NSO’s Extreme Classical

featuring Sabine Meyer and Michael Sanderling

I skipped the NSO concert last week. We were supposed to have the Labèque sisters come to perform Glass’s double concerto for two pianos, but something happened and the program got changed. While the new program included a work I just recently wrote about, I still decided I’d rather refund the ticket and go another time. I was a little bitter about being robbed of the Glass premiere.

But we’re back, and tonight with the fantastic Sabine Meyer and cellist/conductor (but for tonight only conductor) Michael Sanderling. We also have (in spirit) Takemitsu, Weber, and Brahms.

Meyer has been coming to Taiwan a lot lately. I saw her first a couple of years ago, playing the Copland concerto with the Taipei Symphony. The following year (last year?) she came with a German ensemble (Munich Chamber something?) and played a program of many shorter pieces, as I recall, but that I did not attend. And now she’s back this year with our NSO, giving us Takemitsu and Weber.

I’m not entirely sure about the choice of title for this concert. Classical for Weber, bit of a stretch. Classical for Brahms? Hardly. But both classics, yes. Extreme? For Takemitsu? Not really, no. But I digress.

First on the program was Toru Takemitsu’s Fantasma/Cantos (or if need be, in the original Japanese, ファンタズマ/カントス) for clarinet and orchestra. It’s a small-ish piece, completed in 1991, which Meyer seemed excited to present. It’s not a particularly challenging work, really, but one that I’m pretty sure would take a few passes to appreciate more fully. Our NSO seemed (unsurprisingly) not wholly familiar with the piece, and I’m sure would have been more expressive and generally coherent if they were more familiar with it, but I have no particular criticisms about the playing, having only heard the piece for the first time. Applause wasn’t sparse, but not as enthusiastic as what would come next. Even if some of the audience members didn’t really get or care for the work, they were at the very least impressed by Meyer’s acrobatics. I, for one, was glad to have more modern, less often performed works like this on the program, and this may have been a Taiwan premiere.

As stage hands rolled away the harp and celesta that sat nearly front and center for the Takemitsu work, other shuffling happened and after a brief pause and a bit of audible clarinetting offstage, Meyer returns for Weber’s concertino for clarinet. I should say I have always been impressed with how elegant she is. I actually didn’t pay attention to her choice of footwear, but she seems tall, and is obviously quite slender. She always dresses very flatteringly, classy, elegant. Charming.

And she played Weber fantastically. There’s always been, to me, a very operatic, dramatic kind of intensity to Weber’s work. I say that like I’m well versed in his output. I am the opposite of that. I’d never even heard the clarinet concertino until last night, but it’s immediately accessible, richly expressive, colorful, breathtakingly beautiful.

Meyer dances and sways with the music, and wave after wave of contrast in each new section showed another facet of performing technique, or color, or whatever. Sanderling and the orchestra were expressive, and the piece came off effortlessly. The resulting applause at the finish was uproarious, and well deserved.

Meyer gave us two encores. The first, which she offered rather quickly, after looking at the ensemble and giving the concertmaster a nod, was the minuet from Weber’s clarinet quintet, op. 34, a very cute, playful thing. I’m not much for excerpts, the little standalone snippet did fine as an encore. I’d assumed the accompaniment from strings was the hint that we’d do one and get it over with, but she was coerced to come back out and, after a shrug, played the third of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo, which I recall she played a few years ago as an encore after Copland with the TSO.

So that was that. She came out once more, sans clarinet, and took her final bow.

Then we have intermission.

Then we have Brahms.

I really just don’t ever listen to the Brahms symphonies… I’ve written about all four of them here, although I really need to revisit the first, but I feel like I’ve pretty much gotten them…. under my belt. I know them, appreciate them, and really only hear them live. Actually, I’ve still not heard the third live, but attended many performances of the first. With free choice, an entire library of stuff to choose from, looking down at my phone or to iTunes, it’s rare that I’ll pick a Brahms symphony with so much else to listen to, but they are truly wonderful symphonies. I’d prefer perhaps a Bruckner work or something a bit more obscure (Raff? Rott?) over Brahms, but It is what it is, a bold, engaging, youthful work of exuberance, and when played well, it’s exhilarating.

Anyway, it’s nice when you’ve come to know and appreciate and even love a piece, but don’t listen to it for a while, and can then be reminded of its splendor by a properly convincing live performance. We didn’t get any transcendental, historical reading of the work, which I’d consider to be one of the greatest symphonies in music history, but it was spirited and driven. There were a few bloops here and there; I wasn’t terribly fond of the oboe solo in the second movement, and trumpets/trombones had a few eeks, but the horn solos throughout were really wonderful, especially in the fourth movement.

A convincing reading comes not just from technical ability, but obviously the overall presentation. One of my favorite things about Brahms’s first is the way it slowly reveals what we eventually see to be its ultimate goal, its inspiration from Beethoven’s ninth, and it struck me, just shadows of it in the second, more in the third, and then in the finale, when we’ve finally reached that splendorous moment, has to be one of the greatest moments in music, and it was treated as such.

I don’t know if it was Sanderling’s reading or my own mind wanderings, but I got to thinking that one of the worst things you could do to a Brahms symphony (or anything else?) is to rush it. Show a little restraint, don’t get carried away, and feel the music that’s happening right then and there, and that’s what it feels like he did, saving up all the pent-up tension and release for the glorious finale (since there isn’t really a scherzo to speak of).

In any case, Sanderling’s reading and the NSO’s performance also garnered splendiferous applause from the audience. I told a friend that I’d prefer to hear something besides Brahms on this program, something less common, but it wasn’t long after the timpani strikes of the first movement began that I said, “Ah, yes” to myself and was ultimately very glad to hear that Brahms.

There’s only one more concert left (upstairs) this season from the NSO, and then their annual opera, but after that, things are looking to be pretty sparse for the summer. I’m sure we’ll find something worth going to see, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. More to come this weekend for review articles, though, and it’ll be a good one I’m sure.

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