The National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra (NTSO, 國立臺灣交響樂團) played an uneven program about Gustav Mahler’s marriage last week at the National Concert Hall, featuring two orchestral arrangements and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.
The concept behind Love and Death-X “Gustav and Alma (愛與死-X “艾瑪與古斯塔夫的倆人世界”) is to celebrate the brew of feelings between Mahler and his wife, Alma nee Schindler, who was a beauty and a talent in her own right.
Taiwan-trained composer Chen Shu-si (陳樹熙) conducted two of his own orchestral arrangements on the love story: a vocal piece backed by strings and a concerto on the guqin (古琴), a Chinese zither. These concept arrangements were short, almost perfunctory. The opening Wie Ich dich liebe... (我愛你有多深…) clocked in at four minutes, while the guqin stretched out the concert for another 20 minutes before intermission. In between the music, there was guqin setup, the slow addition of chairs, curtain calls, onstage handshakes and formalized bouquet presentations for a revolving door of guests — mezzo-soprano Chen Pei-chi (陳珮琪), Zhao Xiaoxia (趙曉霞) and then the conductor — after they barely warmed the stage.
These breaks made the evening’s first half hard to love, though there were moments in the performance that provoked a lot of thought, particularly in the concerto. Chen’s A Journey to Mountain Lang-yei (琅琊行) is his acoustic metaphor for Chinese mores, which he has named before as decorum and harmony. Though his concerto’s second movement is ostensibly about drunkenness, every lyrical burst sounds bridled under the soloist’s elegant fingertips, making you suspect that you could be a better person if you, too, played the guqin.
To keep the guqin audible, Chen had kept Zhao on an amp and the strings under martial restraint. It felt like a surprise after intermission when the Taichung-based orchestra stepped into the spotlight with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.
Performed in its entirety, the Fifth Symphony is the only unmodified work on the special program, so it was easier to hear errors. Right from trumpet fanfare, bleary playing suggested the ensemble was being pushed a few inches past ability. Still, theirs was a winsome performance, the best of the night. Guest conductor Jose Luis Gomez from Venezuela is a non-bully who directs with big, clear, playful oscillations, which the orchestra reacted well to. In the Scherzo, the principal hornist is velvety and untiring in what is one of the most challenging solos for the instrument ever written, and the strings get more nuanced with each quavery iteration of the waltz theme. In the fifth movement, there is nothing contrived or held back about this orchestra as it strives toward a gorgeous cumulative coda of fugal motifs, capping off a concert that started off noncommittal but pulled it together at the end.