NSO’s Trio Cantabile

featuring Wen-Sinn Yang (楊文信 ), cello; May-Lin Ju (朱玫玲), clarinet; Chaio-Han Liao (廖皎含), piano

 

Oh, how rarely we have local, affordable chamber music. The vast majority of the string quartet concerts we see are all from foreign ensembles, some quite big-name, but big name means big ticket price, and …. meh.

Chamber music is on the very opposite end of the spectrum of the classical music scene as opera, and both are quite rare here in Taiwan. Orchestral music, sure. Solo stuff aplenty, with music majors giving us oodles of their Schubert and Chopin and Schumann.

But real, solid professional chamber music, not a lot.

And tonight was special. The NSO’s Artist-in-Residence Wen-Sinn Yang, who we just saw on Friday night performing Elgar’s cello concerto, returns for a more intimate offering. I am quite sure he curated this program, or at least strongly suggested at least one of the pieces.

First on the program was a piece from Max Bruch, the first piece of his that I’ve heard that isn’t a violin concertante work. It was his Eight Pieces, op. 83, originally for clarinet, viola, and piano. I had originally thought maybe this was a premiere, but a member of the NSO who was tonight a member of the audience tells me that they (someone) did this a few years ago with the original viola.

It’s quite a mellow piece, and as it happens, both of these works come very late in their composers’ careers. In 1910, at a time when the world was doing very different things, moving in whole new directions, here’s the 70-ish year old Bruch still doing very Romantic, mellow things with his mellow clarinet trio. All but one of the eight character pieces are in minor keys, and the clarinet and (tonight) cello (instead of viola) play often in their most beautiful mellow ranges. The piano takes a bit of a backseat, but is obviously the foundation of the work.

The playing was wonderful, and the piece was pleasant enough, more interesting in idea than captivating in its nature, to my ear. I see an old composer reminiscing about what he may have perceived as ‘the good old days,’ giving his ‘walk to school uphill both ways’ speeches while yelling at young composers to get off his lawn. Actually, I don’t have any reason to think Bruch was as crotchety as the ol’ Brahms was. Only two of the pieces in the set of eight are really lively and upbeat, the seventh convincing enough as a finale that its ending drew a few premature claps from the audience before the final piece closed the set as mellowly as it began. Nice work, but I’m sorry, Bruch is not a patch on Brahms.

We said that Bruch’s op. 83 was a late piece for him, but this late is perhaps not as much ‘advanced‘ as much as it is reminiscing. Another ‘late’ composer may pushing their technique or harmonic language to its limits, but it seems Bruch didn’t do that.

In contrast, Brahms’ op. 114, the clarinet trio, one of four chamber works Brahms would write for the wonderfully versatile instrument, began the epilogue of his compositional career, the first(ish) of the works that were almost not, after he swore never again to pick up his pen. Well, thankfully he did, and we have works like this one.

Perhaps I am biased, but the writing for the ensemble from Brahms is just extraordinary as compared with Bruch. The first piece was pleasant, for sure, but it felt like this was a work that the performers could really sink their teeth into. For one, the piano part was much more Brahmsy, taking a much more involved role in the piece. The interaction between clarinet and cello (actually cello this time) was spectacular, sometimes hand-in-hand, sometimes one after the other, and timbres and textures and color were all present to make for a compelling, even spiritual performance of some of the most mature Brahms that exists.

We need so much more of this. I was told that the Bruch on this concert even presented a bit of a challenge for sales, but it was a sold-out concert, likely thanks to Wen-Sinn Yang, who’s considered a Taiwanese Wonder of the Musical World, even though German is pretty much his mother tongue since he moved to Switzerland when only very young. He drew the crowd for the Bruckner concert also.

As I said, Taiwanese audiences have quite a limited scope of musical interest, but what interest they do have is quite strong. I make that statement knowing that it would offend my fellow concertgoers, but truthfully, the wider audience (aside from young, adventurous music majors, or professional performers [but even them sometimes], or old people with oodles of time) are very quick to turn their noses up (or away) at something that isn’t blockbuster, world-famous internationally hailed and respected, and that’s a bit of a blinders-on way to look at the world, not to mention those in pursuit of musical enlightenment who convince themselves they like something because it’s ‘in.’

But none of that is the topic of this article. The last NSO concert of the season (here in the north) was this past Friday. We still have an opera from them, and the TSO season ends rather soon as well, but as an extra little morsel this evening, we got wonderful performances of two deeply moving, soul-stirring chamber works from very talented performers. I also want to mention that since the cellist is just visiting, the three members showed great communication and aplomb considering their relative unfamiliarity with each other (at least one of the three, anyway). Bravo.

Please, let’s make more chamber music together. See you soon.

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