Thomas Hampson in Taiwan

with the NSO under Kahchun Wong

It’s all Mahler tonight. Another performance of Mahler’s first.

But that wasn’t the only first on the program.

The terribly charming, famous, and very talented Thomas Hampson made his very first visit to our little island in the Pacific, and what better premiere performance could one want, especially from Hampson, than Mahler?

He’s full of charisma and charm and confidence, poise, and talent, but also showed himself to be very friendly. We wouldn’t know until the second half, though.

The program revealed that, contrary to common practice, the symphony would be first on the program, followed by Hampson singing most of Des Knaben Wunderhorn. I think this was perhaps in an effort to prevent people from leaving after Hampson had finished and clearing out before the symphony. Who knows?

This marks the fourth time (or more?) I’ve heard Mahler’s first live. It’s almost his smallest symphony, give or take about as long as the fourth, probably a bit shorter, but with a larger orchestra, but also with no vocalist. So it gets programmed more readily than many of the others.

In any case, it’s very likely you know Hampson’s name, but the big question mark on the program, seeing as I know our NSO very well, was this young conductor, Kahchun Wong. If you’re like me, you’ve never heard of the young man who hails from Singapore, and I was a little hesitant to be too excited about Mahler under a stranger’s baton, but go give a little read at his bio, and you’ll be impressed.

And it showed in his handling of the program tonight. A good reading of a piece doesn’t need to go out of its way to be wildly, earth-shatteringly, mold-breakingly different, especially when it’s as unique as Mahler’s first symphony is, and Wong’s interpretation of the work did the piece all the justice it deserved, while being in no way bland. He brought the orchestra to life in a reading that I dare say was head and shoulders above the NSO’s last performance of the piece.

The first movement was ethereal and eerily still in all the right places, but chirped and warmed to life in a manner that was not just the first movement, but the first chapter of the overall journey the work obviously ends up being in a good performance. The second movement was one of the crunchiest, most spirited I’ve heard, and Wong did some dancing and moving of his own. I can’t be sure if he was leading the orchestra or reveling in their sound, but the result was exhilarating for sure. The third movement’s funeral march and klezmer music were as somber and wild as they should have been, and the tempo never dragged. The finale, though, is where Mahler really gets down to business and gives us a respectably amazing symphonic movement, with a superb structure not only unto itself but to tie the entire work together.

Wong’s reading highlighted all of this, and his phrasing and treatment of all the turns and forward motion of the piece were seamless, a very convincing reading. The NSO played quite well, and with the exception of a blip or two, they sounded really great. I did a very scientific poll and asked some of my fellow concertgoers for their rating of the first half out of 100, and they averaged out at about 91, so that’s pretty great. It was a very solid performance, but one did kind of feel, after that momentous, climactic, chest-rattling closing gesture of the symphony that that’s the kind of high you want to end the evening on, but instead, we were awkwardly at intermission.

And then Hampson came out, like a silver fox Bruce Springsteen, but in an immaculate, very fancy tuxedo, coat tails and all, and began the Mahler with a much smaller orchestra than we’d had before the half.

  1. Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt
  2. Rheinlegendchen
  3. Lied des Verfolgten im Turm
  4. Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen 
  5. Das irdische Leben
  6. Das himmlische Leben
  7. Urlicht

The second of two encores was Lob des hohen Verstandes, the one with the cuckoos and the jackass with the giant ears.

Listening to Mahler’s early songs after becoming so very thoroughly familiar with his symphonies makes the early, smaller works sound like a Mahler mashup. Little things here and there are different, and we can see how he adapted them to the orchestra or changed them at will without revising the earlier works.

Hampson has a lovely voice, but I wish I’d sat a little closer. The first few songs saw him a bit quiet, struggling a bit to get over the orchestra, or else just settling very much into the orchestra. By the third, and in all the other softer, more delicate moments, he shone beautifully and warmly. In the pauses between the first few songs he cleared his throat a few times and seemed to drink copious amounts of water, but it seemed he only got more comfortable as the program went on.

Possibly the two most delicate songs were the last, about heaven and ‘primal light,’ and he always had a very delicate touch, as would be expected, but I’d loved to have heard him in a more intimate setting. After the program proper was over, we got two encores, also all Mahler, and he seemed much more at ease in these two, perhaps no longer needing to restrain himself after having sung the whole program. He seemed far more comfortable, addressed the audience graciously and politely, thanked us, said it was delightful to be here, and even had a humorous interaction with a few of the audience members when an usher asked them not to take photographs (which is very not cool here but people are either just wholly disrespectful or ignorant… or both). Wong got a selfie with Hampson and the orchestra, and then they turned around to get one with the audience.

An evening of Mahler, with our own NSO, the very charming Hampson, and excitingly promising Wong… very nice indeed. And looking back, Hampson’s ending the program rather than Mahler’s first was a friendly, warm way to walk out of the concert hall.

I’d gotten to thinking about how long it’s been since I’d been in that concert hall… but there’s another concert coming up next week, and it’s a big one, so stay tuned for that, and see you next time.

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