NSO’s Eroica

featuring Carl St. Clair, conductor; Albrecht Mayer, oboe

Yes. It’s called that for the reason that you think it is. But we’ll get there.

It’s been more than a month since I’ve been in the concert hall, and that’s a rarity. Our (dearly) beloved NSO went gallivanting and concert-making in Europe and I’m sure it was a wonderful tour, but they’re finally back with us, and it’s about time.

There’s lots of Beethoven on this year’s program, with the fifth and ninth symphonies already performed, the third tonight, and the fourth coming up soon. But the other feature of tonight’s concert that is special this year is our composer-in-residence Brett Dean. He was former principal viola with the Berlin Philharmonic, and we’ve heard some of his work already this year, but his Short Stories, Five Interludes for String Orchestra opened the concert, and maestro St. Clair took a page out of Maestro G. Varga’s book (director of the Taipei Symphony) and gave us a pre-concert lecture that was actually quite moving. I paraphrase:

On April 7, 1805, a crowd entered a concert hall and were not prepared for what they were about to experience. What they experienced was the world premiere of what was at that time the longest symphony ever composed, Beethoven’s’Eroica’. No bigger step forward had been taken in music at that time, and maybe no larger since. The premiere could not be called a success. No one had heard a symphony like this before. This wasn’t fair to the piece, to the performers, or even for the audience. Tonight we will be hearing a piece that, as was Beethoven’s third symphony at the time, new music, and it can present a challenge. In the spirit of appreciating and enjoying new music, although it may present challenges, I’d like to speak briefly about the work so that we can enjoy it.

Very much not word for word, but it was a wonderful parallel between two seemingly very disparate works. Dean’s Short Stories for string orchestra is in five movements:

I. Devotional
II. Premonitions
III. Embers
IV. Komarov’s Last Words
V. Arietta

It’s a fascinating little piece. In his explanation of the work, St. Clair made it clear that there are no “long melodic lines like you’d find in Tchaikovsky” but rather textures, colors, brush strokes that, together, create a vivid scene, of the sparkling red of coals going out, leftover from a fire at dawn, or the last words of the first man to die in outer space, 50 years ago this year (1967). Dean’s own program notes push all my buttons: discussion of the beauty and perfection of a short story, and how a good one gives a complete vision, a snapshot of existence, in so few words, and how these five short pieces do the same with music. It was played outstandingly well. It’s been a very long time since I’ve been so lost in a piece I’m hearing for the first time. Almost literally spellbinding. Superb. More on that later.

Next on the program is the other big name above, Albrecht Mayer, the only oboist I can name who is still living (I think), and also from/with the Berlin Philharmonic, unless he’s already launched a solo career (I mean, he has done that, but I don’t know if he’s left Berlin, but too lazy to check). He gave us the Haydn oboe concerto in C that is likely, at least as claimed by some, not of Haydn’s pen. I actually didn’t read this until after having heard tonight’s (sublime) performance, but did sit through part of it thinking it doesn’t quite sound Haydn-esque. But then again, I’m no pro.

It’s very….. notey, full of very dense passages for the oboe, and almost absurdly virtuosic-seeming for the time, something that struck me as out of character for the time, but a wonderful piece nonetheless, and Mayer seemed perfectly at ease, casual, but focused. The opening of the first movement has the soloist in step with the ensemble, and I thought for a split second that I might have difficulty hearing him over the ensemble, but no. The sound Mayer produced was full and warm, smooth and…. can you use the word ‘buttery’ in a classical music review? It was pristine, expressive, but good, full notes in the low register. There’s such little oboe solo-ism; this is, if I recall correctly, the first oboe concerto I’ve ever seen live, maybe oboe anything not in a full orchestra setting.

We got two encores after the concerto, both Bach. First was Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe, with the orchestra, and second came “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris,” both beautiful. Before he began the first, though, he stepped out to the very edge of the stage and gave a cutoff gesture at our applause. Again, I paraphrase:

I just want to say that the beauty of this hall, this fantastic orchestra, your wonderful city, is all due to the gracious hearts of the Taiwanese people… and your wonderful food! (applause and cutoff gesture) … but I also want to say that it’s so wonderful because in Berlin, where I come from, in April there is snow, but here, you have flowers!

More applause, and two wonderful encores. Mayer seems to be a gracious, friendly enthusiastic gentleman, not to mention a fantastic virtuoso musician. He laughed at the final round of applause he walked out to take, and the intermission began.

After the intermission, obviously, we have Beethoven’s Eroica. As St. Clair said, it’s truly, undeniably one of the greatest symphonies ever written, no questions asked, but it’s also as a result one of the most famous. I’ve heard it lots live, but sitting down for those first two exclamation marks that begin the piece, you’re reminded why some works are as famous and oft-performed as they are: they’re timeless, epic works of genius, and having a listen to St. Clair, who I’ve never seen or heard conduct before, lead our fantastic NSO, was a wonderful experience.

In the first piece, St. Clair yielded to the music, did it justice through a little introduction and it was handled with the utmost delicacy. The second piece on the program saw him step aside to give Mayer, the soloist, the spotlight the piece called for. Finally, now, in the Beethoven, we get to see the maestro hunker down and put the pedal to the metal. I prefer my Beethoven just slightly less Romanticized, a little bit leaner and lighter, but his reading was a damn good one, and the ensemble played very well. The horn section especially shined in their exposed moments (as a section or soloist) in the first movement, and even more so the third, with their little chorale sections, just spot on. A really convincing performance of a piece that I was almost sure I could go quite a while longer without hearing live again. I was wrong. It was wonderful.

Thoughts, now, though. Dean’s work is encouraging, restoring my confidence in modern music as a pursuit of a form of expression of well-conceived ideas. I’m all for modern music, don’t get me wrong, but I still bristle a little bit to the term ‘avant-garde.’ Where is modern music going? What are we doing? I’m 100% behind true, purist serial techniques and approaches, but who’s doing that now? Are we stuck with abstract scratches and settings of groups of metronomes and cacophony, or else its opposite, re-revisiting the Neo-Neoclassical era of music, recycling and repurposing old ideas that have been repurposed before? I don’t know, and if history teaches us anything, it’s that we may need to wait another half century before we realize who our real geniuses were, but Dean has offered us a number of bold, compelling pieces, and I hope his work is an indication of where music may be headed.

And secondly, all that bit about Beethoven and how works that get played so much might just get played so much for a reason. I said that. St. Clair is a fantastic, energetic, charismatic leader, and I hope we get to see more of him in the future, maybe. I’m picky about my Beethoven, and thankfully we didn’t get the stodgy, over-Romanticized Beethoven, drowned in Karajan or Bernstein’s cologne that still smells of the time when they were making everything their own and not the composer’s. But anyway, it was a fantastic evening, very exciting.

I’m looking very forward to being able finally to hear Beethoven’s fourth live, at the beginning of May. It’s one of only two symphonies of his I haven’t yet heard live, the other being (of course) the eighth, and that one might be on a list for the future soon, too. I also need to hear someone else’s eighth to be able to say I’ve heard all of that person’s symphonies live, and I am told that chance is coming up soon-ish as well.

Isn’t music wonderful?


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