Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Taipei

We’re quite spoilt here in Taipei.

I won’t go on again about having seen the world-famous ensembles from Berlin, Vienna, Chicago, and Munich come visit, along with the likes of the Concertgebouw and Philharmonia, and on and on, but we get a lot of it here in Taipei, and in most cases, the tickets are cheaper than what I’d pay in America, so I feel pretty spoiled.

And one of the highlights of this year’s concerts is the one and only Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra coming (back) to Taipei. (I missed their last visit a few years back.) In the past, some visiting orchestras had given only one performance, one evening (Philharmonia, Royal Philharmonic, and San Francisco Symphony, although they performed down in Tainan as well as in Taipei, but one concert, same program in each location. I didn’t go.) However, we were in for a real treat with the BRSO, as they’d be performing three concerts, the first of which at the newly (re-)opened National Opera House (or whatever it’s called) in Taichung.

It’s a beautiful building, acoustics a bit on the dry side, but it’s a nice place. I’ll say there’s a shortlist of pieces and performers that can motivate me to spend money on a high-speed rail ticket, take an afternoon to get down there and return after midnight, and the BRSO is one of them, especially when they play Mahler. The ninth.

All three days were a bit too enticing to pass up, so I snatched up my tickets and waited however many months for this date to come around, and it finally did. I was also a bit too busy to release individual articles for each of the evenings, so we have this monstrosity at the end of day three instead of a day-by-day approach. Sorry not sorry.

The BRSO has a reputation for being one of the best ensembles on earth, and I hold Maestro Jansons in extremely high regard, so this was all very exciting. The programs for the evenings were as follows:

Day one:

  • Mahler’s ninth

Day two:

  • Haydn’s Symphony no. 100 ‘Military’
  • Strauss’s Alpensinfonie

Day three:

  • Beethoven’s violin concerto with Gil Shaham
  • Stravinsky’s Firebird suite (1945)

That’s quite a list of pieces. Also, buckle up; this is lengthy.

Day One

Mahler’s ninth is a piece I have a weird connection to, having read a ton about it before I’d heard a single note of the work. I’d intended to familiarize myself with everything up to that point in Mahler’s output before dipping my toes into his (almost) last symphony, but an opportunity came along to hear it here a few years ago, so the grand buildup was tossed aside.

It’s a piece I don’t listen to very often, really… along with the second. I’d say just about every Mahler symphony is a symphony that demands focus; it’s rare that I put on a Mahler symphony while I’m at work, or just doing other things, because they’re so encompassing, so monumental, that all I want to do is listen. But that’s not to say that I’m unfamiliar with it. It’s not a piece to be taken lightly, in my opinion.

So I was very excited to have a chance to hear it live, especially from this ensemble. Those first notes from the harp, that tremble from the strings… those first few seconds are the first few footsteps down a path of exploration, darkness, hopelessness, beauty, wonder, longing, hope, despair, and introspection. It’s such powerful music, and as with anything, and even with Mahler’s plentiful markings, it’s a piece that shows wildly different interpretations of performance. Some blaze through the first and final movements, others spread them so thin they seem not to move at all. Jansons was right in the middle.

I think the ninth tends to be a little top-heavy toward the first movement; that’s not a criticism (and I’ll talk at the very bottom of this article, in a subheading titled ‘soapbox’ about criticism, so do look for that*), but the emotional focus is obviously on the finale, while the entire piece’s foundation lies in the first movement. We have these two wild, even manic, central movements bookended by some very intense music, and the balance of the interpretation, I feel, is important.

Jansons’ reading of the work from a tempo and structure standpoint was quite straightforward, pretty average for tempi, nothing too wild, but something that emerged as I watched from my pretty great seat was the sense of communication between conductor and orchestra. As mentioned above, I’ve seen many of the great conductors with great orchestras here, but this was something special. Jansons seemed to show a confidence in his ensemble, that not only were they capable of what he wanted, but that he knew that they knew exactly what he wanted, so it unfolded organically and effortlessly, despite the heart-wrenching nature of the music.

