HONG KONG — The stormy ovation must have felt like a balm to a Chicago Symphony Orchestra that saw its physical fitness and mental toughness put to the test at the very outset of its 18-day Asia tour.
But after a late-afternoon rehearsal of Beethoven’s epic Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”), followed just a couple of hours later by a performance for a packed house at Taipei’s Chiang Kai-shek National Concert Hall on Saturday night, the CSO and stand-in conductor Osmo Vänskä got their payoff in explosive applause punctuated by stamping feet.
With music director Riccardo Muti convalescing in Italy after hernia surgery, the orchestra had opened its tour Friday in Taipei with concertmaster Robert Chen, a Taiwan native, stepping up to play Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. It was an auspicious beginning for the CSO’s high-wire act of four consecutive concerts — with two conductors and two different programs in two different concert halls — and just one rehearsal for each.
The star soloist Saturday night was Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov, who had begun his long day in Moscow, where he took part in a concert for the 60th birthday of a longtime friend, the violist Yuri Bashmet.
Directly after his performance with the CSO, a blistering take on the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto that left conductor and orchestra on high adrenaline alert, Vengerov was back on a plane to play a recital in St. Petersburg.
“It was a very good opportunity to perform with the Chicago Symphony,” the unruffled Vengerov said moments after that 11th-hour afternoon rehearsal. “When I learned that Muti had canceled and they needed me, I thought, ‘What would you do for friends?’”
The Beethoven Third Symphony, which filled that concert’s second half, was not the CSO’s only challenge. The acoustics of the Taipei concert hall required considerable adjustment.
At the first rehearsal, the boxy — now empty — space, with its flat high ceiling and two jutting balconies fronted in marble, ricocheted the sound this way and that. It was so lively one wanted to put on sunglasses. But with the added absorption of 2,000 bodies in the seats, and subtle fine-tuning, the sound became warmer and more focused.
From the outside, the Chiang Kai-shek National Concert Hall looks like a Chinese palace, the first of several fanciful architectural concepts that will include, in Beijing, an elliptical dome of titanium and glass dubbed “the Giant Egg” by the locals. The orchestra has since arrived in Hong Kong from Taipei, and additional stops are set for Shanghai, Tianjin and Seoul.
In what has become the CSO’s Asia relay, Vänskä hands off the baton Monday to conductor Lorin Maazel, who will lead the rest of the tour concerts. But getting Maazel to Hong Kong in time for Monday’s rehearsal required a game effort by the maestro, who turns 83 in March.
Maazel, former music director of the New York Philharmonic, rushed from a final weekend concert with his old orchestra to catch a red-eye flight to Hong Kong. He had yet to arrive at press time Sunday, but the CSO was told he was on the plane, to arrive a few hours before rehearsal. His first program with the CSO matches Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 (“Jupiter”) with Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, the same pairing Vänskä led to kick off the tour in Taipei but without the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto.
The Tuesday night Hong Kong concert with Maazel includes Verdi’s Overture to “I vespri siciliani,” Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 (“Italian”) and the Beethoven “Eroica.” Those two programs will alternate throughout the remainder of the tour.
It should be smoother sailing ahead. There have been times when it seemed that all the players involved on this tour would never get on the same page. Moments into the “Eroica” rehearsal in Taipei, Vänskä realized something was seriously wrong.
He was conducting the edition that the musicians had rehearsed and performed with conductor Edo de Waart back in Chicago for concerts Jan. 17-19. The musicians, however, were looking at different parts sent at Maazel’s request. Luckily, the librarians had packed both sets, and all that was lost was a little sand in the hourglass.
Some help in easing the jitters on the ground in Taipei came from the CSO’s large contingent of Chinese musicians, including Li-Kuo Chang, the orchestra’s assistant principal violist. (There are 12 Chinese musicians in the CSO, 11 on the tour.)
Chang regaled the local media with tales of the orchestra’s efforts to come up with the best concerts possible in Muti’s absence. The violist proved to be a born storyteller, recalling how the orchestra tapped its own creative consultant, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma — who creatively enough suggested Chen as a natural solution for the Taipei crowds.
Even CSO Association President Deborah Rutter, who had shouldered the formidable task of inventing the new plan for this trip and selling it to the local presenters, seemed to find room for some mirth at last.
Addressing a bank of television cameras and newspaper reporters at a press conference in Taipei, she began, “Maestro Muti told me two weeks ago, ‘I will be there on the tour.’” That translated into skepticism-dissolving laughter.
If the Asia tour has commenced in harrowing fashion, the much-traveled CSO has seen worse. The musicians will tell you about trucked instruments that didn’t show up, or the time the cartage truck jackknifed and the bass got smashed.
But some things on tour never change. Exhausted musicians who found their way to the hotel bar upon arrival in Hong Kong were serenaded by the familiar sounds of a lounge band, playing not Beethoven but the complete songbook from “The Sound of Music.” Perhaps also on short rehearsal.
Nancy Malitz is publisher of the performing arts web magazine ChicagoOntheAisle.comCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times