NSO’s Pre-tour Concert

featuring Ray Chen

More Russian music. Another violin concerto. But this time, it’s goodbye to the NSO, temporarily anyway. They’re off to Europe this weekend, and before they go jet-setting, they gave us a preview of some of the pieces on the tour program(s), with the fantastic Ray Chen as violinist. Also, I was delighted to see our Maestro 呂紹嘉 back on the podium for the first time in what feels like way too long.

The theme behind the tour is From Formosa, which makes sense, does it not? Taiwanese Orchestra, Taiwanese conductor(s? I think 莊東杰 might be tagging along…), Taiwanese soloist, and even a Taiwanese composer.

We’ve actually been hearing a little bit of what’s going to be on the program. A few months (or just weeks?) ago, they gave us a searing-hot, spectacular reading of Shostakovich’s fifth, which is in the mix for the European tour (which begins in Brussels), but tonight, we started with that Taiwanese composer, one 金希文, or Gordon Chin, and his third symphony, subtitled ‘Taiwan.’ The program notes got me all excited from the beginning: a work commissioned by the Vancouver Symphony premiered in 1996, three movements (fast-slow-fast) with each movement’s motifs printed in the program. I’m such a sucker for an idée fixe! The work’s three movements have titles (Plunder; Dark Night; Upsurge) and outline (at least part of) the history of this island that I’ve made my home. Chin’s symphony is a work that begins with power, giving me extremely high hopes of something with the kind of drive and energy of Nielsen or Robert Simpson, but with a modern palette. It’s a dense, eventful work, with lots of complex passages, and one that strongly intrigued me, but that needs a few more listens to digest properly. Chin stood up to take a bow after the piece was finished. The piece was over, but it was the first in a series of (only) three works on the program that highlighted an interesting theme.

Second for the evening, the only work for tonight that wasn’t a symphony, Prokofiev’s second violin concerto, from the mid-30s. Give a listen to this work, and it might stand out as not terribly Prokofiev-esque. And why? He’d just recently returned home to Mother Russia, and needed to make sure his music was acceptable there. It’s still a very modern work, but full of lyricism and lighter humor rather than his more typical sarcasm and wit.

I should have said that the program notes for Chin’s third symphony spoke about how he took on the commission after having lived abroad for some time, and that he’d recently read some books about his homeland. Do we see a theme here? More on that later.

Ray Chen is an Instagram superstar, to say nothing of his musical career. This is already the second time (within about six months) that I’ve seen him. Back in August, he played the Bruch Scottish Fantasy with the Taipei Symphony in this selfsame concert hall. Needless to say, even diet Prokofiev is world’s away from Bruch, and I was very glad to hear something that wasn’t Tchaikovsky or Mendelssohn or Bruch. Let’s hear it for Prokofiev.

And it was beyond obvious that Ray Chen feels something about this work, because it was played with an intensity and fury that you just can’t fake, at least not without seeming ridiculous. The intensity of his performance was palpable, almost tiring, but not egregious. The pizzicato moments where the soloist is in step with the orchestra were nothing short of perfect, the soloist and ensemble moving as one lithe organism. After the fury and intensity of the first movement (but still lyricism all around), the second was blissful, pristine, and I couldn’t help but think of this ever-developing theme of home, of belonging, of leaving and returning. Ray Chen comes back to Taiwan; Gordon Chin’s symphony about his hometown; our NSO going on tour; Prokofiev’s well-orchestrated return to his motherland.

Motherland and belonging and homesickness aside, Chen gives us two white-hot encores, introducing the first by saying, essentially, “The first stop on our tour is Brussels, so here’s some Ysaÿe,” and played the finale of his fourth sonata, which got me to thinking about how… you can’t fake passion, and that I don’t know much about Ysaÿe, but it seems like he might have been a slightly crazy person, and maybe “crazy” is just when passion goes a little wonky, and also that Chen’s performances are amazing. His bow is going bald rather quickly apparently, so he borrows concertmaster’s and after a bit of shuffling gives us Paganini’s 21st caprice. Ray Chen is obviously the star of the show for the evening, a role he filled quite effortlessly, and it was announced that there would be autographing afterwards.


Last on the program… c’mon, if you haven’t guessed already: it’s a symphony, extremely late 19th century, from another composer visiting a ‘new world’ who would later also find himself homesick. Dvorak’s ninth.

Dvorak’s ninth is not a piece I listen to all that often, really. It’s one of the most famous symphonies ever written, but it’s hard for a piece to hold up to that kind of repetition. I know it. I love it. Don’t need to keep revisiting it. That’s unlike Tchaikovsky’s two concertos which we heard in recent weeks, which, genuinely, I think I can say I wouldn’t miss if I never again heard them live as long as I live. One comes back to Dvorak’s ninth, though and, oh yeah, you remember: he’s only one of the greatest symphonists who ever set pen to paper.

His last three symphonies are masterpieces, true, undisputed works of genius, but it is undoubtedly the ninth that gets all the attention. We could talk about so much more than just the stunningly gorgeous, idyllic second movement; I mean things like the overall unity of the work, its structures, themes, motifs, all of it genius.

But like I said, I don’t listen to it often. That means that when I have a chance to hear it live, especially with our Maestro Lu back on the podium, it’s like revisiting your past, enjoying the work’s joys and gems all over again, and let me tell you what a stunning piece it is. You already know that. Like I said above, it was such a joy to have our own maestro back on the podium, and I really do feel he’s a superbly talented conductor, charismatic, sensitive…

The indisputable highlight of the symphony was the second movement: supple, polished, pristine, expressive, but with all the contrasts in all the right places. The woodwinds, especially, were like one living thing that breathed and moved as a single unit, melodious, warm, round, rich… like butter. American, down-to-earth (not actually African-American spiritual until the Czech composer wrote it) music that somehow seems to grow from the soil in which I played as a child, that Dvorak told America it needed and needed to make use of.

So there we have it, folks, three pieces which, on the surface, seem not to have much in common, but take those elements, the backgrounds, the stories, the purpose and see what’s been put into this program, what music means.

Enough of that. We got two encores after the Dvorak ninth closed (almost always surprisingly quietly), first was one of his own Slavonic Dances, and second was something else, strings only, with concertmaster as (sitting) soloist.

I’m so excited to see Ray Chen on tour with our NSO as they travel throughout Europe, bringing them interpretations of some of their own music, music they know very well, as well as a local composer’s piece, through a continent that knows its music. That being said, they’re a wonderful ensemble, with a truly world-class conductor, and with a soloist like Ray Chen alongside them, it’ll be a hell of a tour.

(Full disclosure: I didn’t wait for the autograph… I detest lines, and getting home late midweek, but I will be kicking myself for missing a chance to meet Ray Chen for the second time. Maybe another time, good sir. Keep the Instagram posts coming!)

Thanks to everyone for tonight, and we are looking forward to seeing lots of photos and maybe even more to welcoming you back! 一路平安!


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