In a rare case where I thought I knew what I was hearing, I walked in and sat down to music I was not only completely ignorant of, but didn’t even anticipate. I was under the impression that we were getting like, a Weber overture, Nielsen’s flute concerto, and then his third symphony, but I was wrong.
First on the program were three songs for orchestra, chorus and solo vocalists (the third without vocalists) from Taiwanese composer 呂泉生, whose centennial is this year. He passed away in 2008, and Maestro Varga expressed that this was their way of commemorating him.
Actually, let’s go the other way ’round. The Maestro always gives his little pre-concert introduction, shares his excitement or a thought or two about each piece, quickly and simply, and it’s a feature of the program I think many have gotten used to. He begins at the end, stating that he feels that Nielsen’s Sinfonia Espansiva is the greatest thing to have come out of Scandinavia in the 20th century, and shared a thought about an expander, with muscly, broad gestures, explaining the unstoppable energy this work has. I have thoughts.
Second on the program was, not Nielsen’s own concerto, but the concerto for flute and orchestra of one Hisatada Otaka, father of Taadaki Otaka, whose wonderful Glazunov Symphony cycle I own. Anyway, Papa Otaka studied composition in Vienna under Joseph Marx and conducting under Felix Weingartner. The soloist for the evening was the orchestra’s own Christine Yu (游雅慧), who suggested the work to Varga. He said he’d never heard it, never conducted it, but admitted it was “worth doing.”
The first piece on the program was the centennial commemoration, with chorus and orchestra. First is a drinking song, featuring a baritone, and the second a lullaby, sang by soprano, neither of whom are credited in the program. The chorus was really wonderful despite being jammed into bleachers under a shell with zero lighting. They had a warm, clean sound and diction clear enough that I could almost understand the Taiwanese-language lyrics.
As for the drinking song, take the drinking song from like, Das Lied, make it more opera-aria festive sounding, yet more straightforwardly pentatonic and not so… Mahler-y, and in Taiwanese, not German. The lullaby was the same if its jumping-off point were Brahms. I had a bit of the feelings I imagine contemporaries of Mahler would have had when he put his vulgar street music to use in the concert hall in a symphonic setting. Its cultural context is so different from the 19th (or even 20th) century Western classical music that it seemed almost out of place, but then again, I’m out of place in this country, and I can see how the local music, with local sounds and text especially resonates with local audiences. It was pretty.
Next was the flute concerto. After some shuffling and forgetting to place the sheet music on Yu’s stand, the concerto was under way. It is in three movements, and sounded at turns Russian-ish and French-ish, the only real overtly Japanese-sounding part being the second movement, which sounded at times like something that might come out of the Kill Bill soundtracks, with fluttery flute and col legno that rippled through the orchestra in a serene setting that surged to life at times. It was a beautiful, textural kind of magical-sounding work of not-too-great length, and the soloist gave a few encores backed by a small compliment of strings.
After the break, we got back to our seats for Maestro Varga’s purported greatest Scandinavian thing of the 2oth century. I would contest that designation with a few symphonies of Alfvén, Sibelius, Atterberg, Pettersson. Anyway, Nielsen 3 is a wonderful piece, and I feel like Nielsen himself, as a composer, is just on the verge of being a household name worldwide like Sibelius is. I mean, if you’re not an intentional listener of music (as in, don’t listen to it purposefully in concerts or somewhere), the average person may not be able to hum some Sibelius like they would Beethoven, but Sibelius is world famous. Nielsen, though, seems to be just outside of that very most inner circle of mainstays of concert halls worldwide, and while the third symphony doesn’t blow me away and rattle my insides, it is a wonderful work, full of power and confidence and that kind of warm, expansive unstoppable energy, but also a delicate tenderness at times.
The curious thing about it is, you know what the curious thing is? There’s a feature of the third that people remember it by. “Oh, the one with the voices?” a friend says to me when I mention Nielsen’s third. “Yup, that one.” Except we got the version without vocalists, even though we had soprano and baritone before the concert began. They sing wordless lines in the second movement for a moment of shimmering, time-stopping beauty, but we got them replaced with fourth clarinet and fourth trombone, as is notated as a possible option. It didn’t mean I didn’t spend the last half of the piece questioning my entire collective knowledge of classical music: “It is this one…? Not the inextinguishable, or the four temperaments…? The voices are in… Did I miss them?” A fellow concertgoer sitting upstairs mentioned to me the lack of the human element, which confirmed their absence. Strange, but that aside the performance was almighty, and Varga led his orchestra like he firmly believed it was one of the greatest works ever written. If lesser-known works were more often played with that kind of passion and intensity, they wouldn’t be lesser known. Bravo.