And for the music, I’ll say it was like hearing the work for the first time. The contrasts of the first movement, the sudden swells and silences, the depths, were all-encompassing, but the most standout, especially after the second movement, was how Jansons’ interpretation almost frustratingly balanced on the tightrope between serenity and storm, between the beautiful and the grotesque. Each was executed clearly and unmistakably, but the juxtaposition of them, not trying to justify or make sense of what was there, but presenting it as it was, an at times sublimely, pristinely beautiful melody, full of tenderness, against a sudden swell of furious growls and roars… I found myself thinking, ‘this is insane…’ That someone would have put all of this together, expressed it all in one long line of emotion, was spectacular, and the aspects of struggle and intensity were beyond unmistakable.

The lilt of the second movement Ländler, the accent on the second beat, was the punchiest, most exaggerated I’ve ever heard, but felt rustic, natural, and completely in place, an intentional expression of what should, in normal cases, be light, pleasant music, without the emotional interruptions that burrow this work down to darker depths.

The finale… of course, we want that ending, after a movement with a density and weight more in absence than in heft, as it thins out and fades away, wields extreme power over the audience, not with bangs and thunders, but small sighs, the orchestral version of a death rattle, slowly dissipating to nothing… the inclination, at least for me and others with whom I’ve spoken, is the exact opposite of applause, as if moving would disturb the dense silence that Mahler composed, much less to applaud, and while it was nothing like Abbado’s minutes of silence (with the amazing dimmed lights), there wasn’t an obnoxious clap the instant Jansons’ hands came down, and we cherished those last few moments of silence, as if the entire world stood still, had stopped moving, and everyone had lost the will to breathe. Stunning.

(Also some BR-something media crew clearly related to the symphony walked around and interviewed some of the patrons about the experience, and I stand out in a crowd of Asians, so my friend and I got asked a few questions. I am unsure if and/or where this footage will appear. Kinda cool.)

Day Two

Lots of German-speaking stuff, right? And like, big, heavy über-German stuff. Even though I slept (for only three or four hours) and had a day of work between Mahler and the second concert, it felt like a continuation of the previous night, just in a different city, venue, on a different day. It was nice, then, to have a bit of musical fresh air in Haydn’s ‘military’ symphony. I’d like to draw your attention to my buddy Mike’s website Haydn Seek, where he recently finished an article about this very symphony. Please notice, then, his clarification on the contemporary meaning of ‘sublime’ in the writer’s review of the piece. In short, it was not one of supreme beauty, but, as Mike quotes, “something that could provoke terror in the audience, for terror and pain were the strongest of emotions”. Really? A twenty-minute symphony with the addition of ‘Turkish’ percussion and a bit of banging here and there was terror-provoking? Well, I think I can see that.

The BRSO made no attempts at pretending to present a historically-informed performance of any kind. The work is clearly classical in nature, well-mannered for most of the piece, a small ensemble, with crystal clear playing in the intricate woodwind parts. Even from my uncomfortably-angled seat, unable to see any of the violins (but hey, it was $12!), I could hear it all pristinely clear. The work was full of energy and momentum, with a crispness and cleanliness fitting for a Haydn symphony. The terror of the second movement was played with satisfying heft, but I don’t think it’s possible to reach the level of ‘terror and pain’ from an outfit like that after works like Mahler 6 (and 9 and 10) came onto the scene. It was a splendid, delicious performance, complete in the breathtaking finale with the return of the Turkish percussionists, who marched in from the rear of the auditorium, and took their stations at the front of the hall for the final closing beat of the work. Splendid. /The audience roars/ (Below is a video the BRSO posted on Facebook courtesy of Polizeiorchester Bayern who lent the orchestra the ‘Jingling Johnny’ for the piece:

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FBRSO%2Fvideos%2F10154749475382232%2F&show_text=0&width=560

… and do go check out the BRSO’s Facebook page for highlights from the tour!

Intermission

Strauss.

I’d never heard Alpensinfonie live until this concert. Listened plenty, first time in real-person life. Even from recordings, you get the sensation that this work, in one unbroken line, just grows, develops, blossoms unfolds in the most towering, craggy, breathtaking sweeps and swells of sound, and it is even more like that live, especially with the caliber of an orchestra like the BRSO. Also, it’s a monstrous ensemble, eight horns (four doubling Wagner tubas), two (normal) tubas, four of just about everything there should normally be two of, and a sea of strings. Aside from the technical difficulty of the individual parts, the challenge for the orchestra is obviously to fit together to create this amazing mass of sound, an entire landscape, an experience of this bucolic, outdoor journey, complete with horn calls, (splendid!) offstage brass, the sun on your back, beautiful flowers, a thunderstorm, all of it.

