Concert Review: TSO’s ‘Light and Shadow from South America’

He may be small, but he’s got something.

my fellow concertgoer for the evening, watching the guitarist in a pre-concert lecture

Sometimes (more often than not), I go to a concert because I see something on the program I like or haven’t heard live and want to experience. Brahms has been a recent mainstay lately. In the past few months, three of his four symphonies (excluding the third) have been performed, along with his violin concerto (farther back), and while I didn’t make it to all of them, they’re not surprising pieces to see in the concert hall, and nice to enjoy if you haven’t seen live before.

The Vienna Radio Symphony performed Beethoven 7 last month, which I was excited to hear live, but on occasion, lately more often than not with the Taipei Symphony Orchestra, especially with Maestro Varga on the podium, we’ve been given spectacular, riveting performances of works I’m very unfamiliar with. One of the other recent concerts featured Ernő Dohnányi’s Konzertstuck in D, as well as Bartok’s Wooden Prince suite, an incredible work, fantastically played.

I digress. I know virtually nothing of South (or Latin) American composers; I can name a few, but have very little knowledge of their history, development, works, etc., and on top of that, I am even more ignorant of the classical guitar. Imagine my curiosity, then, when this program pops up on my radar, in one of the few instances of our beloved TSO performing in the National Concert Hall:

So I went, more out of curiosity or even skepticism, to see what it was all about.

And I was blown away.

First, let me say that what I thought about in the concert hall, listening to much of this music… two things. Mahler, and the globe. First, the globe, as a kind of visual reference of where this music comes from: South America, Mexico, the landscape, the cultures, the sights (never been there; thanks Internet). And that wasn’t hard; the music is instantly conjuring up images and colors and smiles and National Geographic-type images of fantastic landscapes and peoples. And then Mahler.

Why Mahler? People were shocked and appalled that he would take ‘common music’ like that found in his first symphony and place it in a venue so sacred as the concert hall. Frere Jacques (or Bruder Jakob, I suppose), klezmer music and all the rest…what place did it have in a symphony?! But now look at it. It’s lively, vivid, emotional Austrian music that reflects life and love and tragedy.

Listening to an orchestra (of various sizes for each of the pieces) play music with a very Latin flair was a similar idea. One might not associate those sounds and textures with the ‘tradition of Classical music,’ or whatever, but it is to them what Mahler’s music was in Vienna, I suppose. But above all, it was convincing. Oh how convincing.

The ‘light and shadow’ idea was an overarching contrast between the two halves of the program, the first half quiet, subdued, ethereal, soft, the second lively, raucous, bombastic, exciting.

The program began with Piazzola’s Oblivion, which Varga introduced as meaning ‘to forget,’ which is etymologically accurate, despite many thinking of it as representing destruction or obliteration (similar if not the same root word). In his typical pre-concert lecture, he asked the audience to set aside cares of life outside the concert hall: bosses, neighbors, bills, taxes, etc. and just listen. Oblivion was rich, supple, cinematic in structure and texture, soothing, but also evocative, and very brief, a dense, concentrated, focused sound picture. And there would be more.

The centerpiece of the evening, though, was obviously the Villa-Lobos concerto, played by one young 林家瑋. Quite young, of small stature, and seemingly soft-spoken, Lin took his time to tune and get himself and his gear in the right place before he gave Varga the nod he was ready. All the brass had cleared off the stage, and we were left with a small compliment of strings, and only one of each woodwinds, horn and trombone. Even with the small ensemble, the guitar was still amplified with a mic, ever so subtly. Perhaps this is common.

The Villa-Lobos concerto, wonderfully executed to my ear, was generally soft, pensive, and above all, intimate, a word I would use to describe the guitar itself. Each of the solo winds was exposed, the string textures were pared down, and everything took a back seat to the soloist. There were no real heights of struggle, no turmoil, nothing too dramatic, just rich, not dark, but shadowy, subtle, mature. I really need to give it another listen, but it was above all convincing, and thoroughly captivating.

There were four, count them four, encores from our young guitarist, who seemed to really enjoy the chance to perform, not as a showoff or over of the spotlight, but to have the opportunity to share with the audience what seemed clearly to him to be very precious, and this is very convincing.

After a fifteen minute intermission, we get to the ‘light’ (I guess) portion of the concert, and boy was it all the things the first half wasn’t. All the brass are back, a small army of percussion and their textures and sound, intoxicating outright dance rhythms, thundering bass; the word that came to mind was ‘raucous,’ but in the best of ways.

Ginastera’s Estancia Suite you might think of as the Latin American version of Respighi’s Roman Triptych pieces, but with a heavier dose of Stravinsky a la The Firebird suite. It was incredibly intense, riveting, literally breathtaking music, as were the two pieces that followed. Moncayo’s Huapango was introduced as a gem, a “flag” of Mexico, while we were warned in advance of the urge to dance that Márquez’s Danzón no. 2 would cause. Moncayo’s piece, for lack of a more relatable description is the kind of nationalist composition one might hear from Dvorak, straightforwardly indicative of a place and a culture, but also purely convincing and enjoyable in and of itself.

I felt that Márquez’s Danzón no. 2 would have been the perfect ending to the concert; both it and the Ginastera, were so lively, so passionately played that I found myself short of breath and thinking about how much more intense the music could get before things in the hall started to break. It was incredible. The Márquez piece was a suite, perhaps a rondo (?) of dance themes, infectious, seductive, sexy, romantic (lowercase R, the love kind, not the art style), and rocking. It would have been almost exhausting had it gone on much longer.

We were told there would be an autograph signing (as there always is when Varga is present) but not to leave the hall too soon after the last piece because there would be “a little surprise,” afterward. Commenting on the preciously small volume of work for guitar and orchestra, they (the orchestra? the guitarist?) adapted the opening Piazzolla work, Oblivion, for guitar and orchestra, the short, quiet, ethereal piece, as a concertante work, with our little soloist back in his solo place to finish out the evening quietly and serenely. It was a wonderful little adaptation, and good for everyone involved for giving the soloist as much time to shine as possible, but I almost felt that the effect of the incredible conclusion of the Danzón was a little bit lost. On the other hand, I don’t know what I’d have done walking out of the concert hall with all that pent up excitement, so it was a good chance to cool off before walking back out into the real world.

Thank you, 林家瑋, Maestro Varga, and the Taipei Symphony. I never should have doubted you.

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