TSO’s Beethoven 9

It could hardly have been a more music-filled weekend, and it ended on a note of hope, of triumph, of absolute triumph and sublime beauty.

In case you missed it, I also attended concerts on Friday and Saturday, the former with Taiwan’s National Symphony Orchestra in Taipei, and Saturday with the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra in another smaller city south of Taipei. Friday evening gave us, among other things, Shostakovich’s brutally beautiful fifth symphony, my first time hearing it live, and Saturday saw a spectacular Mahler 1.

So then what on Sunday? The other big player in Taiwan’s classical music world, the wonderful Taipei Symphony Orchestra. Their music director Maestro Gilbert Varga is taking his winter vacation or skiing in the Alps or sipping tea on an English estate somewhere, since the renovation of their current performance venue and the approach of Chinese New Year means almost zero concerts for some time. In his stead, we had the chance to take the high speed rail down to Taichung (台中), in the new, beautiful (but slightly acoustically dry) National Opera House (actually National Taichung Theater, but it’s called ‘opera house’ in Chinese…. go figure).

Thomas Sanderling.

I actually don’t know a whole bunch of his recordings, and the thing that stands out in my memory is an astoundingly good recording he conducted of Mahler’s sixth symphony with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. It’s superb. And his father was and is quite famous.

So Thomas Sanderling himself is coming to conduct Beethoven 9? Of course I’m going.

Turns out seven minus five is still two… When I purchased the seventh row aisle seat, I expected it to be the seventh, meaning there were six rows in front of me, but to my surprise, the fifth row, where my friend was sitting, was numbered as row ten, meaning my ‘row 7’ is the second row. Not sure how that happened, but the surprises and “We’re sitting this close?!” tell me that I wasn’t the only one who looked at the ticketing system and assumed there was most of a whole section in front of us… So I sat second row. Much closer than I would have bought originally, but it was quite good.

Also, nothing else on the program. No prelude of a work from Bach or Brahms or Schoenberg or Webern, just Beethoven. It’s a gorgeous hall, but the acoustics are a bit dry, so sitting up front wasn’t an awful decision. The roster was as follows:

Aga Mikolaj, soprano
Na’ama Goldman, alto
Zurab Zurabishvili, tenor
Sebastian Holecek, baritone
Taiwan National Choir
Taipei Symphony Orchestra

Things get underway, and I won’t give a play-by-play of the work, but Sanderling’s reading of the piece was old school and propulsive, stable and grounded and sturdy, but full of life. I’ve been to many, many TSO concerts, heard some of their greatest performances (Mahler 3 with Inbal, their Pastoral, the incredible Eugene Onegin), and some less convincing concerts, but this tops them all. The clarity and cleanliness of the orchestra, everything from the limberness and delicacy of woodwinds, sumptuousness of strings, the outstanding horn player(s), it was a damn near perfect concert.

Mikolaj’s voice is like shimmering crystal, placed atop the perfect foundation of the baritone, tenor, and alto, even if those last two might have had a slightly more difficult time getting above the sound of the orchestra and chorus, Zurabishvili seemed to be grinning from ear to ear the entire time. Unlike Mahler 1, I hoped for revelations, something new from this piece, and while I didn’t sit with the score and mark “this is different” or “that’s interesting” there were moments I fail to recall now where I thought “that’s new” and it worked, leaving the impression that this is the way Beethoven 9 is and has always been.

The finale was spine-tingling, and the result of the overall performance felt as if Sanderling and the TSO had been working closely for years, or decades. The orchestra’s precision and response, and Sanderling’s confidence in what he wanted and in the orchestra produced what I believe was easily the greatest concert I’ve heard from the orchestra, and despite there being a few months before their next concert, I am looking forward to more great things from them.

That was the third Beethoven nine I’ve heard in the past (less than a) year, and last night was the third Mahler 1 in exactly a year. Friday gave us my first Shostakovich 5 and the Taiwan Premiere, as I am told, of Bartok’s first piano concerto.

That leaves me wondering, then, what not so dark or dusty corners of the repertoire are there yet to be performed on this island? It’s a small one, granted, but with 24 million inhabitants and a thriving (at least in some ways) musical scene, it seems surprising that it took 90 years for a piece from one of the 20th century’s most famous pianist/composers to get a performance.

I won’t need to here another Beethoven 9 or Mahler 1 for a while, but I could do with Shostakovich 7 (and 1 and 4 and 11 and 14), Mahler 2 (again) and 8 and 10, some more Bruckner, and then there’s the unknowns, like Holmboe, Alfvén, Robert Simpson, Weinberg, Myaskovsky, Pettersson… The last of whose fourth symphony was premiered a year or two ago by the TSO, but I’d feel pretty confident in saying that likely nothing of the rest of those folks (at least the symphonies) has been performed yet in Taiwan. It might not fill a concert hall like Beethoven’s choral, but it’s some heckin’ good music.

Soap box aside, it was a fulfilling, exciting, and to be honest, somewhat exhausting weekend, and while I have a long laundry list of other pieces I’d love to hear live, when you get to hear Thomas Sanderling conduct a Beethoven 9 like what we heard today, with a sound compelling enough to be a true world-class orchestra, there’s not much to complain about. It was superb, so thank you to everyone’s hard work and dedication, and we’ll see you in a few months.

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