New York Philharmonic in Taipei

featuring Yuja Wang, piano

It seems like the last year or two we haven’t had as many of the big-name, super famous ensembles come through Taipei. The Lucerne Festival Orchestra decided (last minute?) not to come to Taipei, and the Staatskapelle Dresden (I think) was supposed to come some time ago, but didn’t… We had a stint there with Vienna, Berlin and Munich Philharmonics, Chicago Symphony, Philharmonia, and on and on, but nothing for a while.

So imagine my excitement sometime last year when the time finally came to hear yet another of the world’s greatest ensembles in (what is sort of now) my hometown, under their new music director, no less.

The New York Philharmonic and Jaap van Zweden were here for two nights, Saturday and Sunday, with Yuja Wang appearing on both nights. I’d originally planned to go only one of the two nights, but the way the programs worked out, I couldn’t not go to both. Saturday evening gave us Brahms’s first piano concerto, followed by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and the second night was Prokofiev’s third piano concerto with Mahler 5 after the interval.

I feel, honestly, like these are both kind of odd pairings, but in pondering on what would have gone better with either Stravinsky or Mahler (the whole reasons I was really stoked about these programs), it became obvious that it would be quite easy to have a Russian program, with Prokofiev and Stravinsky, and a German-speaking program, with Brahms and Mahler, but this was obviously intentionally not done. What comes before Mahler? Mendelssohn? Mozart? Beethoven? Anywho… Before having attended the Mahler, I also wished they’d played the his sixth. I heard a really superb Mahler 5 recently under Kirill Petrenko, and would love to have another good sixth to look back on, especially considering the incredible level of the stuff Zweden has been doing in Hong Kong and Dallas.

After (during?) an outrageously sleep-deprived weekend, I sat down in the concert hall on Saturday’s program and realized partway through the Brahms first concerto that I may never have heard that work live before. It seems hard to believe, but I think it’s true. I knew for a certainty I’d never heard the Stravinsky live.

Brahms was famously precocious, an overachiever in his early years, and his enormous first concerto, originally conceived potentially as a symphony, shows his compositional chops, sure, but also this kind of youthful bravado, his intensity in being successful and known and accomplished, all of that, which struck me as an interesting thing in Wang’s hands at the piano.

This is now the fourth time I’ve seen her live, and heard her play Tchaikovsky (the second!), Bartok (first), and a collection of Scriabin and Chopin in a solo recital. She has a showy, youthful sort of bravado herself, in part afforded by things like six-inch heels, skirts that barely cover her hip bone, backless dresses (she actually didn’t show much leg Saturday), but there did seem to be an interesting sort of appropriateness to her Brahms. She and Zweden scarcely looked at each other, but moved like this telepathic entity. The first movement, expansive as it is, covered an exhilarating amount of emotional ground, giving glimpses of the maturity we’d hear from the older Bearded Wonder, as well as the kind of fire and oomph that fit so well in Yuja’s hands. The second movement was practically spiritual, with the members playing almost as if in a quartet, looking at and moving with each other, and the finale was much brisker than I’ve heard it, but suitably propulsive, especially after the slightly broader tempo of the opening movement.

I’d be interested to hear Wang play the second Brahms concerto (which I have heard before), as it’s a slightly more mellowed work from a more rounded (and rounder?) Brahms, but besides the exquisite playing of the NY Phil, horns nailing those high solos and the scintillating string sound, I was impressed by Wang’s approach. She gave us two encores, the finale of Prokofiev’s 7th sonata, which is about as close as you get to rock music in a piano sonata written by a Russian composer in 1942, and then her favorite Turkish March encore she always does.

After that was something that… seems like it is an injustice even to try to describe with words. The Brahms roared and swelled and sang and was a very polished, emotive performance, but was positively dainty compared to their Stravinsky, and not just because they’re entirely different pieces.

I went out for drinks with some friends afterward, and felt like I could only describe the performance of Stravinsky’s Rite as… face-melting. It was one of the most intense, primitively raw, but also sensual and colorful experiences I’ve ever had. It was the first time I’ve ever heard the work performed live, and may as well be the last. Sometimes you hear something and know that it’s basically as good as you’ll ever hear it, because it really can’t be topped. Zweden clearly commands the ensemble, has a precise, almost Boulez-like control of fine detail, but also at times barbaric intensity in his handling of a piece like this.

