and one of the work people there today told me I was wrong, it is not just the incidental music; it’s a performance, there will be ‘acting‘ and it will take the full (normal) couple of hours to complete. I was surprised to see a friend there this evening that hadn’t told me he’d show up, so we chatted, and I figured I could daydream my way through Mendelssohn.

This is almost the end of my being negative. Let me just say… I hate pops concerts. I hate movie-themed concerts. I hate Cirque du Sinfonie whatever gimmicky half-music half-puppet show crap that people put on every now and then, and there is thankfully very little of that here. That being said, we were presented tonight with a narrator, lighting, staging, some actors, even a moving-picture backdrop/slideshow.

I was dubious, at best. I’d listened to the incidental music once or twice (or just once) and got so distracted I didn’t realize it was playing. Let me just say, the performance put on tonight by the NSO and 張艾嘉 (Sylvia Chang) was no less than magical. 

There were kids in attendance, families, even some foreign folks (an Italian family, as best I could hear, sat behind me with their kids). I also pretty much can’t stand kids, in the concert hall or out, but all told, tonight’s show was incredible. It was nothing short of a celebration of art. Needless to say, Shakespeare’s original work is genius. Mendelssohn, as dry and conservative as he may be at times, was also a master of his craft, and apparently really loved Shakespeare. The NSO under 張尹芳 was fabulous (as was the conductor herself), and there were the old mainstays I’ve seen many many times, 林慈音 and 翁若珮. But the real star of the show was our thespian for the evening, famous director-turned-incredible-voice-actor for the evening Sylvia Chang.

It was such a mashup, such a perfect balance of theatre, comedy, music, visual arts, everything. It wasn’t cheesy or gaudy, nothing tacky or half-baked. It did justice to both Mendelssohn and Shakespeare, gripping when it needed to be, hilarious when called for. Ms. Chang voiced every character in the work, from Oberon and Titania to Puck, Bottom, Lysander, the whole crew, and it was incredible. Close your eyes, and with the orchestra playing in the background (or not, mostly not), multiple voices were heard. Mind you, this whole thing happened in Chinese, and while the beginning was a little touch-and-go for me, I warmed up and it refreshed my memory of the work so that even I as a foreigner could understand and enjoy.

Again, I can’t stand kids. But even I was made to smile and join in the laughter when the giggles and excited squeals of children reacted to Bottom’s actual donkey-head (played very expressively by 劉向 on stage in perfect sync with Chang’s narration). It was obviously far more casual than a serious concert experience like a symphony or anything. Bottom shooed violinists from their seats, pranced around the stage, and at appropriate times, points of deep blue starlight twinkled on the stage floor, the back walls, spotlights followed the action, and the music that played, sometimes in the background, sometimes not, brought everything together.

Looking at the individual pieces, a narrator, a fabulous orchestra and talented conductor, a small chorus, two vocalists, a man in a onesie and donkey head, and (I’m sure a hell of a lot of) lighting and effects, it seems like a handful of strangely disparate elements destined to work against one another and fight for attention.

But no. Ms. Chang had a big, handsome overstuffed leather chair on stage, placed where a violin soloist might usually stand, and she had her music stand, and it, like the orchestra’s stands, all had their LED stand lights. It made the big, handsome concert hall feel like a small cozy living room, sitting on the floor with a few thousand strangers listening to the best storyteller who’s ever lived, as if she, telling the story, brought the sounds of the orchestra and singers to life along with the characters she played. Kids laughed with delight, as did their parents, to the point that I could abide even the exceedingly underdressed, congested, sneezing, burping, and even farting (yes, he farted) child across the aisle from me.

It was a splendid evening, something perfectly fitting for a celebratory occasion, one of fantasy and humor and drama and, above all, art, a pinnacle of performance.

So yeah, you never know what you’re in for, and tonight’s concert was a true gem, a surprising joy.

It was also my last NSO concert for about the next two months. Chinese New Year will be upon us shortly, and it won’t be until the beginning of March that I’ll be seeing them again, a concert I am very much looking forward to, but even before then, there is LOTS to share and talk about.

I’m sorry, NSO. I’m sorry I ever doubted you. I’m looking forward to much more from you in 2016.

(And for my readers, all six of you, stay tuned this year. I have a lot planned, and I’d really like to find a way to reach more of you. Get in touch with me if you have thoughts or feedback or would like to collaborate or something. Guest writers? Stay tuned this year!)

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