TSO’s Pre-Tour Concert

featuring violinist Paul Huang (黃俊文)

It’s been a little while since I’d seen the TSO. I wasn’t able to attend the all-Sibelius concert with Okko Kamu, unfortunately, but Varga was back in town tonight. Not for long, though.

As the title suggests, the Taipei Symphony will be flying out next week, across the (bigger, Pacific) pond to give two concerts in California. It’s their first visit there in something like more than two decades.

There was another return this evening, that of the soloist, Paul Huang, whose name has been everywhere lately, in sentences with words like “Lincoln Center”, “Avery Fisher” and other very notable institutions. But before he was getting acclaim in America, he was performing in his home country of Taiwan, and apparently first did so at a very young age with the Taipei Symphony, playing Saint-Saëns. That was something like a decade and a half ago, and tonight was his first performance with them since then, a greeting and a brief farewell.

The program tonight featured first a world premiere from a local composer and professor, one 趙菁文 (Ching-wen Chao in English name order), entitled Reminiscences from Faraway Islands (來自遠方的島嶼記憶). It was a commission from the Taipei Symphony, likely for this tour. Miss Chao studied, among other places, at Stanford, and I have heard (and/or assumed) that she did in fact study there with Brian Ferneyhough himself, so I was very curious to hear her work, especially as an American in Taiwan getting ready to hear a piece from a Taiwanese composer for performance in America.

It’s about ten minutes long, full of color and texture, in a Debussy-esque way, clearly, undeniably modern, but by no means challenging or atonal or anything. In Varga’s ever-present pre-concert lecture, he said the work was like going to a new city you’ve never been to before, but seeing familiar faces everywhere and feeling at home.

I didn’t really understand this illustration during the piece. I was more focused on enjoying the work, richly scored, with tons of interest. If you’ve been reading the blog lately, you know I’ve been up to my ears in American composers, and maybe it was the use of fourths and open fifths, or whatever people say about Copland’s music that sounds so ‘American,’ but there was a broad, crystal-clear openness about this piece that was refreshing and welcoming, like a perfectly-temperatured sea breeze, as cliche as that sounds. Granted, I’m far more likely to hear pentatonic folk tune inspired work as American, especially with splashes of Gershwin and things in the tapestry, but…

It wasn’t until after the piece that my fellow concertgoer for the evening told me the piece was full of references to traditional Taiwanese melodies, and it got me to thinking about the absolute, ineffably subjective nature of music. Here I sit with a friend of mine, listening to a wonderfully fresh piece of music, and because of culture and context, had an entirely different experience. Both very good, just very different. Wonderful piece.

After some seat shifting, the Dvorak violin concerto begins. I’m not as familiar with this work as I should be. In fact, I know very little about it. I’ve discussed his fantastic concertos for piano and cello before, and a few symphonies, but not the violin concerto. But as a fellow concertgoer expressed to me this evening, it’s really a pleasure to see a performer, conductor, ensemble who’s really enjoying a piece. And that’s not about show, or fancy cuff links or obnoxious gestures, but it’s evident in the music.

Paul Huang played just beautifully. Face straight to the audience, some intense eye contact, and a near-constant pained expression accompanied what otherwise seemed to be uninhibited, effortless playing, although the piece is obviously very demanding. Huang’s performance was all of the contradictory things, that is to say, balanced: exact and spontaneous; passionate but delicate; commanding but sensitive. The hall we were in tonight isn’t the most spectacular, but sitting on the ninth row, Dvorak’s concerto (well, Huang’s violin) sang beautifully, even in the stratospheric high notes. It was one of those performances that makes you (perhaps re)consider a work maybe to be one of the greatest in the repertoire. Sure, Dvorak’s name is enormously famous, but I’d say the concertos from Brahms, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Beethoven, Bach, Bruch get the majority of the attention. Hearing Huang and the TSO play this work tonight was like the discovery of something new, and by the time the finale came around, it was all smiles, a fitting, jubilant close.

Three encores and much applause later, it was the intermission.

And then Tchaikovsky four, one of his greatest symphonic accomplishments. I’ve heard this work many times, most notably from the Chicago Symphony now almost two years ago, in one of the greatest live music experiences I’ve had. Tough act to follow, but it was a blazing, powerful reading. White-hot screaming brass open the work in what is a gripping, hefty first movement, full of all things iconically Tchaikovsky.

The second movement has for me always contained one of the most breathtakingly beautiful melodic lines ever written, the one that strings play in unison. It’s a bit like that feeling when you’re on a plane that’s beginning its descent and your heart feels just a bit like it’s in free-fall, a little gasp, maybe a tingling sensation, if that makes any sense. The pizzicato third movement is always a delight, but I think some of that fine detail may have been lost in some more distant corners of the hall.

Finally, though, the finale, which was disappointingly detached from the previous movement by a small preparatory pause. I’ve not heard it performed that way before, and while it did give a shock to a few in the audience, it wasn’t as effective as it would be were it played attacca. But that’s a small matter. What wasn’t small was the tempo Varga laid down for this finale, faster than I’ve ever heard it played. There’s a ton going on in this finale, and it just might have been fast enough that we couldn’t really take it all in. Ultimately, though, especially if you already know the piece, and most do, the full weight and depth of the final movement was conveyed, as it bears the weight of tying up all the loose ends of this really satisfying cyclically structured symphony. I’m a sucker for that sort of thing, and as matters of interpretation go, as long as that’s accomplished, we’re fine.

Excited to hear how the TSO’s first trip back to America in 20-some-odd years goes, but also looking forward to their return. They gave us three encores, a Tchaikovsky and two local tunes, and if they play anything like they did tonight, they’ll get an equally enthusiastic welcome. I’m sure the acoustics will be better, too.

Bon Voyage. 一路平安. See you all soon.

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