NSO’s Symphonie Fantastique

Old familiar tunes.

There are some upcoming articles in which I soapbox a bit on just listening to new music. You don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on a crazy music collection with tons of albums and fancy equipment; just dabble in classical music. It’s so rewarding.

But besides digging through the annals of classical music history and working to discover new, forgotten, or worthwhile music, there’s something to be said for going back and giving a listen to old standards, and this concert was kind of one of those moments. In last year’s concert under Jacques Lacombe, they played the hell out of it. It was, in my opinion, one of the greatest NSO performances I’ve been in attendance for, despite the abominable children behind me. So walking in again tonight, on the opposite side of the concert hall, alone this evening, I had hesitant high hopes for what is undoubtedly one of the most stunning pieces of music there is, even nearly 200 years after its composition.

To be honest, in many ways, the NSO’s 30th anniversary season is one of those seasons. Some pieces that were played just last year have been reprogrammed for this year, and Symphonie Fantastique is one of them. In some ways, I’d describe it as a bit safe for a season program, but it’s tasteful: there’s lots of Beethoven, some Bartok, some Strauss. Korngold drops in for a few concerts, but we’ll also be getting a little bit of Glass, Messiaen, and even Dutilleux, as I recall, and Penderecki. Anyway, my point is that sometimes it’s really nice to go visit old favorites.

Except there’s a Taiwan premiere on the program, and as surprising as it may be, it’s a Schumann piece, his overture to Die Braut von Messina, op. 100. Maybe a bit of a head-scratcher that the overture-length overture, a sonata-form-ish piece that sounds operatic and overture-esque and tragic and all kinds of Romantic, hasn’t ever been performed in Taiwan before… Felix Chen (陳秋盛) led the NSO in a brisk, handsome reading of a piece I’m entirely unfamiliar with, and it showed shimmery glimpses of what I hoped would be the momentum and spark and punch that would grace the Berlioz.

Speaking of favorites, though, Mendelssohn’s violin concerto is not one of them. Sure, it’s Joachim’s “heart’s jewel” of the four great German violin concertos, but it’s not my favorite and never has been. That being said, I can appreciate the appeal of the work, and Richard Lin (林品任) did indeed play the hell out of the Mendelssohn, with what looked like good fun. He seemed completely at ease, comfortable, and would give an old lean-back hips-forward motion like you might see from an ’80s guitarist, but he’s too young for that. He played fantastically, but the moment he finished, he looked like he’d run a marathon, panting and all, and in some ways, I suppose he had. He’s very young, actually, surprisingly so. But he played marvelously. The orchestra takes a back seat, obviously, but they came to life and brought the final movement to a wonderful climax. We got an encore before the intermission, with the orchestra: the second movement of Wieniawski’s second violin concerto, one of the soloist’s favorites, he says, and which he dedicated to the orchestra upon their 30th anniversary.

Intermission, and then Berlioz.

The Berlioz is a work that has an interesting energy. The first movement, to me, only gives flashes of the power and vibrance that is to come, and in my opinion, while the orchestra played pretty wonderfully, the first movement got us off to a bit of a shaky start. There were some high points, but it had me biting my nails.

The second movement, one of the most brilliantly flowing, bright, lyrical things ever written, never quite took flight. It had a polite bounce and lilt, but never quite soared like I wanted it to, which was a bit disappointing. Well played, and smooth, but not quite the brilliance I’d hoped for.

The third movement, however, what I personally feel to be the weakest of the work overall, came off as one of the most brilliant, with some passionate intensity, some of the highest points of the performance. From then on out, I’d say it was pretty solid. The wild vibrance of the work didn’t really start to come through until the middle of the third movement, but the fourth and fifth were pretty all-out. The fourth reached such almighty heights (and some audience members were apparently unfamiliar enough with the work) that some little murmurings and sparks of applause tried to break out before the fifth could get started and cap it all off with the good ol’ Dies Irae tune. It pealed and roared and thundered, but could have perhaps done so with a bit more long game in mind, instead of searing off the audience’s eyebrows from the get-go. Criticisms aside, the NSO played cleanly and powerfully, if not overall a bit hesitantly, as if there was the slightest twinge of uncertainty about going all in and playing with the absurd reckless abandon that I believe the Berlioz deserves. Well, I guess that’s also a criticism, but I’ll reiterate that their performance (linked above) of the work last year with Lacombe was one of the greatest things that’s happened to me in a concert hall.

Also, there was an orchestral encore, Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance, op. 46, no. 8, an interesting little surprise morsel at the end of the concert.

There’s another exciting concert coming up tomorrow, so stay tuned for more reviews, and some especially exciting ones next week!


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