NSO: Blazing Masterpieces

Welcome back, everyone, to another round of concert reviews, with stuff I always forget to mention, people who don’t know how to behave themselves in public, stunning, stellar music, a later bedtime than I usually have, and the overwhelming feeling that there’s so much more to enjoy in music, and the gratitude that we have an ensemble like the NSO.

Also, lots of Russian folk lately.

Tonight’s program, with our wonderful NSO, was directed by 莊東杰, a promising award-winning local conductor who I’d like to see a lot more of on the podium, only maybe conducting works I’m more excited about. That aside, we had the great privilege to have Julian Rachlin with us this evening, but first things first.

Last week we had Tchaikovsky, and last night we had Stravinsky, and guess what we had tonight! Yes. Oба! Anyway, before them, we had a rarity, and a quiet, subtle, shining gem of the evening, Messiaen’s glimmering, shining, crystalline very late work of beauty, Un Sourire. It is, as far as I can remember, the first time I’ve heard Messiaen live, at least any of his orchestral works. I’d love to hear Turangalîla live, but this was a start, and I’m willing to bet it (maybe) was a Taiwan premiere, but maybe not, because it is quite approachable and a rather small work. Great start to the evening.

Next was the big seller on the program obviously, the piece with the soloist, the famous Tchaikovsky concerto, with Rachlin as soloist. It’s a big work, demanding for the soloist in a big way, which is something that really comes through watching it live. Tonight was the first time I’ve heard the Tchaikovsky live, if you can believe it, and Rachlin did an amazing job. The cadenza in the first movement was literally mesmerizing (as in ‘actually,’ the real proper use of ‘literally’). I forgot there were two more movements after it, and had to remind myself that we don’t do the clapping for like, another half hour. It’s a big, Romantic, gushy piece, but the virtuosity and Rachlin’s focus lended a seriousness to the work that I feel it needs. I’m pretty over gushy and Romantic lately, but Rachlin shone even brighter in his encore, Ysaÿe’s op. 27 no. 3, ‘ballade.’ Stole the show. Highlight of the evening. Phew.


Then more Stravinsky.

I get that Firebird is a stellar, shining pillar of 20th century classical music; it’s genius, and there are a few versions of it, and we got the longest one, the unabridged version, if you will, which the Bavarian Radio Symphony just happened to play a couple months ago in this selfsame concert hall (unless I’m remembering incorrectly?!). So… no matter how much I love our NSO, or how charismatic and precise and expressive I felt 莊東杰 was with the larger orchestra, with more of everything, it’s an unfair comparison. But no one’s really comparing anyway.

also get that the concert’s Blazing title references this piece, which 莊東杰 conducted without a score (making me think this was probably his contribution to the program), and that it is, perhaps, overall a rarity to hear in its full form, but it’s really a work you may only need to hear once a year or so. I’ve heard many Firebirds in my time, but not yet a single  Rite of Spring. Not complaining, just saying.

Stravinsky is a challenge, sure, and 莊東杰 is a guest conductor, and it’s a big piece, and I’m not actually trying to buffer any impending criticism by saying that, but it wasn’t a reading that changed my life or anything. There were stellar moments, sure, basically the places that appear in all the much shorter suites that everyone knows, the crunchy or dreamy or angry or thunderous parts, but ultimately, when it’s all coming to an end, after all the dancing and twirling and crunching and stomping from whatever version you’re enjoying, that finale, that glorious, triumphant, shimmering, absolutely incandescent beauty of the finale… gives me chills every time, and with 莊東杰 reaching up to heaven, not with a fist, but grasping at some cosmic, roaring greatness, in those moments, you remember why it actually is worth sitting through any version of this work, in a performance like this.

That was a short reading. I had all sorts of thoughts about how my palette for Romantic music is changing to more modern stuff, my tolerance for gushing beauty getting lower, the hypnotic quality of a soloist having a weirdly spiritual virtuosic moment onstage in front of us all and how personal that is (thanks Ysaÿe!), and how a conductor, without words or sound, can present an atmosphere, exude an aura that can fill an entire room, and our conductor’s enthusiasm, precision, charisma, I don’t know, maybe I’m off, but I want to see him on the podium more. It was exciting to see him at the helm, even if there were a few bumps along the way. (In fact, he was the one who was to conduct that Mahler 1 a few months back who got sick, so we did finally get to see him conduct, but this time in a real concert hall).

Last thought is that after all of this, I felt bad for skipping the autograph line. It’s funny how something as actually impersonal as Instagram or Twitter can make you feel like you have some connection with a person, but I’ve followed Rachlin’s account (you’ll have to go find it; I’m too lazy to link) and his trip to what is now my hometown and eating around the city and really wanted to shake hands with him and 莊東杰 , but I think I would have broken out into hives or down into tears if I’d had to wait in line while picture after picture were being taken. I care not for the physical autograph, just a handshake and a question asked to each of them, which would be something like this, maybe:

  • To Rachlin: what personal connection do you have with a work that’s so popular and highly regarded? What makes it special to you?
  • To 莊東杰: was it easy to warm up to the Messiaen piece? It’s one of his more approachable works, it seems. What specific challenges do you feel there are with works in a more modern idiom?

Or something like that. But none of those were really on my mind this evening. That’s just what I’d ask. In the past, I have had burning questions for the soloists and have been so delighted to be able to ask them, to people like the members of Quatuor Diotima, or Helene Grimaud, or Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, etc. In any case, thank you both this evening for yet more Russian music. We’ll be back next week for something smaller, in a way, before getting back to a ton more Russian music, so stay tuned, or just go buy a ticket. See you soon!



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