NSO’s Concerto for Orchestra

featuring Freddy Kempf, conducted by 張尹芳 (Zhang Yin Fang)

Midweek concerts are always a bit tougher to get around to, especially in rainy weather, and tonight’s turnout showed it. As a heavy-duty subscriber to the NSO, I get some perks, one of which includes buying tickets same-day at half price. I polled the office to see if anyone had a night free, because I was quite confident in the program.

Aside from the first piece of the evening, by  陳可嘉 (Chen Ke Chia) titled Broken Crystal, I was familiar enough with everything to be pretty excited about it. Freddy Kempf would be playing Beethoven’s famous middle piano concerto, not only in the middle of his five completed concertos, but the one that looks back and bows respectfully to Mozart while also announcing his own arrival in Vienna. Good stuff.

So the concert begins with Maestra Zhang and a big ol’ NSO on stage. I have to say… as a foreigner on this little island, some of the more locally-flavored pieces (like some those featured in last week’s concert) are a bit lost on me: the nostalgia, the emotional, contextual connection, but Ms. Chen’s piece blew me away. It sounded like a more modern, crystalline Shostakovich, but with an English flair, a heavy, almost soul-crushing intensity, not light on the percussion, a piece that seems to conjure the violence and tragedy and sorrow of a war-torn place, but with sweetly lyrical passages. As a result, I expected to see an old, weary professor or ex-military man stand after the piece was over, but it was not a Mr. but a Ms. I hadn’t read the program notes beforehand, and Ms. Chen rose to take a bow, as cued by the conductor. One of the most captivating pieces by a local composer I’ve ever heard in my time here.

Beethoven! The Cm piano concerto, and his “We shall never be able to do anything like that” comment at Mozart’s K. 491. Admittedly, it’s hard to make comparisons when you’re used to putting on Pollini and Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic for the Beethoven concertos, but to his credit, Kempf played effortlessly. He may, at times, have appeared to be trying to gain control of a speeding car, the steering wheel of which was too hot to touch, but despite some of the more dramatic gestures, his playing was superb and clean and full of finesse. We got a hell of a cadenza, the provenance of which I am uncertain. ‘Twas quite elaborate. Or maybe I don’t know the piece as well as I seem to remember. In any case, he and the orchestra gave us a reading of the Beethoven that made  a strong argument for it being one of his best, or one of the best. I was certainly glad to hear the third instead of always only getting Emperors everywhere.

We also got two encores from Kempf, a Beethoven thing that was familiar, and another one. I am usually not so much a fan of the whole encore tradition… the clapping and calls of ‘encore’ and ‘bravo’ seem to be plentiful here, often beyond what I would consider tasteful, but we got two, and the second one even I appreciated. A Chopin etude, op. 25, no. 12 I think. Anyway, it’s the pinnacle of virtuosity, that kind of thing. Intense, Romantic, short, sweet, breathtaking!

Halftime. No show.

We return for Bartok. The Concerto for Orchestra, a piece that’s likely one of the composer’s most accessible, and/or famous and/or… traditional? I’d say it’s the closest he ever came to writing a symphony. But that’s for another discussion. I’d say the NSO and the Maestra were on their game this evening. The nature of the ‘concerto for orchestra’ is that everyone gets their feature, solos all around! And everyone was spot on. Not only was the playing clear and crisp and vivid, they hit all the high points of what this music is. Not only is it outstandingly vivid, colorful, richly expressive, but at times serious, comical, serene, maniacal, delicate, and to portray Bartok’s music and get those flavors in the right balance makes for a delectable evening. It strikes me as the kind of piece that just gives and gives with the more you put into it, a delightful piece to hear live.

So the ‘concerto’ title was a fitting one, and I want to say it’d been about a year since I’d last seen Zhang on the podium, also conducting a couple of piano concertos, as I recall, but it was nice to see her again. Tonight’s concert was also the first of quite a lot of Beethoven on this year’s NSO program. We’ve got the ninth, fourth, and fifth symphonies coming up, among perhaps more. There’s also more Bartok on the way throughout the season, so plenty to look forward to as the year continues.

The disadvantage of the midweek concert is the rushing to and from to get off work and back home and being an early riser makes a 23:00 evening seem quite late, but the advantage is it’s a very nice treat to break up the monotony of fluorescent lighting and Outlook freezing up throughout the week. For those of you who couldn’t make it this evening, you did miss out, but that’s okay. I’ll be seeing you fine folks very soon for Mahler and more.

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