NTSO: Gil Shaham and Lan Shui

Lan Shui has featured in here and there in my experiences with concerts. He’s a respected conductor, and conducted what is currently the only live performance I’ve heard of Mahler’s magnificent second symphony (but that will change next year, as I found out today). He’s back up north today with the NTSO (National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra, from Taichung [台中], a little farther south; I know that’s confusing) and with the superb Gil Shaham, who we saw just over six months ago with the BRSO. He played Beethoven with them, and is featured in tonight’s program with a very different work.

The NTSO isn’t one of ‘my orchestras,’ and really I guess I only have two. Here in Taipei we hear the TSO and the NSO rather regularly, so we’re familiar with their programming and conductors and personalities, and even the audiences they draw. In the past few months, though, I’ve only heard a handful of NTSO concerts, and they’ve required some traveling. They’ve also all been Mahler: Das Lied, the first, and the seventh. They’re getting through their Mahler cycle and will finish it in the 17/18 season, but for now, it’s all about the Russians.

First on the program is a work from Alexander Tcherepnin, his Symphonic Prayer, from 1959. Tcherepnin was the son of Nikolai Tcherepnin, who was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov. Alexander Tcherepnin was born in 1899, and studied with people whose names you likely wouldn’t recognize, but most of his teachers studied with Rimsky-Korsakov or others of that generation. He wrote four symphonies, six piano concertos, three operas, and oodles of music for solo piano. In fact, Lan Shui was the first conductor ever to complete a recording of Tcherepnin’s symphony cycle, as well as the six piano concertos, all with the Singapore Symphony, not the NTSO. That’s quite a big deal. The Symphonic Prayer also appeared in their recording, which may be part of the reason it’s on this program.

Next was Prokofiev’s first violin concert, op. 19, with the excellent Gil Shaham. How can someone who smiles that much and that genuinely not be just an outstanding human being? And finally, the second half of the concert gave us Tchaikovsky’s first symphony, Winter Dreams, to round out the evening. Nice little program, huh?

The Tcherepnin piece, from the mid 20th century, by and large didn’t sound like what you’d expect a ‘prayer’ to sound like. It wasn’t an elegy or an adagio or anything like that. It had its more somber, ‘spiritual’ parts, but far more of it was heavy, fist-shaking, powerful music, not an overture or an aside, but a complete thought. If the purpose was to plant a seed in the audience’s mind regarding a composer the conductor clearly knows and has a passion for, then it was a success, because hearing this work and knowing A. Tcherepnin has written four symphonies and six piano concertos, I am very eager to hear them. Very convincing performance, and it set the tone for the evening.

I’ve heard the NTSO, as I said, a few times recently, and the Mahler performances (1 and 7 in particular) were very solid, head and shoulders above the Mahler 2 they gave us a few years back, but even there, what the orchestra lacked in precision and polish, they and Lan Shui made up for with outstanding passion.

Next was Prokofiev and Gil Shaham, yet again. This marks the second time I’ve heard him within the past year, and completes my hearing of both Prokofiev violin concertos live. It’s not much of a cycle sure, but we got all the piano concertos recently as well. This, to be perfectly honest, was the reason I bought this concert ticket. Even if I’m not wildly in love with the Prokofiev, I won’t miss Shaham.

I got to thinking that perhaps I should go to more concerts of music that I’m not in love with, or rather, I would if they were all of this quality and if I didn’t go to so many already. A convincing performance like we had tonight can make you (re)analyze a work that you might not have had a great impression of. I can’t say I am terribly familiar with or particularly love the Prokofiev, but to see Shaham play it was spectacular. It’s a showy work, flashy, glimmery, full of color. It’s not a long work, but it packs a punch. Shaham has also recorded (likely more than once) the work he performed with us, and gave a really breathtaking reading, limber, light, but fiery and precise. For some reason, even though I know he’s recorded them (and own the recording), I don’t see him, relatively small-statured and smiley, as the kind of presence that would put that music out, but it was nothing short of captivating. As encores we got a replay of a section of the concerto and then some solo Bach. Just splendid.

Finally, after the break, we had Tchaikovsky. The first symphony. Again, this is a work that I came to appreciate in a certain way when I was writing about it, oh, nearly three years ago, but may have never once turned back to it since. I feel it’s kind of a proto-symphony. It’s in four movements, yes, but you could argue that it’s just not that far removed from a multi-movement symphonic poem, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The music is very pretty indeed.

The first movement embodies the whip of a cold winter breeze, the glistening of snowflakes and the crunch of ice as you take the first push on your sled down a small snow-covered hill, the beginning of the entire journey. The NTSO captured the color, texture, energy, lightness of it all, portraying this work in the best light possible. The second movement, monothematic and bordering on too long, was beautiful and expressive. The third movement is where things really start to pick up steam, but the fourth and final movement is in a league beyond the previous three, a proper ending to what sounds like should have been an epic, powerful, heart-grabbing symphony.

I have never really felt Tchaikovsky’s first to be so, but especially by that finale, I was mentally scratching my head, trying to think why I haven’t gone back and given this work more attention. It has a charm, no doubt, but the NTSO gave us more than just its charms; it had fire and drive, a sense of the triumphant, and a feeling like maybe, in just the space between the second and fourth movement, the composer had found some inspiration, that there was some sudden maturity.

But this isn’t a discussion of the piece itself. We’ve done that. My point is that the quality of playing, and again, perhaps more importantly, the intensity of the playing, was what sold it, and if we could get such high caliber performances, such vivid readings of other works, the NTSO could sell me on them, too. By ‘intense’, I don’t mean faster or louder or clearer, but with a real spirit behind the music. Watch the conductor, see how he moves and what he draws from the ensemble. They were absolutely on point tonight, and I guess anyone else who didn’t give Tchaikovsky’s earliest symphony much thought is now thinking otherwise. I’d love for them to take on a few other pet projects. Tchaikovsky doesn’t need any more good publicity.

After that, I only need to hear his second, third and Manfred symphonies to finish his live cycle. Mahler and Beethoven will be complete soon(ish), and Bruckner will take a little more time, Shostakovich even more than that, but maybe one day we’ll even have completed A. Tcherepnin or Robert Simpson cycles in Taiwan. Hope the NTSO is interested.

The concert seasons are winding down now. There are only a few operas left this summer before things get hot(ter) outside and quiet in the concert halls, that is until September, when it’ll still be hotter than hell outside, but we’ll at least have some nice concerts to enjoy. See you then!

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