REVIEW / CONCERT
LISTENING TO TAIWAN
National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra: Chien Wen-pin (conductor), Chen Chung-shen (bamboo flute)
Victoria Concert Hall/Last Saturday
Taking their places on stage a full seven minutes before their Singapore debut concert, members of the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra looked out on a sea of empty seats.
Nobody had warned them that, unlike boarding buses and the MRT, some Singaporeans regard it as a matter of pride to be the last ones to enter the concert hall.
As it was, a respectable-sized audience was mostly in position by the time Chien Wen-pin came on stage to conduct Chien Nan- chang's Dragon Dance.
Composed in 1985 for a performance in Munich, this dazzling piece should be in the repertory of every orchestra.
It fills its nine minutes with an invigorating, driving momentum running around the entire orchestra in a breathtaking exhibition of collective and individual virtuosity. It was the perfect calling card for what is clearly a very fine orchestra.
The usual crop of audience members making their entrance after the concert had started may have missed one treat, but they were in for another.
Ma Shui-long's Concerto maintained the high-octane, unflagging energy of Chien's Dragon Dance and involved many instruments playing very loudly indeed.
One wondered how a sole flute would fare against such heavy orchestral forces.
But unlike its Western counterpart, the bangdi (bamboo flute) can cut a swathe through even the densest orchestral jungle with its sharp, piercing tone. Add to that Chen Chung-shen's own forceful musical personality and the result was quite extraordinary.
Chen fizzed with energy, spitting out such a sharp-edged staccato that one was tempted to seek cover from these flying shards of sound.
He emerged from the Concerto victorious and celebrated with an outrageously entertaining encore which had the audience enraptured.
His absence from the concert's second half may have been why a fair chunk of the audience decided not to stay after the interval. It was their loss.
Brahms' First Symphony is a well-worn concert staple.
But after the Taiwanese pyrotechnics, any thoughts that this would be a safe choice for an orchestra out to impress a new audience were instantly dispelled as Chien drove it forward with searing intensity.
Never relaxing his powerful command over the performance for a moment, he pushed his orchestra to its limits and beyond.
Their visibly committed response resulted in a performance which was vividly electrifying and utterly compelling, if not always clinically clean in execution.
Whether Brahms would have appreciated some of the liberties Chien took with his music in the name of communicative zeal is beside the point.
This was a hugely impressive performance which milked the work for every last drop of drama, passion and colour.
Those who were there from start to finish experienced something very special last Saturday night.