NSO: Osmo Vänskä & Sibelius

featuring 黃心芸 (Hsin-Yun Huang), viola

The dilemma!

There were two concerts this evening, and I really wanted to go to both of them.

If you’ve read any of my other concert reviews, you’ll be aware that we have two major orchestras in Taipei. One is the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO; often referred to outside Taiwan in English as the Taiwan Philharmonic), and the other is the Taipei Symphony Orchestra.

Both of the concerts this evening had really enticing elements.

The Taipei Symphony was presenting at least one Taiwan premiere, Henri Dutilleux’s violin concerto L’arbre des Songes (‘The Tree of Dreams’, not ‘songs’), with Ilya Gringolts as soloist. As if that weren’t enough, their second half was Beethoven’s eighth symphony, the only Beethoven symphony I’ve not yet heard live. A Messiaen piece also appeared on the program.

A little way down the road, at our National Concert Hall, the NSO had famed Finnish Maestro Osmo Vänskä at the helm in a program of Bartók and Sibelius. Aside from the outstanding job the Minnesota Orchestra has done with their Instagram account and takeovers with members of the ensemble, and aside from being able to hear in person a conductor whose recordings I have very much enjoyed, I’ve just started a Finnish series on the blog. What better timing could you want? So that was the deciding factor, although I really wanted to hear Beethoven…

The NSO was giving us Nielsen’s Helios overture, followed by Bartók’s viola concerto with Huang as soloist. After the interval was a a piece called Elegy by Taiwanese composer 楊聰賢 (Tsung-Hsien Yang), in two movements, also for viola, but with strings, harp and percussion. Last on the program was Sibelius’s fifth symphony. So essentially the evening was two viola pieces bookended by two North European composers, and overall a rather nationalistic evening.

I also had occasion to meet a first-time, impulsive concertgoer who happened to be buying her ticket right then and there as I was getting one refunded. We ended up chatting about the program before the concert and during the intermission, and it was, in retrospect, a very interesting one for someone who’s never set foot in the concert hall. We’ll be looking at this evening from a first-timer’s eyes.

Nielsen’s piece, an early-ish work, is “very easy to digest.” As an overture, it doesn’t have any complicated structure or anything too difficult. It’s practically cinema music, but with that distinct Nordic sound. Aside from some intimidating, soft horn entries at the very beginning of the piece, it was pretty easy peasy, nothing too difficult for the orchestra or the audience, and was an excellent beginning to the evening. I’ve got lots of Vänskä’s recordings, but have never seen him conduct. Passionate.

Next was the Bartók, the other piece on the program to which I was looking very forward. To be honest, I don’t know the viola concerto very well, but it’s obviously a very late work, one left unfinished at the composer’s passing, and it’s certainly a challenge for someone who may not have all the background that puts Bartók’s unique voice into context. Huang played it wonderfully, to my ear, and it’s clearly a demanding work, in technique, interpretation, scope… But it is certainly by no means easy listening, and this is amplified in person. It’s the kind of work I’ll likely come to love once I get more familiar with it. His (second) violin concerto and the piano concertos are magnificent works, and I was glad to hear this work live. It’s unmistakably Bartók, and the finale, which tries its best to end on a (more) upbeat (or violent?) note, epitomizes the way I tried to describe Bartók’s music. There’s that messy business of performing versions (tonight’s was Tibor Serly’s) as it was left incomplete, but I don’t know enough about it to comment.

To finish off the first have, we got a bit more Hungarian viola, this time in the form of an encore, the first movement (‘Hora lungă‘) of Ligeti’s sonata for solo viola, and if the concerto wasn’t bleak enough for a first timer, this somber thing (played entirely on the C string, apparently) offered a little more challenge, with some nonstandard pitches, bowing near the bridge, harmonics, but while quite modern, it’s probably a really good introduction to how expressive ‘atonal’ music can be. Hmmmm.

Next was Yang’s piece, Elegy. I felt a little bad for my new concertgoing friend, who does not speak Chinese and had to sit through something like ten minutes of talking about the piece. Ms. Huang spoke with very high regard for the composer of the work, which it seems she premiered (maybe?). It is in commemoration of Taiwan’s February 28 Incident (known locally as 228). As the composer couldn’t make it on stage, the soloist read some notes he gave her, some things he wanted to share about the piece (which was premiered already more than two decades ago). There was a smattering of about half a dozen strings on stage, harp, percussion, and solo viola, so practically a chamber piece, but conducted by Vänskä.

It used the date (2.28.1947) in much the same way Shostakovich uses his DSCH motif throughout his work, as well as groups of 2-2-8 beats, most abrasively by the bass drum throughout the first and longer movement. I must say I wouldn’t have picked up on these motifs had Ms. Huang not mentioned them, and even if given some time to get to know the piece, I’m not sure I would be convinced by it. That being said, it was indeed a dark piece, more chaotic than elegiac, but interesting to have the chance to hear live.

Lastly was the star of the evening. Let me just say it’s so cool to see Vänskä in person. While I haven’t seen him conduct, I very much enjoy the Minnesota Orchestra’s social media presence and the stuff they share, and have many of his recordings.

Sibelius comes at a very interesting time, too, as (spoiler alert) the next two posts on the blog will be Sibelius pieces. But there’s also a danger in coming into the concert hall knowing so well a conductor’s treatment of a composer’s work. Vänskä’s Sibelius cycle with the Lahti Symphony is really wonderful, and he and the Minnesota Orchestra recently performed some Sibelius for the president of Finland, so… he’s kind of a legendary Finnish conductor by this point.

Sibelius’s fifth is one of his best, a majestic, expansive work, a piece of real maturity and power, perhaps also his own ad astra per aspera symphony. Vänskä is a passionate conductor, with knees and elbows and his whole Finnish person involved in the growth and shaping and presentation of this music. As elated as I was to see and hear him, I feel like the orchestra might not have been as much on their game than they were for, say, Mahler 1 a few weeks back. That being said, the performance clearly conveyed the iconic Sibelius sound.

The strongest movement by far was the finale, which drives home its near-transformative, triumphant message by being wholly, sincerely, helplessly compelling, rather than forceful or demanding. There were some magical moments in the second movement, but the finale was the most convincing, and the finality and power of that closing, and pauses that seem to last forever, daring and bold, bring the piece to a heroic fin(n)ish.

I’ll have to check with my regular concertgoing comrades to see how the Taipei Symphony’s concert went. I missed my first chance to hear Beethoven’s wonderful eighth symphony (one of his own favorites) live, but I couldn’t turn down the chance to see Vänskä in the flesh. And I’m glad I did.

Don’t miss a bunch of Finnish stuff in our regularly-scheduled programming, and there are some excellent concerts coming up as the year quickly draws to a close, so do stay tuned for all of that. Nähdään pian!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s