And Jansons drove that ship like he’d written the piece. They moved as one unit, one line getting out of the way for another to appear, the finer points of balance and contrast all exquisitely executed. The brass, though… I’ve never heard any like it. The warm, together, full, exact, expressive sound made by tubas and trombones and sometimes stratospherically high trumpets, horns, Wagner tubas…. horns, too, soaring over the entire ensemble for pristine, alps-sounding beauty. It was a journey, entirely different from but equally as moving and even exhausting as the Mahler. We finish the hour-ish-long journey through the alps back in the quiet minor key in which we began, and the audience overall seems to embrace the silence, aside from a few buffoons who were a little overeager to clap, and a few followed, but it was stifled by silence, and the audience didn’t roar until Jansons finally gave a nod. They went wild.

It was clear at a few points that at least a number of the people in my section, if not throughout the hall, weren’t very familiar with this work. Things like the offstage brass, the organ (player perched clearly at its helm), the wind machine, the thunder sheet metal thing, some of the more unique qualities of the work, startled and surprised them. I don’t mean to say these people who don’t know the work are somehow inferior; quite to the contrary. I think it’s wonderful for people to have been able to experience something of this outstanding caliber live, in the concert hall. You don’t need to be able to identify every one of the sections and remember what its name is. “It’s about mountains” is plenty for any interested listener to hear it and be awed. And I don’t see how any listener couldn’t  have been after a performance like that. It might seem silly to say, but you leave the hall slightly different than you did when you went in.

Day Three

Hello, Gil Shaham.

And a warm welcome to Beethoven, and the final night of three enormous evenings of concerts. To say that this is the night I was least excited about is not to say I wasn’t excited about it. I wasn’t going to miss it, but the anticipation of hearing the Bavarian Radio Symphony perform Mahler and Strauss in person was enough to make me lose sleep. And I did. This concert, though, was the least enticing of the three. That being said, it’s a hell of a roster to hear something like the Beethoven violin concerto, and Firebird is just good fun no matter how many times you may have heard it.

The Beethoven violin concerto is a monstrous work, really, of similar length to the Brahms, dwarfing Joachim’s other two canonical German concertos, the Mendelssohn and the Bruch. It’s a huge work, and while it’s such a treat to have Gil Shaham on stage, the piece wasn’t just a spotlight for him to show off, although he did play the hell out of it. It’s a hefty, full-bodied piece, with plenty of crunch for the orchestra as well, and the pairing we got was spot on. Shaham seemed focused on the piece, sure, but he also seemed like the absolute happiest person alive. If he wasn’t soloing, he was grinning from ear to ear, like we’d all just shown up at a surprise birthday party for him; he’d smile at the first violins or gesture to the music, and as he played more intense passages, he’d take a few steps forward until he was almost on the podium with Jansons.

I can’t speak much to specific matters of interpretation, but it was magnificent to hear, an Olympic-sized concerto, with cadenzas and stunning music. We got a brief retune before the second movement began. After the enormous first movement, with the timpani and contrast of keys, we got the tender sweetness of the second movement, but even here Shaham leans and sways, stomps a few times. The finale was just bright, pleasant, crisp, breathtaking fun, and to see someone like Jansons (who gives big smiles to his ensemble to begin with) and Shaham, who looks for the most part like he couldn’t be any happier than right in that moment, the result was a performance of very high merit. There was then a Fritz Kreisler piece with the orchestra (harp and additional horn and flute snuck onstage during the applause) that was a nice morsel to end Shaham’s stage time. Bravo.

Intermission

Then Stravinsky.

I’d kind of wondered why, after Germans and Austrians, we get Stravinsky’s ballet suite, the big 1945 one, but once it got going, it didn’t matter. You know, there are some pieces that border on cliche, but shouldn’t. Beethoven’s fifth is one of them, and unfortunately so is Dvorak’s ninth. They’re pieces that not even real music devotees know, and people might not take them as seriously because of it. But once the more unedited version of the Firebird got going, none of that mattered. It’s just a vivid, enjoyable, captivating piece, and it sounded in this performance more Russian than I’ve ever heard it before.

