Concert review: TSO’s Demons and Miracles

With Sergej Krylov and Roberto Abbado

Speechless.

Back at 中山堂 for another Taipei Symphony concert. While it’s a pretty venue, it’s not how a concert hall looks but how it sounds that matters, and in the latter regard, the Taipei Symphony more than deserves a legitimate hall.

I would actually have been at the National Concert Hall hearing Neeme Järvi conduct the National Symphony, but his doctor cancelled his Asian tour, so I saw Roberto Abbado instead, and was beyond thrilled to be there. I’d actually bought tickets to both, unaware of the conflict, and was a bit torn when I realized, but it got sorted out.

The first piece on the program was, I believe, a Taiwan premiere. Battistelli’s Mystery Play is an interesting work, seemingly made entirely of sound effects. In the best of ways. With heavy use of things like tremolo, natural harmonics, sul ponticello, etc., it’s a modern fairy tale, with goblins and monsters, contrasted wit moments of serene beauty. It has a big orchestral sound, an overall roundness, but with sudden bursts of fury or instant silences. It’s a frenetic, slightly crazy work, the kind of thing that might set some audience members scratching their heads, but not at all atonal, no cacophony. If it’d been called a nocturne, I’d have completely agreed, in the sense that it is evocative of night. it called to mind Mahler’s seventh, not because that’s what it sounds anything like, but because of the kind of imagery it calls to mind at times, at least for me. Abbado seemed very into the work, and my guess was it was one of his suggestions.

Next was Paganini’s fifth violin concerto in A minor. One can see why people think he sold his soul to the devil and all that, why Liszt was stupefied at the virtuoso and inspired to become essentially the Paganini of the piano. And while the only Paganini we had with us tonight was the composer not the performer, Krylov made the audience feel like we were watching The Man Himself.

Walking out onto the stage all in black, crisp black button down shirt, untucked, unbuttoned collar, Sergej Krylov looked uneasy. In fact, when he had gotten to a satisfactory spot on the stage, he heaved a sigh of unrelief, and gave Abbado an immediate ‘okay’ nod of the head. There’s a longish intro to the first movement of Paganini’s fifth, and during it, Krylov looked more and more like the kind of person you’d avoid standing too close to in public. He fidgeted nervously, shifted his violin in his hands, tugged at his clothes, even put his hand in his pocket a few times, like he was checking for his keys. He didn’t bring the violin to his shoulder until what seemed like the exact instant he was to begin playing.

The only thing I’ve ever played on the violin is a few major scales, but I have a general idea of the basic mechanics of the instrument: fingerings, hand positions, the tension of strings and the bow, all that. But sitting where I was, from the fifth row, close enough to hit him (hard) with my phone if I threw it, I could not fathom how only those two hands, with five fingers each, could be doing what my ears were hearing. It was nothing short of mesmerizing. The violin was like clay in Krylov’s hands, like it was soft and malleable, like his fingers could twist and stretch and bend in ways normal humans’ can’t. Even the violins on stage watched him in amazement during the cadenza, which somehow managed to outdo everything we’d heard up to that point.

I haven’t any words to describe the prowess Krylov displayed on stage, and even in my seat, when no words were needed (or appropriate), my initial response was to laugh, to laugh in the same way one laughs at some kind of perfect irony, something happening that you never saw coming. It was almost out of incredulity, but people shook their heads throughout the concerto in wonder and awe.

His tone in the second movement was like honey, passages not as furious with fiery showmanship as they were with rich detail and texture. The third movement brought us back to the almost literally unbelievable poise and technical prowess that the soloist has. I realized at this point that I’d pretty much completely not heard the orchestra for most of the concerto, focusing solely on our Russian Paganini standing before us. There are some places where there’s room for interaction, but this is very much a show-off piece, and I’m cool with that, especially with Krylov on stage. The piece finished and hoots and cheers and applause instantly filled the hall, a riotous success, roars of approval, and how could they not be? Krylov gave two encores, and I’d heard them both before but couldn’t place them. They were very cadenza-like in nature, and even had the violins and violas on stage smiling from ear to ear and shaking their heads in awe. He was truly phenomenal, the kind of person who, forget an autograph, I just want to shake your hand and say thank you. Bra-vo.

Intermission.

Then Wagner. It seems a bit odd to me that they’d line up three Wagner pieces back to back to back: Der fliegende Holländer Overture, Karfreitags Zauber from Parsifal, and the Tannhäuser Overture. It seemed odd to me, but when the first overture began, something became a bit clearer. Since our soloist had left, there were many more seats added, brass section filled out, harp appears, etc. No longer leaving the limelight for a violin virtuoso, the Taipei Symphony and Maestro Abbado had their chance to shine. They played with fire and intensity, like they were going to blow the top off the concert hall. The piece from Parsifal was in general a slower one, and the effect, then, was more of a patchwork three-movement Wagner piece, finishing with Tannhäuser, an overture that got me almost teary-eyed. It sounded like triumph, like glory, like people playing their hearts out for a cause that meant something. It was epic.

Abbado brought the best out of the excellent Taipei Symphony, and his baton is one I wouldn’t mind seeing more often. Taipei Symphony has a wonderful director in Gilbert Varga, and they get great guest conductors, Eliahu Inbal comes to conduct Mahler 3, and on and on. It’s always a treat to hear the Taipei Symphony, and tonight was no exception, but I was not prepared for Krylov and his wizardry.

I have to leave now because I’m going off to see what of Krylov’s recordings are in iTunes (although the magic was more in seeing him execute it than just hearing him, but hearing him was mighty nice, too). If Sergej Krylov is ever in your town, do whatever you have to do to see him play.

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