TSO’s Don Quixote

featuring cellist Pablo Ferrández and conductor Robert Trevino

It’s been quite some time since I’ve paid the Taipei Symphony a visit, in fact more than four months. They spent a little time traveling down south for some concerts, and had one or two here in Taipei I couldn’t attend, but here we are finally for a much-anticipated event.

There are two pieces on the program, in the not so typical order. One usually expects a concertante work, like a concerto or something, to come in the first half, directly preceding the intermission. However, for what I believe were likely strategic marketing reasons we got the symphony first, and tonight it was Prokofiev’s fifth.

I must be honest in saying this work was the real draw for me initially. Prokofiev’s fifth symphony is one of his masterpieces, a wonderful symphony by any standard, 20th century or not, and the only other symphony of Prokofiev’s that I’ve heard live, granted many times now, is his first. The second and third are quite rarely played (for understandable reasons, maybe), the fourth with its two versions is somewhat ignored… but no. 5 is wonderful.

Overall, it’s an optimistic work, nothing like, say, Shostakovich’s seventh, of only a few years before it. That said, it’s still a Prokofiev symphony, not Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky, so some degree of his characteristic wit and dark humor are unavoidable.

I intentionally did not go have a refresher listen to this work before the concert today, and hearing Trevino’s opening, the quiet, sort of unassuming beginning of this big symphony, I got to worrying it might be a bit of a soggy Prokofiev 5, but by about halfway through the first movement, I’d changed my mind. Trevino’s hands went higher, facial expressions intense, and perhaps it was far more an unassuming, subtle opening than I’m used to, but he and the Taipei Symphony gave it the bite it deserved, which was suitable moving into the second movement, which was really superb. The TSO was quite on point, not just technically, but with a convincing sound and interpretation, due surely at least in part to Trevino and his reading of the work. The third movement is an odd one, but it always reminds me of one of the tunes from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. The finale was absolute perfection, though, and it’s foremost a testament to Prokofiev’s compositional chops, but Trevino and the TSO wrung every ounce of intensity out of the close of the final movement, and my heart truly was racing as the whole ensemble rushed toward that spectacular finish, and they landed it perfectly. Bravo to the quite young Trevino, and to our old friends at the Taipei Symphony. It has indeed been too long.

The word my fellow concertgoer for the evening uttered when I asked him his thoughts on the work, having never heard it in full, much less live, was ‘strange.’ I can understand that at first listen, but it was certainly a reading that did the piece more than justice, and I was impressed.

Shuffle shuffle, potty break, stand/platform thing for cellist, and 20ish minutes later, we’re ready for Strauss’s Don Quixote, a concertante work that’s a tone poem, not a concerto. Unlike other concertante-but-not-concerto works, like Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations or others, the Strauss piece is not a short work, more on the scale of his other tone poems, coming up at at least 40 minutes with its introduction of themes and ten variations, nearing the length of some of the meatiest works for the cello, like Dvorak’s famous concerto.

Here’s a wonderful video of tonight’s soloist, Pablo Ferrández, performing the work with the Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia and Dennis Russell Davies.

He’s a young dude, but an incredible performer, with a strangely romantic (Romantic?) intensity. In this work, the soloist is not only the soloist for the orchestra, but the literal main character of Strauss’s source material.

If you haven’t read Don Quixote (actually El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha) and don’t have much else to worry about doing in your life and can afford to set aside time to read one of the earliest novels ever written, go do it. It’s absurdly hysterical, and Strauss captures that, whether it’s in the heroic Romanticism of the work, the tender, sweet lyrical passages, the cacophonous bleating of sheep, the characteristics of his sidekick Sancho Panza… If there were ever anyone who could take something like this and bring to to life, it would be Strauss, and Ferrández was exquisite.

He had an intensity with the orchestra that was almost a little too focused. Waiting for his entry to the piece, as the orchestra did its thing, it looked as if he were strapped into some wild roller coaster, ready to enjoy all its twist and turns, riding each wave and orchestral phrase, until his big showy entry. Instead of looking at the conductor, most of the time he made extremely serious, even perhaps a little over-intense eyes at the concertmaster or first viola, his brethren in this work. The bass clarinet and tuba are obviously out of his eye line.

So in some ways, with this outstanding dialogue, call-and-answer, this moving together to build a story and convey characteristics, was almost like an enormous chamber piece, if I dare say so, with huge accompaniment. The solos from everyone were really excellently played, but obviously the star of the show was Ferrández. His sound was rich and powerful, but not harsh; it was expressive and warm, at times sensual. The word that came to mind, and not only because I hadn’t had dinner, was ‘buttery,’ if that’s not too banal a word. He plays the piece like he wrote it, or like it were about him, and perhaps the Spanish blood has something to do with it. Regardless, it was effortless-looking, passionate, sensual, and wholly captivating.

And I apparently wasn’t the only one who thought so. After roars and waves of applause, Trevino told us that if we didn’t mind, they’d do the finale again as an encore, and it was just as wonderful the second time around, delicate and full of feeling. Thoughts did cross my mind about an Asian orchestra, Spanish soloist and American conductor (with a Spanish or Mexican name) playing a piece by a German composer about a Spanish character. Cool, huh?

Yes. It was.

The only thing I wasn’t 100% clear on was the pairing of these two works. A program doesn’t always have to have some concept behind it like many do, but be it similarity or contrast, there’s usually some kind of… underlying theme or idea, no matter how abstract, to give cohesion to the works on the program, and before I went tonight, I wasn’t sure what that could be.

What would I personally think to pair with Strauss’s concertante work for cello? I don’t know… a Brahms symphony? Beethoven? Stravinsky? What would I have paired with Prokofiev’s fifth? There are plenty of Russian piano or violin (or cello) concertos to choose from. Myaskovsky would have been a nice pairing, since they knew each other and all, or what about Medtner, with some overture piece to start?

Anyway, that’s pretty much the only head-scratcher of the evening. Both pieces were played wonderfully, and I’m looking forward to seeing the TSO again, even if it’ll be another month before that happens. I think everyone in attendance agrees we’d be more than happy to have Ferrández or Maestro Trevino back for a visit as soon as they’re available. See you again soon, I hope.

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