NSO’s Hero Reborn

Wow.

A very interesting, very powerful evening this was, and one of the greatest moments the NSO has brought us in the years that I’ve been a patron, with wonderful programming. Brett Dean, Bartok, and Shostakovich. Please read.

This was a concert that maybe almost didn’t happen. On the program tonight was Yuja Wang (王羽佳), the famous dramatic-bow pianist with the high heels and short skirts, and because there were some still-tentative elements of the concert, it wasn’t included in the season ticket package until everything was tied down, and so I bought my tickets the (almost literal) minute they went on sale.

First on the program this evening was a very new piece from our artist in residence this season, the Australian Brett Dean. He was a violist with the Berlin Philharmonic for something like a decade, and has now found himself composing, and we are glad for it.

The piece, From Melodious Lay (A Hamlet Diffraction), comes from a commission from the Glyndebourne Festival. The work itself is an opera based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and will see the world this summer. I found the piece sumptuously interesting, featuring our old friends Grace Lin (林慈音) as soprano and Fa-Kai Tang (湯發凱) as tenor. It’s undeniably a challenging work to perform, in a modern idiom, suggesting Schoenberg’s sprechgesang, and telling, or alluding to, in six sections, the tragic story of Hamlet and Ophelia.

I must say here that while Dean’s music is captivating, colorful, tragic, spellbinding, and magical, it draws an unavoidable comparison to Abrahamsen’s let me tell youalso based on Hamletalso featuring Ophelia, and also in a textural, fairytale, tender but brittle, pained landscape. I have come to adore Abrahamsen’s work, and it wouldn’t be what it is, I think, without the magical and majestic Barbara Hannigan telling the story.

It’s not a comparison that Dean disfavors Dean’s work at all, although one wonders what an entire opera of this nature would be like. I’d love to see the stage design. Our local vocalists excelled in the English text, calling back and forth to each other, expressing the tenderness and tragedy, even including the ‘get thee to a nunnery’ passage. There are a few reasons I was very excited to hear this work.

For one, it’s fascinatingly interesting. I’d liken Abrahamsen’s work (and in fact meant to do so in the above article) to a Rückert-Lieder-esque song cycle, like if Mahler had moved to Iceland and waited almost an entire century to write another work. If that’s the case, Dean’s work might be more…. Debussy, with textures and colors and an intoxicating sound world. The second reason is that we need more of this in Taiwan.

We’re in a time where the next piece on the program, I’m told, was a Taiwan premiere, where there aren’t nearly as many risks taken and where what’s considered standard repertoire stuff in the rest (‘West’) of the world barely gets a half-full concert hall and some upturned noses. We need more of this kind of programming, so I applaud Dean and Maestro Lu and Tang and Lin for giving us a rare gem, and I hope that it leads to more things along these lines. The piece was assuredly a Taiwan premiere, maybe more.

Next on the program, after much shuffling, was what many would consider to be the main event, Ms. Wang her (not as scantily-clad) self playing Bartok’s first piano concerto. The shuffling was not only to get the piano in place after Dean’s percussion-in-the-front piece was finished, but to put more of said percussion back up front after the piano was situated. Bartok calls for the percussion to be right up front with the soloist, and the effect, as you might notice just from listening, is that the piano is very much a part of the orchestra, less soloist and more co-conspirator. Bartok’s trademark percussive, angular writing and wry personality come through loud and clear, and Wang’s style of playing is well suited to this work, from the strong rhythmic nature of the outer movements, strongly contrasted with the middle nocturne-like movement, which rarely rises above a whisper. She was the headliner for the evening, and the piece, again, I’m told, was a Taiwan premiere. I don’t love it as much as the second concerto, but it’s a fun, lively, exciting work that Wang and the NSO played with fire and accuracy. Much bravo.

Wang played with the music on her stand and it apparently was taxing enough that after a few of her signature bows, she exited the stage and lights went up, no encores.

The real treat, of the evening, though, was undeniably one of the greatest symphonies ever composed, under one of the most trying circumstances, in one of the darkest times in human history, Shostakovich’s epic, tragic, triumphant, enigmatic fifth symphony. There’s the discussion of it being written to say different things to different people, but that’s far too long a discussion for this article.

It reminded me of when I heard Maestro Lu lead the NSO last year in a stellar performance of Mahler 6. Both of them are pieces I’ve listened to many times, different recordings from different performers over the years, but both of them were the first time I’d heard them live. You think you appreciate something, you think you understand it, until you experience it live.

The only way I can convey it is like watching a movie. Perhaps you watch a horror movie and you’re terrified, or a tragedy and you cry, and you feel as if you have experienced that set of emotions, not only because you responded to it, but because you can walk away from it when the credits roll. But if that were to happen to you in real life, the emotional impact, needless to say, is entirely different.

Hearing Shostakovich’s fifth live, in what was undeniably one of the greatest NSO performances I’ve ever heard, a stupendous, powerful reading of one of the greatest symphonies ever penned, was almost unbearable.

Knowing something about the work gives a listener greater insight into what might have been the inspiration behind such emotionally intense music, but hearing the menace and terror of brass, the digging crunch of strings, flute or violin solos, or the hollow echoes of harp and celesta at the end of the third movement, the contrast between fury and tragedy, tender beauty, all of these extremes somehow tied together in a logical, concise, unbroken narrative… is breathtaking in the sense that it sucks the air from your lungs; it’s an emotional, and sometimes even almost physical, punch to the gut, surely just a glimpse of the tragedies and struggle with which the composer dealt. Think of the man who had a suitcase of scores and clothes under his bed, ready to flee at a moment’s notice, and you cannot not be moved. This, my friends, was the real highlight of the evening, and it was a few deep breaths before I could muster the will to clap. Absolutely superb. (Also, Brett Dean, former violist in the Berlin Philharmonic, joined the ranks of the NSO violas to perform the Shostakovich. I love that so much.)

So that’s the first in a little string of three concerts I’ll be enjoying this weekend. Also on the roster for the weekend are Mahler and Beethoven, so I’ll be bringing (more) tissues along. Stay tuned, and see you soon.

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