Maestro Henry Mazer doesn't talk when he's conducting. And he doesn't stop the flow of music for anything. He is nicknamed "cobra eyes" for his intense, sharp gaze that fixes on any musician who plays an errant note during rehearsal.
Intimidating? Not at all. For musicians at the Taipei Sinfonietta & Philharmonic Orchestra, music director and conductor Mazer is why they enjoy playing music so much. He doesn't impose his own standards. He doesn't put the musicians down. He doesn't create tension or stress.
"I believe in making them play. I don't like to force anything. They know what I want and I know what they can do," says Mazer, the music director and conductor of Taiwan's most successful orchestra.
A music critic once described Mazer as "an amusingly crusty character," which in some way is similar to the conductor's favorite cartoon character, Garfield. Anecdotes abound about the man, with a particular favorite being one about when Mazer first came to Taiwan in 1975. Living in Kaohsiung, he first led the city's orchestra. Whenever his musicians played badly during rehearsals, he would turn and bow to a picture of Sun Yat-sen or Chiang Kai-shek and humorously lament: "I am sorry to let you listen to this, sir."
At the age of 80, and after a lifetime of conducting, he says he feels like the luckiest man in the world. "I have had the most successful career here," says Mazer, who for a long time assisted American conductors William Steinberg and Georg Solti before taking the helm here.
The group Mazer leads is something to be proud of. It is by far the only private orchestra that usually packs the concert hall and it has enjoyed generous praise from international critics when on tour.
WHAT: An Evening of Beethoven (貝多芬之夜)
WHO: Taipei Sinfonietta & Philharmonic Orchestra; Henry Mazer, conductor; Chen Pi-hsien, pianist
WHEN: Sunday, 7:30pm
WHERE: National Concert Hall, 21 Chungshan S Rd (中山南路21號, 國家音樂廳); tel 2343-1364.
TICKETS: NT$250 to NT$1200. Get them at the concert hall or at ERA ticket outlets.
After a Boston performance in 1995, The Boston Globe recognized the orchestra as "extremely well trained by Mazer," and said the musicians "play with glowing sound, precision of intonation, absolute unanimity of impulse and rare commitment."
These days the humorous conductor is in an agile mood, which shows in the music he chose for Sunday's concert. It's all Beethoven, but Beethoven in happier times. "An evening of Beethoven" will highlight the composer's Symphony No 7 in A Major and Concerto for Piano No 4 in G Major. Both the conductor's favorite pieces, the symphony is happy, light and fun, and the piano concerto is easy-going and lovely.
Pianist Chen Pi-shien (陳必先) is another catch of the concert. She is very familiar to local classical music fans as an extremely hardworking and talented musician. Having been a resident of Germany for 41 years, Chen always appears quite nostalgic when she's back in town. She is contemporary in many ways, in terms of technique and spirit, and she is devoted to giving classical music a new life by imbuing it with modern interpretation.
As the biggest private orchestra in Taiwan, the Taipei orchestra is a major task for anyone to try to keep alive.