featuring Kirill Gerstein
Welcome back, everyone!
I met a certain fellow concertgoer (and at least occasional reader) formally for the first time this evening while we stood in line to meet Gerstein and Maestro Varga. The gentleman, who I see at most of the concerts I attend, commented on how nice it was to be back in the concert hall after the rather uneventful summer. It’s still inhospitably hot here, but the arctic chill of Zhong Shan Hall certainly solved that problem for us this evening, welcoming audiences back for another season of music-making.
It seems like just a few months ago I was enjoying last year’s season opener from the TSO in a concert featuring violinist Ray Chen, who played Bruch, followed by a Shostakovich symphony on the second half (the tenth), but that was almost exactly a year ago (Aug. 20, 2016), and here we are again for yet another year, and that’s very exciting.
The TSO has some great things lined up on their season (at least until January; they won’t release the spring portion’s program until after the new year, I’m sure), so tonight is only the beginning, and rather traditional considering some of the stuff we’ll be hearing from them later this season, a Dutilleux premiere (in Taiwan), for one.
Our concert got started a bit late this evening, for which Varga promptly apologized, stating that both conductor and soloist got tied up in traffic. As a result, his pre-concert lecture from the stage was abbreviated, but he gave us the highlights. Brahms’s second concerto is a monstrosity of a work, uncharacteristically containing a second (not third) movement scherzo. Mendelssohn’s third symphony, the ‘Scottish’, begins “almost like a prayer,” but builds to glorious things in the first movement alone. He mentioned a marking or reference to war (in the score? a letter from the composer?) in the finale, a tumultuous movement (only mildly so in comparison with Brahms), but one that ends with a glorious “make love not war” passage to round out the work. Those were the words he used. The orchestra came on and thus began the horn solo that marks the beginning of Brahms.
The horn solos were almost perfect. Almost. That quiet solo is like silent waves lapping at the shore on a peaceful evening as the sun rises, such a tranquil beginning to what grows to become quite a tumultuous work. The orchestra seemed just a bit reserved in the first and third movements, as if they could have done just a bit more of Benjamin Zander’s “one-buttock playing.” Perhaps the word is ‘careful’ rather than reserved, but the stormy second movement and the sunny, largely carefree, and even slightly humorous finale were magical, the absolute highlights. Gerstein, who’s clearly suited to playing things like the second Prokofiev concerto, for which he won an ECHO Klassik, is more than capable of holding his own in passages like those found in the scherzo, but played with the utmost finesse when necessary. He gave us a Brahms chorale for an encore after the breathtaking finish of the concerto, a more solemn moment, which the audience likely appreciated.
After the interval, we got Mendelssohn’s third symphony, the ‘Scottish’, a work I have loved for some time and (can you believe it?!) had not heard live until tonight, and boy was it spectacular.
For any of my local readers, you know what Gilbert Varga is like. He’s friendly, outgoing, passionate, one of those people you’d have to remind to breathe if he got to talking about something that excites him at all. And you can tell from his pre-concert introductions (really part of the TSO concert experience by now), his interaction with the orchestra and audience, that he’s just an amicable, zealous conductor, and a piece like the ‘Scottish’ suits his energy so well. I felt the same about the Bizet symphony in C when they did it last season. He absolutely beams with joy at the music and pride for the orchestra he’s leading, and they gave us an outstanding reading of the Mendelssohn.
Varga had the score on the podium for Brahms, though he touched it very little. He dispensed with all of it for the Mendelssohn, moving about the podium and reaching out to the orchestra, not pulling but encouraging the kind of effortless elegance that seemed so spontaneous. You know a performance is inspired when you’ve heard the piece countless times, know what’s coming and still gasp a little bit to yourself. The horns may have blipped a bit in the Brahms, but they sang with confidence and splendor throughout the Mendelssohn. It was just outstanding.
Also, I’ll be honest: the concert hall is much more suited to Mendelssohn than it was to Brahms; the lightness and clarity of the earlier work was perfectly suited to the smaller, more intimate acoustics of the old building, while the Brahms, like a big Brunello, would have breathed better in a bigger hall. But such is life, and it was a delight to see, and meet, Gerstein. I’d have loved to sit with him (obviously!) and speak about the contrast between the two concertos, but only had time for one question in passing. He said he’d been told before that the first Brahms is “a young man’s composition” and the second an older man.
That’s a nice way of putting it, because you couldn’t say the first is immature. That’s very much a negative word, but the second has the polish and age of an older man, the ‘silver fox’ of the two, you could say.
Anyway, Brahms and Mendelssohn for the season opener. The TSO will close the first ‘semester’ of their ’17-’18 season with Brahms’s German Requiem in January, before their winter break and/or Chinese New Year, with the spring portion beginning likely in March. I haven’t seen what’s on the agenda for then, but am looking forward to all of it.
I agree, fellow concertgoer: it is indeed very good to be back in the concert hall. See you soon.