NSO’s Evening of Symphonic Blast

As you have perhaps been able to tell, it’s been a busy month for concerts. A few highly anticipated events were earlier this month, but it also seems to be the month in which the conductors (Gilbert Varga and 呂紹嘉) return to conduct their orchestras (the Taipei Symphony and National Symphony, respectfully) so there were back-to-back weeks of concerts.

This week, though, has been a week of pianos. Sunday’s stunning Berlin Philharmonic concert wasn’t piano-ish, but Tuesday saw the mesmerizing Hélène Grimaud and last night gave us Berezovsky and Rachmaninoff’s fourth. Tonight wrapped up a busy week of concerts with yet another piano concerto, as well as an organ symphony, or at least a symphony with organ.

We were led this evening by Maestro Rico Saccani, an American-born Italian who apparently felt right at home with our NSO. I asked some folks after the concert about Saccani’s relationship with the orchestra, because it seemed he knew them very well. Apparently he’d never conducted them before, but they seemed to have an understanding, to good result.

First on the program was Kodály’s Dances of Galánta, a work that gave me the same impressions as Enescu’s Rhapsody from last night. It was an exciting, colorful piece, in five sections, with some virtuosic solos, lots of syncopation, and good fun.

Then comes the piano shuffle. Seats stacked, piano rolls out, seats and stands back in place. Kun-woo Paik (or 白建宇 or 백건우, depending on your language preference) joined the orchestra on stage for Dvorak’s piano concerto. He played both Scriabin’s piano concerto and Poem of Fire at this concert last year, where he played them with both passion and poise. Tonight’s performance was no different. Seeming unflinchingly cool and collected (aside from a high point in the first movement where he stomped both of his feet loudly), Paik slithered coolly across the keyboard, and with Saccani taking lead of the NSO, they delivered a powerful, richly Romantic reading of Dvorak’s perhaps underperformed (?) concerto. My thoughts were that on the one hand, anyone familiar with music who hadn’t ever heard it could pinpoint the work to within a decade or two of its year of composition; it’s so ideally late 19th century that it borders on the cliché, but it’s also uniquely Dvorak. It’s too Slavic to be Brahms, too German to be Tchaikovsky. It’s right in that sweet spot of Romantic era glory, and yet is still uniquely Dvorak. It flutters through its moments that call Mozart or Beethoven to mind, but the balance of the work, being identifiable as another Romantic era concerto and yet unique, was perfectly executed (I felt) by the team on stage. Boris Berezovsky came along to enjoy the first half since he was in town, and seemed to enjoy greatly Paik’s interpretation, as did everyone else.

After an encore and the intermission, it was time for Saint-Saëns’ third symphony, the organ one. This is (another) one of those works with which I should probably be much more familiar than I am, but what better chance to get to know it better than to hear it live? The massive, towering organ sits and faces us at every concert, and I’ve only heard it a few times.

Without getting into the detail of the work (or why, somehow, I’ve managed to neglect all  of Saint-Saëns’ compositions in the two-and-a-half years I’ve been writing here), it was incredible, as I suppose you might expect of a work dedicated to Liszt’s memory. Big ol’ giant orchestra, piano (four hands!), organ, lotsa brass. It’s in two large sections, during the first of which Saccani managed to chuck his baton under the first cellos. It seemed like it was holding him back anyway, as that portion of the first section was so stunningly lyrical, churchy, a bit like a service at a funeral, heavenly, and he used both free hands to coax and shape the music. Just sheer beauty. The organ has stunning, rich color and timbre.

Again armed with his baton during the page-flipping cough break between sections, we begin the very lively portion of the work, so lively, in fact, that the intent-on-speaking-English-to-me old rich man couldn’t help but gesture and boing in his seat, as if to say to the rest of the trying-to-focus audience ‘I understand music!’ Sit back and stop moving.

In any case, the organ symphony was the highlight of the night by far. Big giant ensemble, incredible amounts of color and texture, and while it isn’t an hour-long Mahler or Bruckner symphony, it was for sure epic, making use of Liszt’s thematic transformations and all the rest to give us what felt like a looming, awe-inspiring mass of music, something that felt at once far-reachingly linear but also still in four traditional movements. It was spectacular.

To top it all off, as if Saccani didn’t want to end the evening too quickly, gave us an orchestral encore, a string arrangement of Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin. I had to look for a moment to make sure there was no organist. The strings’ sound was rich, warm, breathing and moving together. It was a quick little thing, but a delicious last little bite to end the evening, and somehow perfectly fitting after the Saint-Saëns.

Paik will be back next week for another feature in the concert hall, one I’m very looking forward to. Stay tuned.

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