NSO’s New Year Concert

… in which the audience voted for at least part of the program.

The voting process for this evening’s program was announced last summer and began some months ago. Among the options included Bernstein’s overture to Candide, a Respighi piece, a Brahms overture, and maybe a Weber overture, but what began the evening was the Moldau, from Smetana’s Ma Vlast, a beautiful, stirring, bucolic work that showed off the NSO’s rich color and tone.

Actually, I should say this New Year concert was only the culmination of a pretty decadent weekend of music that I ended up not being a part of. Downstairs in the recital hall, a few hundred pianists (one for each repetition?) lined up to play all 840 iterations of Satie’s Vexations. There were other little activities, concerts, recitals; it was basically a lock-in for the concert hall and environs, with a New Year’s Eve concert on 12/31 that started at 10 pm and ended (almost) just in time for the clock to toll midnight, and then today’s program. The Saturday program had Beethoven’s Emperor piano concerto, and one of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos, along with the two audience choices and the big finale piece.

Next on the program was a work that will soon get but only a very brief mention as a work that I should have discussed instead of the one I decided to write about, in a few days. Brahms’s double concerto is, to date, the ONLY multiple concerto that has convinced me of its merits, of its absolute necessity of two soloists, and the performance this evening was a gleaming example of that. Writing a concerto for one instrument is tricky enough, to balance the sound of the orchestra with the solo part, be it piano or cello or accordion, and in what MANNER that interaction between the two takes place. Is it one of conflict or of cooperation? It could be one of superstar and background singers, or of a representative and its support team. Brahms shows his compositional prowess in his double concerto, and our two soloists did it more than justice. 胡乃元 (Nai-Yuan Hu) was violin soloist, and cellist 楊文信 (Wen-Sinn Yang), our artist in residence, returned for the solo cello. It was a compelling reading, an exciting work, one of the kind of opulence and virtuosity and genius you’d expect from a ‘double’ anything. They made it seem like the form wasn’t out of the ordinary at all, not the kind of novelty piece of Beethoven’s triple concerto, but a true, respected form with a sense of virtuosity and urgency. Much bravo.

Oh, and we got a sweet little duet of an encore from the soloists. Delightful little piece.

Then we intermissioned.

The beginning of the second half began with the third movement, the theme and variations, from Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for four winds, K297b, with four of the orchestra’s members as soloists: 王怡靜, oboe; 朱玫玲, clarinet; 簡凱玉, bassoon; 劉宜欣, horn. I’ve had the chance to get to know, sort of kind of, (as in chat with here and there), the NSO’s principal horn, and the four beautiful ladies delivered a beautiful performance of Mozart’s equally opulent concertante piece, trumping Brahms’s two soloists with four. Performed by itself, apart from the other three movements, it still works as a relatively independent piece. The reason we only got one movement of that work isn’t because it’s extraordinarily long in full, but because another (part of a) piece, the one that would end the evening, is a large-ish one.

Bookended between those two works was another audience choice, a wildcard piece not revealed until even after it began. If you didn’t know it from the first minute, you wouldn’t until it was displayed on the projected marquee at either side of the stage. This second choice was one that brought a more “laughing at” than “laughing with” smile to my face, perhaps the most famous piece from the pen of Maurice Ravel, his Bolero. Bolero is basically a single crescendo, the longest single musical thought in all of composed music, 15 minutes of a single idea, stretched to its absolute limit, a single kernel of a gesture that becomes a sexy, sensuous, at times even growling and explosive mass of glorious, voluptuous sound, and it’s an exercise in orchestral foreplay, the buildup of tension and the final release of that tension. Like an Italian recipe with only four ingredients, they all better be damn good if you’re to present something delicious, and despite my initial smirk at the potentially bordering-on-cliche Bolero, the long, steady climb that it is, I still found myself getting chills, and hollering with the crowd at the end of the NSO’s roaring-good performance.

Finally, a finale. THE finale, perhaps the greatest finale in all of written music. Well, the latter half of that finale.

While I’d more than gladly exchange everything on the wonderful program up to this point for a FULL performance of Mahler’s second symphony, I was eager to hear Maestro Lu’s reading of what I’d been told from a good friend and fellow concertgoer was only the last half of the finale of Mahler’s Resurrection symphony, from where the offstage brass start, and the flute and piccolo… if you don’t know Mahler’s second, I don’t have the mindset right now to explain to you how mindblowingly powerful that piece is, and what it’s come to mean to me, so there were sniffles and chills and tears to begin with, but I was almost even more heartbroken when I heard how brilliantly our NSO read the latter half. I was worried, at first, about the orchestra going in cold. Not “I haven’t warmed up” cold, but “we just finished playing Bolero” cold, emotionally not in the headspace of something as soul-gripping as Mahler. But I don’t know that I’ve ever heard such crystalline, angelic sounding pure brass, and we’re talking lots of brass, the folks who might be the most likely to commit sins of blatted notes, missed notes, cracks, missed entries, not from the NSO, but overall. But they were pristine, clear, shimmering, delicate but white-hot powerful. The chorus, and our soloists, soprano 林玲慧 and mezzo 翁若珮, with the Taipei Philharmonic Chorus and their chorus master John Y.C. Ku.

Everything was so in place, so well expressed, every gesture clean, smooth and transparent but full of the awesome, holy power that is Mahler. It was stunning… there were tears.

After the bows and all that, Maestro Lu comes out and gives a cutoff gesture to the audience, cues the orchestra and chorus to give a hearty, chanted “新年快樂”, and clapping ensued, followed by another cutoff, and the introduction of the below piece as an encore, from 金希文, entitled 日出台灣. The below video give a sightly smaller presentation, but it’s the same hall; we just had it on a Mahlerian scale. It’s simple and straightforward, but sweetly melodic, and the Taiwanese language (台語) is a surprisingly lyrical and expressive one when sung.

 It’s 2017 now, folks, and there’s much more music to be enjoyed, so… let’s get listening.

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