When I asked Lu Shao-chia (呂紹嘉) over a year ago whether he’d be interested in becoming the new music director of Taiwan’s National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) he said that he was extremely busy in Germany and that, if such an offer were made, he’d have a lot of things to consider. But last week he was announced as the heir to Chien Wen-pin (簡文彬) in exactly this position.
So presumably he’s thought and thought and finally decided that it’s possible. Chien himself spent half of every year away, also in Germany, and it seems likely that some such provision has also been made in Lu’s contract. But the NSO administration understandably hasn’t made any such details public.
“The musicians are happy with this choice,” I was told. “He’s the natural successor to Chien since they are the only two local conductors who possess the skills required for the job. Their styles are very different, though.
“They do have things in common — both from the same generation, both students of former Taipei Symphony Orchestra maestro Chen Chiu-sheng (陳秋盛), both superb opera conductors, both with acclaimed careers in Germany — and that’s a sure proof of ability in anyone.
“But basically Chien is more angular and precise, Lu more flowing and with an eye on the long-term musical structure. It really can be heard in performance, even though things may look the same. But that’s the magic of music-making.”
Lu will begin as music director designate in August. He’ll give three concerts and lead the NSO on its Hong Kong tour in November. He’ll then start a five-year contract as music director in August 2010.
The NSO has had a long search for a new leader since Chien’s departure in July 2007. At one point, two finalists in an audition process gave public concerts, but neither was appointed. Gunther Herbig has acted as a bridge-figure, but everyone will be relieved that this long wait has finally ended with a widely welcomed choice.
The NSO under Chien made a name for itself in opera, introducing many famous works to Taiwan for the first time. There are high expectations that this tradition will be continued under Lu. As general music director of the Hanover State Opera from 2001 to 2006 he conducted a wide range of operas including Aida, Tristan und Isolde, The Marriage of Figaro, Wozzeck, Pelleas et Melisande, Rosenkavalier, Salome, Elektra, The Makropolos Case and Jenufa, and he’s recently conducted Madame Butterfly for Opera Australia and Katya Kabanova with Sweden’s Gothenburg Opera. Taiwan, it seems, has a lot to look forward to.
One of the best places to listen to Lu’s work with the NSO is on two promotional CDs entitled NSO Live. These weren’t issued for public sale but are easily available via the orchestra. They’re recordings taken from public concerts, and the longer of the two features Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 and Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life). Both are absolutely fabulous. The Strauss tone-poem displays a marvelous orchestral balance and delicacy, while the Shostakovich symphony is an exceptionally powerful and thoughtful account of an oft-denigrated work. The other CD contains the fourth movements of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony and the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9.
First and foremost, these CDs display how well the NSO plays under Lu’s direction. But they also show Lu’s independence of mind. Ein Heldenleben is sometimes considered as a display piece, but Lu makes it a sensitive and almost introverted work. And Shostakovich’s Fourth, rarely highly regarded, is treated as a profound piece of soul-searching.
Lu was born in Taiwan, studied music in Taipei, and continued his education in Bloomington, Indiana, and at Vienna’s College of Music. He then won first prize in conducting competitions in Amsterdam, Besancon, France, and Trento, Italy. He consolidated this promising beginning by working largely in Germany, in many ways classical music’s high temple. A major post was in Koblenz where he was appointed music director in 1998.
He continued orchestral and operatic conducting in Berlin, Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Munich, as well as in London and Brussels. All in all, Taiwan is lucky to get him back.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, the Taipei Symphony Orchestra (TSO) has been less successful in its search for a new music director. Martin Fischer-Dieskau was never confirmed in the post, despite announcements of his victory in the contest for the job and a never-to-be-forgotten operatic double-bill of Il Segreto di Susanna and Gianni Schicchi in September. He continues as visiting conductor, but his plans for a centenary production of Strauss’ 1909 opera Elektra have sadly been abandoned.
It would appear, therefore, that appointing music directors in Taiwan’s crowded classical music scene is not without its difficulties. The NSO management is thus to be congratulated in having, albeit after many delays, negotiated the stormy waters, and with such palpable success.
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