Gewandhausorchester Leipzig in Taiwan

with Leonidas Kavakos under Herbert Blomstedt

Well, add one more to the list.

Yet another world-class orchestra comes through Taipei, with a world-class conductor and soloist.

I’ll be honest. When I heard about this concert many months ago, my first thought was that I hope Blomstedt, who very recently just turned 90 years old, is still up for the flight to Asia when November rolls around, and was he ever.

Leonidas Kavakos first performed with an orchestra in Taiwan just over a year ago, with our very own NSO. I’m not sure how long ago the Gewandhaus was last here, but they left Japan earlier in the week and gave their first concert last night, which I was unfortunately unable to attend. That program was made up of the Brahms violin concerto and Schubert’s ninth symphony, and from the way things went this evening, I’m sure it was superb.

On the roster tonight, we had Mendelssohn’s violin concerto followed by Bruckner 7 after the interval, and believe me, I have things to say about both.

I know it’s Joachim’s “heart’s jewel” and everything, but I’ll be honest and say that i would almost rather hear any other concerto aside from Mendelssohn’s with this spectacular bunch, perhaps with the exception of Tchaikovsky, Bruch or Stravinsky. Shots fired.

However, as lukewarm as I am about the Mendelssohn, I must say that with Kavakos, Blomstedt and the Gewandhaus, it’s probably the best Mendelssohn I’ll ever hear, live or otherwise. It was a pristine, spirited performance. As with the Korngold he performed with us last year, Kavakos seems always a little subdued in his movements. I’m not complaining; I hate the showy swaying and head jerking and hand flailing, the performance equivalent of a Martina Hingis wail, but it’s interesting to hear such expressive, passionate, virtuosic music played by someone who is just standing there, seemingly calm and outwardly almost without expression. Every ounce of it comes out in the music.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the Gewandhaus sound is warm and supple and lithe, but it was somehow more than that, as was Kavakos. The pianos were sublimely soft, not just quiet, and even from my front-row perch on the upper level of the concert hall, the sound was perfectly, vividly clear, like someone whispering in your ear rather than speaking from some distance away, like wafts of the sweet fragrance of honeysuckle carried by a cool breeze in the forest. I know how utterly cliche that sounds, but I find the Mendelssohn a bit saccharine to begin with, so embrace the cliche.

This was especially noticeable in the finale, where the solo violin has some delicate dialogue with the woodwinds in more transparent passages, and the effect was again magical, one of softness but perfect clarity, full of color, and overall more humor than I remember having heard before. They probably ruined the Mendelssohn for me, since I don’t care for it much to begin with and may only ever be convinced by this performance (or else just not care enough to find another one I like).

Kavakos gave us the same Bach encore that Gil Shaham gave back in July when he came to play a Prokofiev concerto. Kavakos gave that one encore, and I was so proud of him for not caving to the pressure of prolonged and fervent applause. He took a deep bow and gave a nod to the concertmaster, and it was time for a potty break.

The real star of the show, for me and at least a few of my fellow concertgoers, was the second half, but far more than half if we count by playing time. I have just very recently checked off having heard all of Mahler’s (completed) symphonies live (i.e. with the notable exception of no. 10), but Bruckner will prove to be a bit harder, especially considering that his time has really not yet come in Taiwan, although it may be soon.

The late Bruckner symphonies get most of the attention, along with the fourth, but I’ve yet to hear the ninth live. In any case, of any living conductor, I don’t know that I’d rather hear Bruckner live from anyone else.

Let me also impress upon you that I sometimes forget simple things like whether or not I did the thing I did just five minutes ago, and here’s a 90-year-old man conducting a 70ish minute symphony from memory.

Even from my seat, it is obvious that Blomstedt’s hands are those of a man his age, likely with arthritis, but the power they pulled out of the ensemble was jaw-dropping. From the first few opening bars, I had the disturbing thought that as I grow older, I might find myself preferring Bruckner’s work over Mahler’s; I’ve always been in the latter’s camp. But there’s something so grandiose and epic and overwhelming about Bruckner’s music, and yet equally, especially as compared with Mahler, somehow so introspective and inward, almost spiritual, lofty, elevated.

There are challenges galore with interpreting Bruckner’s music, and I don’t pretend to be any authority, but with things like unprepared modulations, the truly enormous structure of the individual movements and the piece as a whole, the sometimes shocking contrasts of all kinds, it can be a real task to shape and present and form the music in a way that accents all of these and is coherent and engaging and propulsive.

And again, it should come as no surprise that Blomstedt really knows what he’s doing with Bruckner. He was the music director of the Gewandhaus at the turn of the century, but listening to them tonight, it felt like he’d never left. The rapport they have, understanding his gestures, his compelling vision for the overall work, made for a stunning reading.

Like I was saying, from the first bars, I was captivated. The warmth and bigness and richness of the orchestra, like some kind of monster rising from the depths, draws the audience into the already massive first movement. The second movement, the jewel in this symphony’s crown, was epiphanic. Tears were shed by at least a few, and Blomstedt shapes and caresses the curvatures and swells of the music, nearly unbearably beautiful and crushingly tragic.

But we don’t get too sentimental for too long, even if those first two movements got us up around the 50-minute mark. The scherzo brought a quick change of pace that still somehow maintained the mood of the previous movement, and the finale was soul-shaking in the gargantuan, almighty roars in the climaxes of the finale.

This isn’t background music. Listeners have to appreciate the pacing and unfolding of the work, like the plot of an epic novel, and when it’s presented with the charisma and deep understanding that Blomstedt has, it’s revelatory. In the past, when our NSO has presented Bruckner, they didn’t even try to sell the upper floor of the concert hall, due to previous ticket sales of programs on which his name appears. However, with a nearly-full hall tonight, I imagine there must have been at least a few converts.

It’s just really big, and you have to let yourself be overwhelmed a bit. Again, it won’t be so easy to top that Bruckner. My fellow concertgoer for the evening, who is at times discouragingly critical of much music, shed tears this evening and spoke excitedly and extremely positively, and for good reason.

But some people need to learn that it’s practically sacrilegious to yell ‘Bravo’ for at least the first five seconds or so after a performance of this caliber finishes. Enjoy that magical moment of awe.

That’s it for now, but we’ve got a special guest conductor next week who I’m very excited to see, so do stay tuned for that, and thank you very much for reading. I’m off to buy some Blomstedt.

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