Two Taipei concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra (國家交響樂團) this month, one tonight, the other on 15 May, will be conducted by Gunther Herbig. He was a stalwart supporter of the orchestra back in the days when it had no music director, and is today a welcome return visitor.
Each concert will feature a violin concerto played by a guest solo violinist. Tonight’s concerto will be given by the young Latvian soloist Baiba Skride. Her German counterpart Viviane Hagner, playing on May 15, is even more prestigious, with a huge range of orchestras and conductors she’s performed with already under her belt.
Tonight’s event begins with Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave (celebrating a joint Russian/pan-Slavic military enterprise, and nothing to do with slaves). Then, after Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto, we will hear what’s arguably Tchaikovsky’s greatest hit, his Sixth Symphony (Pathetique).
It’s interesting to read that the late Ian MacDonald, celebrated commentator on pop greats as well as the classics (he published books on both Shostakovich and the Beatles) thought that this Prokofiev concerto contained coded references to the oppressive policies of Josef Stalin. This loses a lot of its credibility when you remember that MacDonald also thought that many of Shostakovich’s works contained the same secret message. In both cases the argument falls flat when you consider that there would be little point in such messages if audiences couldn’t be relied on to understand them, and that if audiences understood them, then so would Stalin’s secret police.
Admittedly Prokofiev was living in Paris at the time he wrote his concerto, but the whole reason for its populist style, according to other critics, was that he was preparing the ground for a return to the USSR. Any attack on the leader would have ensured a bullet in the back of the neck on arrival.
Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique has been represented as an expression of his self-pity as a gay in imperial Russia, a suicide note, and a radical piece of symphony-making by someone who could pen great tunes but was not much of a hand at working out development sections. Either way, it was first performed a week before his death to general puzzlement, then again immediately after it to ostentatious public grief. Life had finally taught the Russian concertgoers, you might think, precisely how they ought to feel about their beloved composer’s final statement.
The concert on Sunday May 15 begins with Brahms’s Tragic Overture, proceeds to Berg’s Violin Concerto, and concludes with Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.
Nowadays the Tragic Overture is believed to be an evocation of tragedy in general, not an overture to a specific theater text as some older critics had argued. As for Berg’s 1935 Violin Concerto, it was written to commemorate Mahler’s stepdaughter, who had died aged 19, and the architect and Bauhaus pioneer Walter Gropius. It’s distinguished for combining the supposedly emotionless 12-tone style with music that’s obviously a heartfelt lament, and it even contains echoes of a famous cantata by J.S. Bach. Berg himself, however, was also to prove a premature victim of mortality, and he never lived to hear his now well-known concerto performed.
Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, by contrast, can be guaranteed to cheer anyone up, and it will hopefully end the afternoon program with appropriately spring-like warmth and radiance.