NSO’s 2018 Season Opener

featuring Arabella Steinbacher, violin

Well, it’s certainly been quite some time since we did this, hasn’t it? The last one was a couple of months ago, but before that… was another couple of months of not much concertgoing.

It seemed like just a month or so ago that I was sitting down to talk about how the NSO’s opening concert for 2017 and the all-Mozart program mirrored the one that the Berlin Philharmonic did five or six years ago, and here we are at yet another concert opener. I must say I’m far more excited about this one. That’s not to say that I wasn’t excited about Mozart; it was blissfully refreshing and pure, but I knew I’d be experiencing tonight something I hadn’t ever before. More on that in a moment.

The evening began with the world premiere of a commission from the NSO for a piece from Lily Chen (陳立立) entitled Glittering Across the Ocean (彼岸星潭). Of the piece, Chen, who earned her Ph.D from UC Berkeley, says:

Glittering Across the Ocean compiles my impressions and imaginations about the ocean as well as conveys the nostalgia and concern I feel for Taiwan while living across the Pacific in West Coast of the United States… This piece starts with diverse images of the ocean, its starlit splendor, its billowing tides, its shimmering waves on the ocean surface… I employ harmonics, trills, vibrations, resonances, subtle but complex textural and timbral changes…

More about Chen can be found on her website. This is not the first time I’ve heard one of her pieces premiered.

While the piece was interesting, and not unenjoyable, I do wonder about the longevity of all the extended techniques and sounds and whether that’s just a fad, this obsession with unique, or interesting, sounds and what its value is, the questions about ‘is it music?’ and all the rest. The association with the ocean may of course call Debussy’s La Mer to mind, but this very modern idiom is not for everyone. It was an interesting piece, but I was certainly intrigued or perplexed more than moved.

Next on the program was Bruch’s first violin concerto, in G minor, featuring Arabella Steinbacher, who was making her Taiwan debut. I didn’t really have much of anything resembling an impression of Steinbacher before this concert, having never seen or heard her play, but having certainly heard her name. That, coupled with the popularity of the Bruch concerto, meant I wasn’t as excited about this part of the program as I clearly should have been.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather listen to to Bruch on repeat for weeks (or go have a root canal while waiting at the DMV) than listen to another live performance of the Mendelssohn concerto, but It is by no means a go-to. I’d love to hear Berg, Britten, Bartók, maybe even another composer whose name doesn’t begin with B, but I am certainly not holding my breath for Schoenberg.

In any case, Steinbacher was superb, as was the orchestra. A lot can change over a summer, and a lot has, so a performance like this, on opening night, sets the tone for the season, and I was curious to see if anything was different. I’m not really all that familiar with the Bruch in that I’ve not compared recordings or anything, but if that version with the NSO and Steinbacher and Maestro Lu was the only one I could ever listen to ever again, I’d be happy. I just couldn’t fault it for any reason. Steinbacher’s sound with that Booth Stradivarius (1716) she plays was nothing short of heavenly, and those first two tied-together movements drew me, a not-unwilling participant, into the work, and by the time the finale came around, I was a big fan.

Steinbacher gave us an encore, the first movement of Ysaÿe’s op. 27 solo violin sonata, and it was rapturous. The Bruch concerto is virtuosic no doubt, but the Ysaÿe was jaw-dropping. What a treat to have Steinbacher with us for such a good show. The concerto itself may not be any special treat, even if Joachim called it “The richest, the most seductive,” of the ‘four German concertos,’ but Steinbacher and the NSO made it a spectacular performance.

The real draw, though, the real reason I’d have gone to this concert even had it not been the season opener, was the second half, with Shostakovich’s fourth symphony. I cannot express to how pleasing it is that it was this piece chosen to be featured on the season opener. The NSO did a spectacular Shosty 11 a few months ago, one of the best performances I’ve heard from them, and the fourth tonight was a stunning continuation of his cycle.

It is, like much of Shostakovich’s work, a piece of abject tragedy where even the glimmers of hope are unsettling. It’s in a particular place, a unique time in his output that means he was still young(er) and daring and even radical. It’s such an odd piece, really, and someone somewhere said it could rightly be considered a concerto for orchestra with the abundance of solos, not just from violin or horn, but tons from bassoon, as well as bass clarinet, trombone, piccolo, trumpet, really every instrument at some point has one, and the NSO did justice to them. It wasn’t just technically well done, though, it was sternum-crackingly terrifying.

We’re talking Schoenberg’s Survivor from Warsaw level intensity, Mahler 6, the kind of music that is so forceful, not just in volume but emotional power, that it has an imposing, palpable, physical mass. It’s a piece that doesn’t so much take you on a journey or any trajectory like Beethoven or Mahler, but just kind of spiraling downward. It’s outstandingly potent, and Lu has shown time and again that his interpretations of Shostakovich, at least to my ear, convey that uncomfortable power in a very effective way. There were multiple times, although not too many, where you thought there could certainly not be any more to give, in passion or intensity, or just sheer volume, but Lu and the NSO would prove you wrong, and it left me worried that things (like instruments, my eardrums, the building) would start breaking if they went much further.

Spectacular. To be honest, the fourth is not a work I’m nearly as familiar with as with his other symphonies, and while it’s a perplexing piece, one that seems on paper like it just shouldn’t work, it’s captivating and piercing, and communicates extremely well.

Lu and the NSO will be doing Shostakovich’s seventh in May of 2019, which I am very much looking forward to. With that one marked off, there’ll only be five more of his symphonies to hear live (2, 3, 12, 13, 14, I think).

What a way to begin the season. I think it will be a good one. Thanks so much for reading, and see you next time.

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One thought on “NSO’s 2018 Season Opener

  1. Funnily enough, I found myself musing on the topic of extended technique on a comments board for (UK newspaper) The Guardian just recently. By pure chance, I’ve ended up living a stone’s throw from one of the big international contemporary music festivals, and…

    …the real cliché du jour for pieces receiving their premiere there is extended technique as an end in itself, i.e. find a funny noise for your chosen instrument(s) to make and then repeat it for five-to-ten (or, if you really want to test the audience’s collective patience, double that) minutes, with little variation and no attempt to make what you’re writing go anywhere through development, etc. I guess every generation has its crop of composers aiming to garner maximum plaudits for “cleverness” with minimum effort; IMHO, that’s what the current lot are writing.

    [This was in response to a fellow commenter who argued that audiences had grown sick of contemporary music that was “tuneless, endlessly dissonant, with a strong diet of minor 2nds and major 7ths, doing that clichéd arch thing that new pieces like to do – start quiet, some fluttery stuff in the strings and grunts in the brass, built up, crash about for a bit, wind down, applause”. I countered this by saying that that kind of thing was simply what mainstream programmers felt they could get away with in order to tick the “contemporary” box while still keeping their regulars on board, and that most of the stuff I’d heard at HCMF wasn’t like that at all.]

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