NSO’s French Masterpieces

featuring Pascal Rophé, guest conductor; Sharon Bezaly, flute; Taipei Philharmonic Chorus

I’m not sure why Nielsen’s flute concerto was included in an otherwise decidedly French program. A Danish composer spent some time in Germany and Austria and wrote a concerto for a Danish flautist. The only French-ish thing about it was its premiere, given in Paris in October of 1926. But more on that later.

The program tonight began with Dutilleux’s Métaboles, a work whose very description excites me very much. Of his idea with this work, or in this new period of composition, the composer says:

The rhetorical term Métaboles, applied to a musical form, reveals my intention: to present one or several ideas in a different order and from different angles, until, by successive stages, they are made to change character completely.

That comes from Ronald Gallman’s program notes for the work for the San Francisco Symphony, which returns a 404 now. This idea of transformation, of metamorphosis, is one that fascinates and compels me, but is also one that I think, at least for most listeners, isn’t easy to appreciate at first listen. Métaboles was written in the 1960s, commissioned by George Szell to commemorate the Cleveland Orchestra’s 40th anniversary, and thus comes more than a decade before Dutilleux’s exquisite, historical Ainsi la Nuitone of the most perfect string quartets ever written.

So all of that having been said, I was interested to see how the audience (or even I myself) would respond to the work, which I’ve only listened to once, earlier today before the concert. Raphé seemed no stranger to the music, and it should come as no surprise: he spent time in the 90s with Pierre Boulez as part of (or along with) Ensemble Intercontemporain.

Métaboles is certainly a work that may require a few listens to begin to comprehend, or else that rare thing, a wonderful pre-concert lecture, which it seems we may have had, but I was distracted. In any case, our NSO played it very well, perhaps a bit… safely, but with the color and texture and vibrance one would expect from such a work, and it’s exactly that color and texture and vibrance that one can appreciate, even if you’re not following the aforementioned changing of character, and that’s okay, because as we shall see, the last part on the program is much the same way.

Next is the obviously least French piece for the evening, the Nielsen flute concerto with Sharon Bezaly. Bezaly herself is the dedicatee of a concerto for flute from our Composer in Residence Brett Dean. He’s no more French than Nielsen is, and I’d have loved the chance to hear his work, much rarer to hear live than the Nielsen I’m sure. But we got Nielsen, and having never heard Dean’s concerto, I would still say I’d much rather have heard Dean’s concerto.

know I’ve listened to this piece before, at least a few times at some point here or there, but listening to it tonight made very little impression on me. It wasn’t Bezaly’s performance that was the problem; on the contrary, she played excellently, clearly, on her 24K gold flute, but there was very little about the concerto that caught my attention. I really very much like most of what I’ve heard of Nielsen, and granted it isn’t a ton: the first four symphonies, the clarinet concerto, violin concerto, and snippets of Aladdin, but this work nearly downright bored me. There were some more notable moments in the final movement, but I was by and large unthrilled. The soloist herself, though, as well as the solos from the orchestra, especially trombone, were, let me emphasize again, with way too many commas, outstanding.

Thankfully, we got a brilliant little gem of an encore from Bezaly, Hugo Alfvén’s Little Suite, a work with a bit of pitch bending, multiphonics, and lots of exciting stuff from the Swedish composer that Bezaly seemed very excited to share. That was by far the highlight of the flautery of the evening, although she did play the concerto with great poise.

After the half, though, we got what was arguably the most anticipated work on the program, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, the composer’s longest work, which is where the chorus joins us. This is a ballet, and as a concert piece, it’s usually condensed down to one of two suites, but tonight we got the whole kit and caboodle, the entire hour.

And it got me to thinking, what are we supposed to focus on without the ballet part of the ballet? About how this work is conceived on a Mahlerian, single-movement kind of unstopping scale? About the influence of Debussy and by extension of Wagner in its lush, sensual 20th century harmony, almost drowning in romance and deep blues and the shimmery beauty of it all, and that’s kind of where we get back to Dutilleux. He wasn’t of any ‘school’ of French composers, certainly not serialist or anything, unmistakably modern, but not harsh. So we listen to these ‘French Masterpieces’ the same way. Get lost in your own thoughts and in the warm, flowing sort of unhindered beauty of Ravel’s masterful orchestration. If you’re going to perform the entire hour-long piece, you sure as hell better do it with the chorus, and they did, and it was sublime. Special props go to the new young horn player who hit that “4 octave slur to high C” that shows up a couple of times. Nailed it. There’s a sense of arrival, of success, after accomplishing a piece like that, not to mention so well played, that the hall was awash in the echoes of beautiful music, as well as applause and optimism. I’m told Rophé was extremely well liked, and he sure did a darn good job tonight, all around, so despite my headache from not doing the caffeine today (oops!), it was a spectacular evening.

I must say, I am so thrilled that we’ve had the opportunity recently to hear some of these far more modern works, like Dean’s Short Stories, or Penderecki’s trumpet concerto, a Messiaen work a while back. They always seem to be in the spring for the NSO, these more adventurous programs. Last year’s Widmann piece and some others also seemed to be programmed toward the end of the season, and even if the ticket sales aren’t spectacular, if some of the audience members grumble a bit after the piece in question, it’s still a wonderful chance to expose people to new music. You can call it pioneering, or maybe at the worst martyring, but audiences here, by and large, are extremely conservative. Thankfully we have two orchestras in Taipei who are doing wonderful, adventurous programming in a way that can expose people to new things without turning them away. Even Bruckner here, as we shall see next month, is apparently a difficult sell. Mahler not such an uphill climb here (anymore), but audiences are picky in a sort of “Oh, I don’t know what that is and don’t care to find out” kind of way. Of course there are those more adventurous, open-minded listeners, but it’s so nice to be able to hear works like these, especially performed so well, so thanks to our guest conductor, our soloist, and the NSO for that. See you next time.

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