Concert Review: RSO-Wien

It’d been like, three weeks since I’d been in the concert hall. Things always slow down around Chinese New Year, with annual maintenance and whatever taking place. The whole country kind of stops what they’re doing for the week anyway, but last night was the first night of two concerts with the RSO-Wien in Taipei.

Also known (I guess in English) as the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, they’re the only radio symphony in the country. It’s a small country, sure, but tons of symphonies and concert houses, no? Anyway, I knew nothing about them but the program was enticing, as was the ‘Vienna’ name, even if it wasn’t the Vienna.

On the program for the evening were Beethoven’s Leonore overture followed by his seventh symphony, and then Brahms’s first symphony after the break. I’d recently been on a Beethoven and Brahms listening kick (unrelated to this concert, I think) and have listened to many many recordings of the Brahms symphonies, especially (Chailly, Haitink, Harnoncourt, Solti [and my vote goes to Solti, I think]), so much so that I might be a little bit Brahmsed out. But the first is likely my favorite of his, so I was eager to attend. (I just noticed that both days are included in my program from yesterday, and the second day, with a Mozart piano concerto [23] and Brahms’s second symphony lists the latter as Brahms Symphony no. 1 in D… oops.)

The Leonore overture is a wonderful standalone piece, and quite lively, which is apparently to Mo. Meister’s liking. My seat was one of the highest, farthest back I’ve ever had, because at the time I bought the tickets, it showed as the last available seat for sale, but the hall was only filled to about…. 60% capacity, from what I could see. In any case, I don’t think it affected the clarity of the sound, but maybe it did. It seemed not a matter of the orchestra’s technical ability, but there were some issues of togetherness and intonation that showed up throughout the program.

Leonore was exciting, but I was most looking forward to Beethoven. Up to this point, I’ve heard a phenomenal roster of orchestras play Beethoven. Vienna played the first, the Philharmonia the third, Chicago the fifth, the Concertgebouw the sixth, and now the seventh. Berlin will be here in May and I will (hopefully) be hearing them play 2 and 9, leaving only 4 and 8 (as one would expect). Speaking of expect, the trumpet solo in the audience came as a surprise to most, and I’m glad he was on the other side of my floor. He was confident, powerful, even a bit searing, and I’m sure the effect was interesting from different places in the hall. From where I was, there wasn’t the echoey distant effect, but obviously an almost-imposing, crystal clear heroism. Cool.

Then the seventh, which is just a genius piece of music. The first movement is light and lyrical and full of energy, as was the orchestra. Maybe not ‘light,’ necessarily There was a kind of anxious urgency in much of the music, especially the Brahms. I’m being nitpicky, sure, but the dynamic range of the orchestra, I felt, could have been more pronounced. Their searing, roaring highs were just that, powerful bass, rich balance, but in moments like the second movement of no. 7, I could have gone for a more funereal, delicate, barely audible ppp to contrast with what the movement builds to. Maybe that’s not what the score calls for; I’m not sure. Meister’s tempo for the final movement made Chailly and Harnoncourt seem languid, and he looked a bit Gangnam Style on the podium. I mean not to criticize; he’s quite young, but it almost seemed a bit excessive the drive and bombast the piece grew to, although it was quite thrilling. Also, their pizzicato throughout both pieces was the cleanest, crispest, most resonant I’ve ever heard!

The Brahms is a symphony I feel more and more is meant for that Beethoven quote in the final movement, that everything leads up to that passage. It shows up in the third movement, and even (to my mind) suggests it in the second. Hearing Brahms live makes me think about how difficult these works must be to interpret in the concert hall, striking a balance, maintaining structure, development, all the rest. Overall, the approach was energetic, a bit… not hurried, but ‘anxious’ is the only way I can describe it. I wish much of the music had just had a teeny bit more room to breath, for us to enjoy it, for it to sink in, and it’s not necessarily that it was fast, because I don’t think it was. In any case, the end of the first movement was a bit hurried I felt, or just heavy; the second, however, was luscious and rich and delightful, and  I was overall quite pleased. Despite nitpicky comments, the audience roared to applause after each of the pieces. For all who showed up, it seemed quite a satisfying concert.

Meister is quite young (we were born in the same decade, barely) and seems to like a bit of fireworks and bombast in his interpretations. I’m okay with that, but I am curious what his approach would be in Mozart, or Mahler, or Bruckner, or Haydn. Anyway, it was a nice evening, and there’s one night left. Four stars. Three and a half sounds harsh, and I wasn’t disappointed, just not blown away. It’s said they have a reputation for modern music, and I’d love to hear them play some of their 20th century repertoire, whatever it might be. Maybe next time, RSO. Thanks, and stay tuned for our next concert review in a few weeks of a Mahler symphony I have been looking forward to for nearly a year.

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