The 1945 version gives us longer passages of serenity, not just the exciting highlights or greatest-hits version, so after longer stretches of beautiful, placid orchestral writing, when a sudden thrash of percussion shatters the silence and slams through your chest… I think half the audience may have nearly swallowed their tongues, but from then on out it was content most people would have been familiar with. The quietest of horn solos introduces that majestic, triumphant theme that closes the work, and it just builds to rich Russian glory from there, and I was very pleased. How magnificent.

But that wasn’t all. We got two, count them two, encores from the orchestra, and I have no idea what either of them were. One was a solemn, almost holy-sounding strings-only piece, a little calmer and more serious than the firebird ending, and the audience very satisfyingly let some silence hang in the air before applauding, and then there was another, a more Dvorak or Russian-sounding thing, lots of crunch and energy, a more suitable way to end this magnificent three days of concerts.

Conclusion

Just wow… I got to thinking what it must be like to live in Chicago or London or Vienna or wherever else, with free (okay, easy) access to some of the world’s greatest ensembles.

I feel like it was a three-day holiday. While I worked and did normal real-life things between concerts, to have three consecutive nights of outstanding programming with a world-class orchestra and soloist was kind of a three-day getaway from the day-to-day mundane routine, and it was superb, so thank you.

What must that be like, to be able (to afford) to see them something like every weekend, if you were so inclined? We have some splendid orchestras and performers here in Taipei, but this was the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks in our concert halls. I see Jansons as kind of a legend, with the posts he’s held at some of the world’s greatest ensembles, and to be able to sit in the same room with him and see him do his thing with an ensemble of the highest caliber, one of which he is obviously extremely proud, was a joy and an honor. So thank you, vielen Dank, and 感謝. Please come back soon.

(Also, this is a 3400-word article… and it does nothing to describe the sheer wonderfulness of being able to enjoy concerts like this… it just doesn’t. You did have to be there, so if you have a chance, anytime soon, to hear the BRSO, absolutely do it. If not, go see your local orchestra. They may surprise you.)


*Soapbox

So here’s the deal, people. The really nice bits of the article ended above, but this is here for those of you not opposed to a more serious note.

My taxi driver says to me as I’m on my way to day two of the concert, where I tell him where I need to go, “Wow, it’s really rare for young people to listen to classical music.” Besides the fact that I’m not young people anymore, I wanted initially to refute his comment because there are plenty of young people in the audiences for some of the concerts I attend, but I got his point.

Young people aside, many concerts of these more high-profile orchestras are largely occupied by an affluent, sometimes even arrogant, stuffy crowd who make no bones about flaunting their prestige. Them aside, there’s a subset of the audience who, because they go to concerts and know in what year Bernstein recorded which Mahler symphony and some other classical music trivia, that they’re an enlightened audience, a member of some intellectual elite, some sense of feigned superiority. Humbug. Let me explain.

I go to lots of concerts, and they’re not all good. Some are even really bad, but I’ve yet to walk out on one, and I’ve yet to really lambast anyone in a review. I don’t see much point in that. Music is made to be enjoyed, not criticized. So for whoever you were, you little pompous windbag, who said walking out of day two that “yesterday’s Mahler was trash,” you can stuff it. I am quite certain you don’t know what you’re talking about, but I’ll qualify that below.

When people don’t have anything intelligent or informed to say, it’s easy to criticize. Anyone can do that. Just because you read someone’s review of a recording somewhere, or because you’ve memorized Lennie’s interpretation of Mahler 9, you walk out of a concert from one of the world’s best performing orchestras and talk about how poor it was? I think not. I will admit that the technical precision and performance of day two was above the first day, but the Mahler was exquisite. “I didn’t like it” and “it was awful” are two very different sentiments, and it takes an understanding of things rather than just an opinion to make an educated statement, and “it was awful” is not one of those things. You know what they say about opinions….

So keep your weaponized criticisms and know-it-all opinions out of the concert hall. Leave them at home where you can feed and pet them all you want, because no one else wants to hear them.

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