NTSO’s Mahler First Symphony

in a land far, far away…

Because Mahler.

In a burst of relative spontaneity, I went to this concert, and was sure to bring someone along for the ride, and we enjoyed a last-minute (ish) concert (as much as an 85km trip can be last-minute).

Because Mahler.

This was the third time I’ve heard Mahler’s first symphony live. First was with the Chicago symphony almost exactly a year ago, actually. And second was much more recently, back in October. And this evening, we had the NTSO (National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra (or 台灣國立交響樂團), based out of Taichung (台中) meeting us more than halfway in 新竹 for a concert, and it was really quite worth the trip.

First on the program was the (almost) world premiere of a symphony of Deh-Ho Lai (賴德和), entitled Mazu’s Bodyguards, in reference to a local Taoist deity/mythology. The actual world premiere was yesterday evening, while I was crying through Shostakovich, but we got it the following day in a different city. The world premiere proper was given in the new National Taichung Theatre, a fancy venue in which a world premiere seems suitable.

Tonight’s venue, on the other hand, was barely more than a glorified high school auditorium, with an awkwardly empty dead space between the first row and the stage, like it should be the orchestral pit, but serves instead as an uncomfortable chasm between performers and audience. Thankfully the acoustics were not atrocious, and our seats were quite decent.

After some very frustrating and unfortunate taxi-drivery in which we were driven literally twice as far away as we should have needed to travel, and in the other direction by an either magnificently clueless or maliciously wretched taxi driver, we hail a cab to the actual ‘concert hall’ and miss the first movement of the Lai symphony, but from the sound of the rest of it, we didn’t miss much. It’s the first concert for which I have ever arrived late. The five movements of the premiere work (or at least the four and a half that we heard) made up a strange, episodic pastiche of local sounds, everything from pentatonic folk music and more pleasant tunes to Taoist clangs and smacks, and a long, slow build of tappy percussion in the final movement, all interspersed with some more genuinely pleasing passages that my fellow concertgoer described as ‘the more normal parts.’

Perhaps there was some great revelation, a key to unlocking the hidden charms of this work that was whispered to the listener in the first movement, but the overwhelming impression was that the sudden pauses and moments of abrupt changes of direction didn’t have any interrelation, no connection of material. There was even a bubbly almost jazz-like bit in one of the movements… the fourth? They weren’t titled, or given labels as to form or tempo indications, just numbered, so the ultimate impression was a collage of disparate elements that overall left an underwhelming impression. I say this recognizing that I missed part of the piece, and that first listens aren’t always (in fact, rarely are) the best impressions of a work, but what I felt to be the piece’s oddities or weaknesses were rather… glaring (?). For example, both the fourth and fifth movements (or at least one of the awkward grand pauses in the fifth movement) came to a climax that sounded less than final, as if it had only presented the first half of a phrase, leading the (impromptu) conductor, 范楷西, to give a nod of the head after lowering her baton and direct the orchestra to stand before we were convinced it was over.

A note on the conductors for the evening: one of the primary reasons I was eager to attend this concert was to hear the NTSO’s music director, 簡文彬, conduct Mahler. He was formerly music director at our beloved NSO, and I have as of yet (to my recollection) never heard him conduct. As it turns out, I still haven’t. He fell ill and two young conductors stepped in.

For the second half, the Mahler, we got 吳曜宇, who has recently won a number of conducting competitions, including Besançon and Coup de Coeur (L’Orchestre and Public).

The young conductor, sans baton, gave the slow, soft downbeat for the ethereal A that begins Mahler’s first symphony. In all three performances I’ve attended, not yet has one really nailed that bucolic ‘coming out of the haze’ morning sunrise introduction. The woodwind figures and chirps are short, crisp, airy, and it’s a tricky thing to pull off. Portions of the first theme seemed to lack body, and I was wondering if maybe the acoustics were actually worse than I’d realized, but once everyone got the feel of the piece and limbered up, the sound just came. Wu’s gestures were clear, his communication to the orchestra seemingly almost telepathic, no doubt about what he wanted from them.

And what he asked from them was a really fresh, interesting interpretation. I didn’t expect any revelations or epiphanies from this concert, hopefully just a solid reading of the work, but there were some interesting touches, all expertly executed, the kind of things that make you raise an eyebrow and think to yourself. “Huh… how ’bout that?” And they were convincing, be it certain tempo changes or ritardando, portamento here or there, phrasing and accents, overall just outstandingly done. The first movement grew from the foggy mists and developed into a beautiful, confident thing. The second movement floated effortlessly in mid-air, unencumbered by gravity, lyrical and sweet but with an intoxicating forward motion and crunch. The opening of the funeral march sent chills through me, and it seems the bassist played with the intended sound of a youngster. The klezmer passage was raucous and brash almost to an extreme, and the finale was white-hot. Trumpet excelled throughout the work, and horns, by and large were solid and strong, with a few blips here and there.

The reading of the work, overall, was outstandingly compelling, with the sound of a conductor who was confident in what he wanted and that it would be effective, and the orchestra matched his focus and intensity for a fine performance of the Mahler, deserving of a much grander concert hall than the one it graced this evening.

But that’s not all, folks. After two nights of concerts, with Dean, Bartok, Shostakovich, Mahler, what else could be in store? Well, it’s yet another concert with yet another orchestra in yet another concert hall in yet another city. Three days! Had close to a couple hundred km tallied up in this weekend so far, some of it thanks to that blasted taxi driver, but that’ll more than double tomorrow. Stay tuned for another exciting chapter of ‘I went to a concert and I’m going to tell you what I think about it.’ Thank you for listening and reading.

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