NSO’s Cello & Symphony

featuring 楊文信 (Wen-Sinn Yang), cello

Welcome back, NSO!

Our very own National Symphony Orchestra recently returned from their trip abroad, their first concert visit to America, as well as a concert in Vancouver. They got newspaper spots, filled Western concert halls, and we all felt proud but also eager to have them back.

Two weeks without a concert is rare, except for summer and such. But all the “winter” vacations are here; you wouldn’t know it with the 80ºF degree weather we’ve been having here. In any case, tonight felt a bit like a ‘Welcome Home’ concert.

I’m sitting in my chair here this morning, excited the evening’s concert, but remember only two events on the program: Strauss’s Don Juan, and the Korngold cello concerto. But those two works together barely complete a half hour’s worth of music. I checked to see what else was on the program for this evening and was mildly surprised to see that I’d forgotten we also had the Schumann concerto and Beethoven’s fifth on the program. Mind you, this is not the first (or second) time I’ve heard that work live, and the last time was the Chicago Symphony, but it is no exaggeration to say it’s one of the greatest things ever penned.

So here we are. Strauss.

Basically, superb. Everyone’s used to seeing excerpts from Don Juan for auditions, and it’s a colorful, challenging, spirited, lively piece. It struck me this evening, actually hearing it live for the first time, that it’s just an absolute perfect ‘first timer’ piece. The story of Don Juan, or Don Giovanni, or your preferred Libertine, is a common one, and with a two-minute exposition on the story, the love-scene, with the beautiful oboe solo, and his ultimate death at the end, it’s such a vivid, exciting piece, and it was played that way. Some things, when done just so, can be surprisingly, unexpectedly moving, and my entire person rippled with goosebumps when the horns sang their famous line after the oboe solo. Our main character’s death was also surprisingly touching and tragic. Splendid playing.

Interestingly, along the same lines, sort of, we have the Schumann cello concerto, a work that is overwhelmed, consumed, possessed by love. Clara, Clara. My friend Carmine Miranda explains that. It’s another take on love, perhaps the opposite spectrum. Where Don Juan is promiscuous, sensual, exciting, looking for a little fun, it sounds like Schumann is dying from love for the woman to whom he’s already married. It’s tender and sentimental, and passionate, but in an entirely different way. Yang plays it so. It’s certainly virtuosic and sparks fly, but the overwhelming message is a romantic one, and Romantic too. The cello duet in the middle movement is especially touching, and the piece was beautifully played by all.

Intermission.

Next concerto.

Back in September, I had occasion to hear Leonidas Kavakos play Korngold’s violin concerto for the NSO’s season opener. It’s a piece he’s been featuring lately, and it was wonderful to hear it, but it was a bit vanilla for my taste. Beautiful, yes, exquisitely played, no doubt, but it worked that angle a little too hard for my ears. The cello concerto, on the other hand, coming in at only 12-13 minutes, is a smaller piece in playing time, but painted with many different shades, some notably darker than the violin concerto. It’s a new work to me, but again played convincingly, enjoyably, and I’m eager to give it another few listens. Bravo.

But that wasn’t all from Yang. After an encore piece he made it offstage, only to slip back into the ensemble, in an empty chair in the cello section to participate in Beethoven 5. What a guy, huh? He played with the Bavarian Radio Symphony all three nights of their concerts, if I remember correctly.

We will soon be having (spoiler alert) more discussion about this piece at hand, but Beethoven 5 is a work (really all his symphonies, maybe) that can easily be subjected to, shall we say, untoward amounts of Romanticism: rallentandos and big slow down and speed ups and gestures beyond the score just wringing every drop of Romantic-era expression out of this work from before the Romantic era got its start. I’m pleased that Maestro Lu didn’t get bogged down in that. The moment toward the end of the first movement, the grand return of the opening theme for the recapitulation, is a logical moment to drive home the tragic sound of the fate concept, but overall it was very well executed.

There are two extremes in the concert hall, it seems. We can have another Beethoven Emperor concerto or no. 5 or no. 9 or Dvorak 9 that’s been played and is done and perhaps even from the players loses a little passion, and then there are works that are never played, never given a chance. The NSO gave Beethoven 5 a lively, well-played reading of a work, as if it was the premiere, with no humdrum rehashing attitude about it, a passionate, inspired reading indeed. In fact, the real premiere of this piece was in fact on December 22 of 1808, and they did actually play this exact program in a smaller town outside the city last night, so happy 216th anniversary to Beethoven’s fifth, and thank you to the NSO, Maestro Lu and Wen-Sinn Yang for giving us a pretty extravagant evening of outstanding music making.

I feel like that’s not a whole lot to say about the concert: “These were the pieces they played, and they played them well.” I mean, Don Juan is just a hell of a lot of fun, and I had high expectations for that piece, and I was not at all disappointed. The cello concerti were played masterfully and expressively, and Beethoven’s fifth was given a powerful, easily felt reading, clearly enjoyed by the gentleman a row behind me who seemed entirely unable to stop his foot from tapping and shuffling around at the floor like it had a mind of its own. That aside, spectacular evening, and more Beethoven to come from the NSO this year (and on the blog, so do stay tuned)!

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