NSO’s Poem of Ecstasy

featuring Jan Vogler

Programming is so important.

And our NSO is sounding incredible this season.

Some of you likely enjoyed, depending on your generation, making mixtapes, burning mixes on CD, or creating playlists to distribute or enjoy via various media means, but the very same thing happens in the concert hall, not just for one concert, but for an entire season, or even across seasons.

Let’s pretend there’s no other bureaucracy or board of directors to deal with and say that the music director has sole control in matters of programming, along with the guest conductors and soloists who’ll be featured. Imagine making a playlist for not just two hours of a concert, but for twenty(ish) concerts, with considerations like the soloists’ preferences, repertoire, etc.

Anyway, those were the thoughts I was having about tonight’s program, one that incorporated a world premiere, two repertoire standards, and then quite a rare piece to hear in the concert hall. It was a diverse program, but one that, for me, really worked.

First was the premiere, a piece by local composer (Chinese name), followed by the star of the evening, Jan Vogler, playing the Dvorak cello concerto, perhaps the most famous cello concerto in the repertoire, and for darn good reason. After the break, we went Russian, with Prokofiev’s first symphony, the ‘classical’ one, and then the real draw for me on the program, Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. I have actually by now written about all of these works (except, obviously, for the premiere), and recall the Scriabin score being especially complicated, a real dense work to understand, but a fascinating one, and I’d never heard it live until this evening.

The first work, the outlier on the program for sure, was a world premiere of a piece by a local composer, 王怡雯, who studied in Taiwan as well as at the University of Pennsylvania. Her teachers included George Crumb and Richard Wernick.

I was fully prepared to be a bit dismissive about this piece, if for no other reason than because I just haven’t been too terribly impressed with pieces from local composers in the past, which sit in an awkward place between Asian pastiche and Western classical music. But actually, this short piece in two movements was quite compelling.

It’s titled Puyuma Celebration, the Puyuma being one of the indigenous groups of Taiwan. My only criticism of the work is that the first movement didn’t seem to go places. In a larger-scale piece, like Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, or something, the misty ethereal, sound-effecty unsureness would be enchanting and captivating, but in such a short piece, it feels as if it lacks a bit of direction. That being said, it was almost Sibelius-esque in its sound, if he’d lived in Asia or something. The second movement was much more eventful, even violent, and I’d much like to hear a symphony from Ms. Wang, if there is one, something with that language in a fuller form. A pleasant surprise.

Next on the program was what most people probably came for, Jan Vogler playing the Dvorak concerto. It’s really been a very long time since I’ve heard the Dvorak live. I don’t mean to be negative, but my only real gripe about the performance is that Vogler seemed so soft the entire way through. This was obviously suitable for (most parts of) the second movement, but for most of the first movement I really wished there’d been a volume button. Of course part of this is getting used to hearing mastered recordings of this work, but I’ve sat in the same seat I sat in tonight and heard Truls Mørk play Elgar and Shostakovich and had no problems hearing him.

The orchestra sounded superb, and the brass sounded exquisite. They have a new principal trombone, but the stellar sound they produced isn’t due just to that, obviously. Everything from the orchestra was really top-notch tonight. The strings sounded rich, the woodwinds full of color. Vogler played with passion, for sure, but rather a quiet passion. He came out, I believe begrudgingly, for a Bach encore, which seemed to fill the hall effortlessly with beautiful, crystal-clear sound, making me doubt my reservations about the concerto, but I got a (very reliable) second opinion at the half who felt the same way. His Bach, while perhaps a coerced encore, was the first Bach encore that’s made me think I should maybe check out any recordings he has of the suites.

After the half, we got to the Russian stuff. During the interval, I’d been talking with the classmate of my regular concertgoing friend, a very perceptive young man who’s been appearing at concerts more and more frequently, about Prokofiev’s classical symphony, and about how it’s a very nice piece, and can be played convincingly any number of ways, as long as humor is present. And tonight’s reading, dare I say, was approaching the magnificence of performances given in this same hall by the likes of the Chicago Symphony and Vienna Philharmonic, and I feel that’s in no way an exaggeration. The first movement was a touch slower than I’m used to, but it gave us an opportunity to savor the fragrance of the first movement. The second and third were delicate and pristine, but with their own doses of un-seriousness, and the finale was a rip-roaring blast of near-absurd energy, exactly as it should be, giving us a symphony that’s great on its own merits, but a pleasant little caricature of all things classical.

The final piece on the program, though, was the primary reason I was sitting in the hall this evening, for Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, the piece for which the concert was after all named.

It’s an extremely dense piece, a very challenging score to follow, just a ton of detail and music to make sense of. While Boulez’s recording might lack the fire and wildness that Muti or Inbal gave it, the clarity he brings to the table is almost a necessity in this work. It’s a rare piece, and there really aren’t many recordings of it, much less live performances.

Maestro Lu made wonderful, excellent passionate sense of the work. This is a really modern piece, in a modern but also wholly unique language all Scriabin’s own. It dates from the first decade of the 20th century, but I wouldn’t call it even a little bit avant-garde. That may have been what some of the audience members thought tonight, though, with the piece’s plethora of solos, sudden manic shifts of atmosphere, deafening silences and roaring climaxes, but it was a magnificent reading. Eight horns, four or five trumpets, three trombones, two harps, a really big, full orchestra that reached roaring, almost cataclysmic heights, and the softest, most delicate whispers. Huge props to Nicolas Rusillon, who played the very demanding solo trumpet parts absolutely beautifully. This is a wild, rarely played work, and the NSO’s reading tonight left me in awe at how outstanding they’re sounding so far this year. Let’s hope the excellence continues.

That’ll be all for them until the middle of next month, when a good friend (and writer) and I will be headed down south for a very special event. I’m looking very forward to it, and I’m pretty sure the orchestra begins rehearsals tomorrow, at least by next week. Jamie Barton will be there!!!

See you all soon.

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