NSO’s A Hero’s Life

30th Anniversary Season Opener, featuring Leonidas Kavakos

Well, I’m a bit late in coming with this.

The concert was almost a week ago, and came at the end of an extremely long day (and weekend, involving a national holiday, two typhoons, a trip way outside the city and a multi-leg journey to dodge traffic and maybe be at the concert hall in time for the event). It should have been the day before but typhoons stir up trouble sometimes.

There have been a few concerts already for the gearing up of the new year, two by our Taipei Symphony, and the Diotima Quartet’s wonderful performance in the concert hall last week.

But Sunday night marked the opening of the NSO’s thirtieth season, a serious milestone. While other orchestras might be celebrating their 175th or 220th seasons or whatever, that’s a different part of the world, and while the NSO isn’t Taiwan’s oldest ensembles, it’s certainly one of the most well established, if not the most.

And we finally get Kavakos.

Apparently they’d been trying to invite him for years, and I guess the waiting is worth it. While he’d been to Taiwan before to perform a recital (with some famous pianist… Ax?), this was his debut with a local orchestra, and what better occasion could it have been than the NSO’s 30th?

The program began with a world premiere, a Philharmonia Festival Overture, a piece that had the generally well-behaved munchkins behind me giggling with enjoyment. It began with a fanfare, including trumpets from the balconies on either side, immediately calling Brahms to mind (for more than just the title), but then sounding at turns quite British, and even a bit comical, with percussive sound effects, blatting trombone glissandi and the like, a piece of contrasts and color and what I can only describe as good fun. It had crunchy moments of seriously well-crafted musicality, but others I can only assume to be musical jokes, even parody, which I don’t mind. It was a fine piece, and a fitting first piece for a 30th anniversary season.

Next was the real moment people had all been waiting for years for, or at least a few months, or the 24 hours that the concert had been postponed due to the virtually nonexistent typhoon weather. Λεωνίδας Καβάκος makes his entrance onto the stage, quite a tall guy, and with very little fidgeting or adjusting, the downbeat for the Korngold is given.

I will say I’d at most listened to this work twice before the concert Sunday evening. The 1945 composition date might lead you to think that it’d be a war piece, something lush, expressive, melancholy, pained, or some other word related to a reaction or response to World War II, but not really. If you didn’t already know that Korngold was a rather prolific composer of film music, it would quickly become apparent.

In photos of rehearsals shared on the NSO’s page, it seems the conductor Shao-chia Lu (呂紹嘉) and Kavakos get along quite well; perhaps they know each other from previous engagements or something, because they seem quite friendly. I’d also heard Kavakos is quite the friendly, down-to-earth virtuoso with no ivory tower to speak of. It seemed apparent in the performance: no flashy gestures or acting on stage. In fact, he seemed at times almost bored. When he had a moment to breathe, he’d turn and face the orchestra, as if just realizing they were there.

Kavakos has been recently (the past few years?) getting plenty of mileage out of the Korngold (or someone has) because I feel like I’ve been seeing it all over concert programs on the interwebs. That’s fine, but to be honest, the work isn’t my favorite. There’s arguably no one better to hear perform it than Kavakos, absolutely, but it’s not quite my taste.

While well executed for sure, I’d have to say my description of the work would be… if Rachmaninoff had written a violin concerto that Hindemith got a hold of and rewrote to serve as film music for a generally sunny, feel-good film, that would be the Korngold. I, for one, don’t hear any WWII in it, and Korngold’s penchant for big, attractive, sweeping melodies is readily apparent, rounded out by a more lively finale.

Kavakos gave two encores, the first being the first movement of Ysaÿe’s second violin sonata (right?), the one that features the Dies Irae, and the second was a Bach something. We got to see the musician dig his heels in and really bring something showy and virtuosic to life (not that the concerto wasn’t, but it’s different), and finish with something more serene.

Last on the program was Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. I mean, what else would you expect from a thus-titled concert? In fact, the TSO had a Heroes thing for theirs, and NSO is having a hero theme for the entire season. Not sure what that’s about but seriously: someone’s bound to play Ein Heldenleben, and I feel the NSO was a great candidate to do it.

It’s such a big work. Maybe not as big as the Alpine symphony or Zarathustra, but it’s pretty meaty. Lots of brass, extra woodwinds, the whole (very) late 19th century orchestra line-up, and a gem in Strauss’s repertoire. What challenges his work must present, everything from soaring, screaming brass to a violin solo, the big and the small, the structure of the work with contrasting themes, the sudden quotations of things like Don Juan not at all subtly worked into the piece, and overall I was pleased. I’m not nearly as familiar with this work as, say, even his (justifiably) ignored Aus Italien, but it’s unmistakably Strauss, and a heroic way to begin the concert season.

After a very long 16 hours running around all over creation, I was more than ready to head home, but chatting with music folk after the concert can get you roped into things like cocktail parties in commemoration of the 3oth season, and I realized I knew a few more people than I thought I would. Aside from initially feeling rather out of place, highlights included making a Swedish acquaintance with whom I was able to discuss this month’s series, as well as shaking hands with and thanking Kavakos himself, as well as the conductor, among others. Very long, but very enjoyable day. Looking forward to another exciting season from our NSO.


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