The Taiwan Philharmonic, which happened to make its U.S. debut Monday night at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, did not come to America to compete with Mainland China.
It was, after all, just a coincidence that last Monday the China Philharmonic played at Walt Disney Concert Hall. It was just a coincidence that China's two most important orchestras originally programmed Dvorák's "New World" symphony. It was just a coincidence that the concerts came so soon after our president-elect's phone call to Taiwan's president broke with old China policy and suddenly changed perceptions even in what should be the politically safe space of a concert hall.
What is not a coincidence is that the Taiwan Philharmonic, which is known at home as the National Symphony Orchestra, or NSO, is a first-rate ensemble, one of Asia's best. This season the orchestra celebrates its 30th anniversary, yet it has little profile outside of Asia. Not only has it taken an inexplicable three decades for the Taiwan Philharmonic to come to the North America (and only for two concerts, with Vancouver preceding Costa Mesa), but few of its recordings are available outside of Taiwan.
The program at Segerstrom, led by the orchestra's Taiwanese music director, Shao-Chia Lü, and presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, was intended as a showcase for Taiwan's classical music scene, a scene that has produced international stars including the evening's violin soloist, Cho-Liang Lin. The concert began with a new work (given its world premiere three days earlier in Vancouver) by a young Taiwanese composer, Chun-Wei Lee, and a violin concerto by Tyzen Hsiao, called "Taiwan's Rachmaninoff." Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony replaced Dvorák's Ninth.
Even so, the program was too conventional to reveal much national character. The orchestra has a German quality in its playing that could be the result of Lü's Viennese training and the fact that he has held conducting posts in Germany (Koblenz and Hannover). The senior German conductor Günther Herbig, who led the NSO for two years and is now its conductor laureate, may have something to do with this as well.
It was a big band on the Segerstrom stage, with the majority of its players young. The tone was dark and rich. When Lü wants to, he can make a great noise. For whatever reason, the China Philharmonic, which also enjoys power-housing, is a brighter sounding orchestra with silken strings and modest bass. The Taiwanese are more velvety and satisfyingly robust in the lower registers.
Lee's "Last Mile" is most alluring in its otherworldly opening and closing instrumental effects. These are meant to represent the journey, the indigenous Taiwanese Truku people believe, that is taken after death. Souls meet their ancestors, who examine whether the newly deceased lived a life worthy of taking the last mile to the spiritual realm. If not, the sorry soul is tossed in a river to be "nibbled and devoured by crabs," as the program had it.
There was no nibbling in Lee's "Last Mile," just a colorful orchestration of traditional music as reminiscences of times gone by.
Hsiao's Violin Concerto brought Taiwanese coals to a Southland Newcastle. The piece had been given its world premiere by the San Diego Symphony with Lin as soloist. (Yet another coincidence is that the music director of the San Diego Symphony, conductor Jahja Ling, happens to have been a former music director of the NSO.)
The concerto turns out to have more in common with lush romantic violin concertos from golden-age-of-Hollywood composers than Rachmaninoff. Taiwanese folk music, lavishly harmonized in Hollywood glory, is the basis for much of the score. The violin lines are conventionally virtuosic. The performance was opulent.
When it came to Tchaikovsky's Fifth, Lü kept sentiment at bay. The symphony's famous solos, especially those for clarinet, bassoon and horn, were exquisitely polished. The climaxes were spectacular.
Taiwan Philharmonic CDs and its 30th season brochure indicate that this first trip to America is but a toe in the water. Lü's live 2012 recording of Messiaen's extravagant "Turangalîla" Symphony is one of the most thrilling in a crowded field. The orchestra's range of repertory is wide, and one of its artists in residence is the challenging Australian composer Brett Dean. It performs opera with provocative directors. It regularly hosts major soloists including the Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, who plays Bartók in Taipei with the ensemble later in the season as she will with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Politics shouldn't have anything to do with it, but the Taiwan Philharmonic is overdue for a major U.S. tour.