LISTENING TO TAIWAN
National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra
Victoria Concert Hall
Sunday (3 April 2016)
This review was published in The Straits Times on 5 April 2016 with the title "Dazzling musical treat ... with joyous finale".
The National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra (NTSO), based in Taichung, is a proud ambassador of Taiwanese musical heritage. What else would explain the fact that four out of six works performed in its two-day Singapore tour were by Taiwanese composers. Conducted by its former Music Director Chien Wen-Pin, Taiwan's oldest orchestra (founded in 1945) gave an excellent account of its pedigree.
The evening opened rowdily with Chung Yiu-Kwong's Festive Celebration, originally a work for percussion but later arranged for wind band, and orchestra. Raucously rhythmic, drums and brass went on overdrive but retaining the essence of the popular Wild Dance Of Golden Snakes by Nie Er, who also composed the Chinese National Anthem, March Of The Volunteers.
Putting politics aside, this was a impressive display of orchestral cohesion in a frenetic piece of music, but this soon cooled down for Tyzen Hsiao's Violin Concerto in D major with Tseng Yu-Chien (1st Prizewinner of the 1st Singapore International Violin Competition in 2015) as soloist. Composed in the late 1980s and premiered by Lin Cho-Liang, it hardly sounds more modern than anything written a century before.
Hsiao's idiom is unapologetically Romantic, using melodies of faintly Chinese countenance and minimal pentatonics. Lovers of concertos by Bruch, Glazunov and Wieniawski would have much to enjoy here, not least in the virtuosic 1st movement cadenza and movie music-like slow movement.
The busy finale owes much to the corresponding movement of Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto and a brief but curious episode pairing violin and solo harp which reminded one of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. Tseng's expressive and virtuoso qualities provided a prime outing for the work, and the string wallow continued in his encore, the slow movement from Bach's Unaccompanied Second Sonata.
Further proof of the orchestra's prowess came in Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, with an unfussed and breezy account. The 1st movement's slow introduction was arresting in its delivery, paving the way for the unbridled vigour of the ensuing Vivace. A full-bodied sonority filled the hall, dominated by lushness in the strings, and the taut pacing of the symphony carried through its four movements.
Without a true slow movement, the Allegretto served as a surrogate by being only less brisk. Its variations and fugue were very clearly rolled out and there was to be no lingering about. Quick reflexes and pin-point accuracy accounted for the bounding dance of the 3rd movement's Presto, while all stops were pulled for the joyous finale.
Deemed the “apotheosis of the dance”, there was no way one could take that too literally unless seriously punch-drunk. The furious pace was upped, and then some more; the orchestra responded brilliantly, with a vivid incisiveness matching Chien's unerringly exacting beat.
This life-affirming account was heartily received, garnering a standing ovation from segments of the audience. The encore was a Taiwanese cradle song, sumptuously arranged for strings, providing a fitting send-off by a gleaming gem of an orchestra.