TSO’s Violinsimo

Featuring Pinchas Zuckerman and the Taipei Symphony under Gilbert Varga

Some things never change. Strangely like the initials of some concerts. This evening was originally to be Frank Peter Zimmerman playing a Bartok concerto, and for various secretive reasons he was unable to attend somewhat last minute-ish, so instead, we got Pinchas Zuckerman playing Bruch. PZ and B.

The program was as follows:

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Sérénade Mélancolique, Op.26
Max Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 26
Erik Satie: Gymnopédies No. 3 &1 (Arranged by Debussy)
Georges Bizet: Symphony in C Major

I’m willing to admit openly that there is some music I really don’t care much for: Bruckner’s first symphony (and the zero), which isn’t likely to get too many people’s panties in wads, but the Chopin piano concertos I really vehemently dislike. More to the point, I’m not a huge fan of the Mendelssohn violin concerto, even though I’ll be seeing it next week, and had kind of lumped Bruch in there with him. I was really looking forward to hearing Bartok. That’s a wonderful concerto.

But here we are, with one of the most famous-est violinists there currently is, and he comes out to give us (after Maestro Varga’s ever-present pre-concert lecture) the Serenade Melancolique, which obviously lives up to its name. When Tchaikovsky wanted to give us Melancolique, it’s there in spades. Zuckerman played it with finesse and clarity (and perfection, obviously) but the aura he gave off was of, let us say, a young child whose puppy had just gotten lost. Not unfitting, certainly.

The Bruch, though. I’ve watched a masterclass or two of Zuckerman’s and in it he emphasized the importance of relaxing and of the bow arm, the moneymaker of a violinist. And let me just tell you, I’ve never heard anyone or anything quite like it. I was inclined not to care for it just because it wasn’t the Bartok concerto I paid for, but I’m also willing to admit when I’m being silly.

While the Bruch itself is far from ever being a favorite concerto, the composer certainly knew how to write for the instrument, and tonight’s performer played with such poise and power, the piece seemed like one of the greatest works ever written. I should say though, that he literally spent (maybe only very slightly more than) 24 hours in Taipei and was probably at the airport before the second half of the program was finished. Rehearsal time was incredibly limited, and it was all rather rushed, but he fit us into his schedule before heading off to Australia, and it was incredible.

Needless to say, I play violin about as well as I do integral calculus or tight-rope walking, but even I could appreciate the tone this man was getting from his instrument, full, rich, intense, without just being loud or overpowering, and to top it all off, looked like he was exerting the same amount of effort it’d take to dust a bookshelf or draw a smiley face. Captivating and spellbinding and just breathtaking. He gave us an encore, and then told us to “sing along with” him while he played Brahms’ lullaby, and finished with “I’ll come back,” and ran offstage to go catch a flight. What an amazing performer.

After the break was the Satie/Debussy. Strings, a couple of woodwinds, pair of harps, horns, and to hear something so simple and so iconically piano orchestrated by a true master was interesting, dreamy, ethereal; as promised in Varga’s pre-concert introduction from the stage, they were seated at the very back of the stage, the whole (small) ensemble contained in the space that the percussion would usually occupy, distant, soft, poofy sounding. Interesting.

And then the main event, what we’ve all been waiting for, sort of. Bizet’s outstanding symphony in C. I have a friend who told me the other day that he thinks this piece is a little bit boring, and you might be reading, so if so, I’m sorry, but you’re dead wrong. Sure, the first movement might be a little bit repetitive, and the second might be a little too whitebread ABA structured, but the entire piece overall is just a sonic punch of youthful vibrance, unbridled Frankish Romanticism and vigor, and from a seventeen year old!

So yeah, something very suitable for the Taipei Symphony, especially under Varga’s baton. As suspected, he was already “bum-bum-bum”ing to himself and all smiles as he walked out to take his place before the orchestra, no podium, no score. It’s right up their alley. Varga is vibrant, light, energetic; it’s the kind of thing they do wonderfully. So they breathed life into this piece, and it seems Varga was barely able to contain himself, and enjoying it at least as much as those of us in the audience, which is saying something. I was all smiles after every movement. It was, as it should be, crisp, light on its feet, fragrant, fun and exhilarating, while never being overtly, distastefully Romantic.

It’s such an approachable, clear, friendly and yet intoxicatingly musical and challenging work, as Varga himself says to me and my friend chatting after the concert. We waited some short while after he was finished with a few meetings to say hello. Zuckerman had to scram, so there was no autograph signing, but I wanted to give my regards to Varga and thank him for programming the Bizet. He was adamant about emphasizing the challenge it presents for the orchestra, as something that’s technical but also to be light and crisp, “like Schubert.”

I enjoyed the hell out of it, and have another concert to enjoy tomorrow, a foreign ensemble’s debut with a common piece and a rarer one, so stay tuned for that.

A very good evening.

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