TSO’s Heroic Voices

featuring violinist Ray Chen

The concert season is starting back up. It feels like it’s been ages since I’ve been in the concert hall, and I guess it has been. With the exception of an outstanding Othello at the beginning of July, the last event was some time in June, as I recall.

But we’re getting back to the concert hall, with new programs and things to enjoy, and tonight’s program was an interesting beginning, and a homecoming of sorts.

The Taipei Symphony doesn’t play very often in the National Concert Hall, but a few times a year, we get to enjoy a spectacular performance from them in a hall worthy of their caliber of playing. We had with us tonight Ray Chen, young Curtis-graduated Taiwanese-Australian Yehudi Menuhin-winning superstar violinist. He’s a big one on social media, so it’s kind of cool to see him up close and in person. I got a seat on the eighth row tonight, much closer than my typical (favorite) balcony seat.

It was nice to see a beaming Gilbert Varga walk out and give us his best “你好” before he’d nearly even walked into view. With his translator for the evening, a very outgoing violinist, in tow, the two talked briefly about the program. First was Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy a piece that should be played over all his violin concertos (that I’ve heard). Varga loves the final movement and talked about the appropriateness of kilts for its performance, if Ray would agree. After the Bruch would be Shostakovich’s tenth symphony, the symphony to come after the composer’s second denunciation, much like the first. Ms. Violin brought a Where’s Waldo? book (actually Willy in this part of the world) on stage as a prop to explain the DSCH motif in the work, and to look out for it. We got an overview of the work’s four-movement progression and the concert was underway.

Chen comes out in a tight-fitting double-breasted suit. I just recently learned he’s a number of years younger than me, but then again, more and more people are these days. He looks much younger in person, and wasn’t as tall as I’d expected, but that’s all irrelevant. This is the first time I’ve seen him play, in person or otherwise, and he’s as expressive physically as he is musically: facial expressions, and bowing (as in, of his person, not his right hand) and arching and leaning and all the rest. I want to say he even made eye contact with a few folks, and a wink or two to a fan wouldn’t have surprised me. Chen’s perfectly-groomed hair stayed in place better than the hair of his bow, a few of which he let loose and had to pull off during the first few movements.

What blew me away from the beginning, though, was his tone. That tone, though. I’m sure the 1715 “Joachim” Stradivari helps, but it’s readily apparent he’s also just a stunning performer with perfect poise and dazzling talent. I thought the pairing of a German’s violinistic interpretation of virtuosic Scottish music was an interesting pairing with Shostakovich’s nearly violently Soviet-era (post Stalin) symphony, but it was too easy to get lost in the tone of the soloist to care that much. I did get to thinking about all the things I’d love to hear that violin(ist) play, though. The whole thing was spectacular, orchestra on point, too. Harpist sat (almost) front and (very) center, and the entire piece went off colorfully and convincingly, a wonderful pairing, the soloist and orchestra.

They announced they’ll be teaming up again to take this exact program to Shanghai I guess in the coming week or two, so good for them on that and best wishes. During Varga’s pre-concert lecture we were told that it was a full house this evening, totally sold out. Everyone stayed to hear Ray’s three encore pieces. First was caprice no. 21 of Paganini’s two dozen for violin, followed by two contributions from Bach, and much clapping.

Unfortunately, there were a few people who left at the intermission, but the majority settled in for a drastically different experience in the second half.

Shostakovich is up there with Bruckner and Mahler (and maybe Beethoven’s ninth, specifically) as one of the composers who must be heard live. The music is fantastic even in recordings, obviously, but to sit in a hall and hear something like this happen in real time, before your eyes, is a different experience. An inspired performance is just that, an experience. The music isn’t played, it happens. You don’t hear it, you experience it. And from the beginning of the Shostakovich, cellos and basses, that’s what it felt like we were getting, a real inspired performance. It’s always a good (or else very bad) sign when the conductor has the confidence to do without the score, and Varga drove the Shostakovich bus score-free.

There’s a balance to be had with Shostakovich as there is with Mahler. In a work like Mahler’s sixth, it could be easy to get heavy-handed with the fate and tragedy and crazy and overlook the tender moments, the pastoral cow bells, the Alma theme, all of that. Shostakovich has these contrasts too, and it was all exquisitely laid out before us this evening. The first movement had its broad, spacious long melodies, solemn, pensive, but the energy was ratcheted up when it needed to be, like in the second movement, a growling, frantic, manic burst of energy after which the conductor took a short lean against the back of his podium and ran his hands through his hair. Phew.

I’ve always thought of Shostakovich as one of the best examples of music as a reflection of life, that there’s stunning beauty and irony and humor and pain and violence, everything is there, and you don’t have to have lived through the Stalin era or even know a whole lot about it to grasp what Shostakovich is communicating, at least a little bit, with his music. It might be a little overwhelming, and a little lengthy, but anyone who wants to understand it can, especially with as stellar a performance as we got this evening.

I’d actually warmed up to the idea of going to get an autograph from Chen, especially after having seen him on the interwebs so much, but my good manners got the best of me, and I couldn’t bring myself to make a mad dash for the exit with the throngs of young kids wanting to meet their hero (at least of the evening) while Varga was still taking his bows, so I waited. By the time I got there, the line had snaked around nearly to the third floor, and… maybe next time Ray. I’d have loved to shake your hand and say thanks. So thanks. It was incredible.

And thank you, TSO and Maestro Varga. I am looking forward with great anticipation to the rest of the season. See you soon.

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