Day 2

The next day would see Prokofiev and Mahler. Again, I’d rather have heard Mahler six, and I’d rather hear… oh, the Schoenberg piano concerto, but maybe not from Wang. In any case, the Prokofiev is much more suitable… or in line with what I feel are her strengths and style of playing. In any case, it was lively and snarky, showy, colorful… one can see how maybe Prokofiev and Stravinsky on the same program would have been a bit much. The outer movements were taken at a pretty serious clip, but the central movement, taken at a kind of seductive slower pace, is only episodically contrasting with the energy of the outer movements. The first movement finishes with the kind of flourish and bang that should excite and wow, and I did need a deep breath after it was finished. The loser sitting next to me who slept (and snored intermittently) through entire concert kept sleeping. How could you?

A new acquaintance of mine remarked at how the Stravinsky must have been suitable for an American orchestra like the NYP, because it’s so wild and colorful, and I thought about that statement as we heard the Prokofiev, and while it’s not in an identifiably American idiom, it’s certainly a remarkable piece, perhaps his most-played concerto, and Yuja handled the fireworks coolly and commandingly. Our first and only encore from her was the Tritsch-Tratsch Polka (Strauss II/Cziffra), and she sort of made it clear she wasn’t excited about more encores, so that was it. I don’t disapprove.

And then there was Mahler.

The real entire whole reason I went to that evening, not that I wouldn’t have if they’d played something else, but if we’d gotten like, I dunno, another Beethoven 3 or… well, most anything I guess I’d have gone to at least one night, but I really did wish they’d played the sixth.

Mahler, though.

Zweden has such a presence on the podium. Some conductors have a presence that makes them an equal, a co-conspirator with the ensemble, a team player. Others (no surprise) drink in the spotlight and the fame and all the rest, to (my) general disdain, but Zweden is in the sweet spot, I feel, and it’s evident in a piece as enormous and expressive and vast as Mahler 5. The man knows exactly what he wants, there’s no question of the direction we’re headed, but he’s not tyrannical (at least in concert). He seems in complete control at every step, and obviously the NY Phil is one of the best bands in the world, so… it’s good Mahler.

If you haven’t listened to his Mahler 3 with the Dallas Symphony, or some of his recent Bruckner, or the Ring Cycle with the Hong Kong Phil, you should. It gave me a good sense that his Mahler would be solid. He knows the idiom. The first two movements played off each other fabulously, and in most cases, Zweden gives barely enough pause for the players to flip pages before continuing, so MI and MII were nearly one entity, after the thunderously loud pizzicato. The third movement is a substantial one, more than just a scherzo. It covers a lot of ground, and after the triumph and tragedy of the first two movements, the lightness and even humor of the scherzo was underlined, leading to what the aforementioned associate felt was a ‘slightly cool’ reading of the adagietto, but certainly, thankfully, nothing like the 13-14 minute funereal readings from some conductors. Zweden and the NY-ers took 10 minutes to finish the movement, and the horn solo that heralds the arrival of the finale wasn’t a quiet call as if from a distance…

… but like tearing through a curtain announcing what really is one of the most celebratorily positive movements Mahler ever wrote. The eighth is full of joy and positivity, but in a reverent, spiritual way, an otherworldly kind of …. enlightening joy. This finale is just… fun. I had goosebumps through the adagietto, with the suppleness of the strings and crystalline clarity, but that same clarity in a very different atmosphere shows us the brilliance of Mahler’s writing, with contrapuntal textures and his sort of newfound voice in music.

Anyway, like I said to some friends this weekend about Saturday, it seems like such an exercise in futility to try to describe something so emotional, so subjective, so artistic and ephemeral…. and yet I’m now at 1,600 words of having tried to do so. The ultimate takeaway is that the NY Phil has a personality all its own, unique from the other best orchestras on earth, and with Zweden at the helm, playing the way they did here, on their last stop of what must have been an exhausting Asian tour, there are great things on the way.

You had to be there.

Stay tuned for more concert reviews as I find myself finally back in the concert hall again. Thanks so much for reading.


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