KANAZAWA, Japan – Taiwan’s well-traveled flagship orchestra, the Taiwan Philharmonic, recently made its fourth visit to Japan (April 30-May 6), coinciding with Japan’s annual Golden Week. This is a holiday period embracing several important national events and, for many workers, the longest vacation of the year.
In 2019, the period was extended to an unprecedented ten days (April 27 to May 6) due to the imperial succession. During Golden Week, many non-essential services shut down, prices on many services go up, and the Japanese travel in hordes. One of their most popular destinations is the city of Kanazawa, located on the western edge of the main island of Honshu.
Kanazawa is known for well-preserved Edo-era districts, art museums, and regional handicrafts. Kenrokuen, one of Japan’s three most celebrated gardens and renowned for its classic landscape designs incorporating ponds and streams, is in Kanazawa. Combined with surrounding natural beauty, the city is a big draw for holiday-makers. It also provides a golden opportunity for a major annual music festival, to which the Taiwan Philharmonic was invited this year.
The “gold” connection might be extended to the Philharmonic itself, which in recent years has risen to the level of the gold standard among orchestras internationally. In its five performances in Kanazawa, and in concerts in Tokyo and Osaka that book-ended its five-day Kanazawa residency, music director Shao-Chia Lü amply demonstrated that, in his nine years at the helm, he has brought this orchestra from excellence to greatness.
Much in the manner of George Szell in Cleveland more than half a century ago, Lü has worked patiently and steadily to develop an orchestra that responds to his every gesture with hair-trigger accuracy. “I am a man in slow tempo,” he observed. “You can’t change things quickly. I think of myself as a gardener, trying to make my garden look better each year, watching things grow and become more beautiful.”
Indeed, Lü infuses every note in a musical line with purpose; every phrase, section, and episode has a place in the larger picture. He never loses momentum, and he has mastered the knack of knowing exactly how to pace unfolding dramatic structures so that when the big climaxes arrive, they are truly overwhelming.
Other critics have noted this orchestra’s special sound: a warm, richly blended quality totally devoid of harshness or rough edges, leading some listeners to dub it the most European-sounding of Asian orchestras. (That Lü studied at Vienna’s famed Hochschule für Musik may largely account for this.) The orchestra never puts forth a coarse or uncultured sound. Power without force is the keynote. The sterling brilliance of the trumpets at the end of each of three performances of Sibelius’ Second Symphony left this listener believing he was at the gates of heaven.
In addition, the Philharmonic plays with the rhythmic precision that would make a drill sergeant sit up and take notice. Every string player enters at exactly the same instant; there are no slackers at the back of the sections. They listen to each other the way Szell trained his Cleveland Orchestra to do. “They’re so alert!,” guest conductor Henrik Schaefer exclaimed as he left the stage after a concert preceded by a single rehearsal. Another guest conductor, Michael Balke, noted that “their flexibility and color differentiation is astounding. They are immediately responsive to anything I ask of them.”
Sibelius’ Second Symphony was the perfect vehicle to demonstrate the Philharmonic’s strings at their best, with a sound often resembling plush velvet. Jaw-dropping virtuosity was on display in the swirling blizzard of notes that constitute Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla, one of the orchestra’s calling cards. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade provided ample opportunities for the principal woodwinds, horn, and harp to shine, and for the orchestra’s co-concertmaster, I-Ching Li, to enchant listeners with her irresistibly seductive solos. I cannot recall ever having heard a more compelling performance of this warhorse.
Lü combines the iron-clad rhythmic precision and technical perfection of a Szell, the loving warmth of a Bruno Walter, and the lyricism of a Carlo Maria Giulini. The latter quality infuses virtually everything Lü conducts. Regardless of how many times one has heard thrice-familiar repertory, the music speaks anew for the pervasive singing quality with which Lü imbues each musical phrase, for the sheer beauty of sound he draws from the orchestra, and from the almost countless dynamic levels he demands. There were at least five shades of piano in the opening pages of the second movement of Sibelius’ Second Symphony, and as many of forte in the symphony’s glorious closing pages.
If fault need be found within this orchestra, it lies in the woodwind section. The principals are all solid players, but when the entire section enters as a choir, attacks are sometimes ragged, intonation is sometimes less than perfect, and the choir lacks that balance and homogeneity so evident in the strings and brass.
The Kanazawa Festival – the freely-adapted English rendering of the Japanese name is Ishikawa Kanazawa Spring Green Music Festival – is modeled on the Folle journée concept, in which dozens of short concerts are packed into a highly concentrated time period. In Kanazawa, the Taiwan Philharmonic played five of the 47 concerts on offer with four different conductors, all of whom circulated among two other fine orchestras there: the Gothenberg Opera Orchestra and the Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa.
The Philharmonic’s remarkable consistency was borne out in successive performances of the Sibelius in Tokyo’s Bunka Kaikan (April 30), in the main concert hall of Kanazawa’s Ongakudo (May 3), and in Osaka’s Symphony Hall (May 6). What distinguished each event was not the performance but the hall, with Kanazawa’s clearly in the forefront. This is one of Japan’s finest, a shoebox design with floor and walls entirely of wood, and lending a presence and glow to the sound one experiences in few other venues of its kind. Here the Taiwan Philharmonic sounded the equal of any in the world.
Concerts in Kanazawa by this orchestra also afforded opportunities to hear two extraordinary pianists previously unknown to me. Asia is infamous for producing musicians with impeccable technique and little else, but 19-year-old Mao Fujita is an exception. In Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, he drew a huge, immensely powerful sound from the instrument without resorting to banging. Fujita roared his way through the double-octave passages at breakneck speed with impressive clarity and seeming ease, but there were also some tasteful lyrical and personal moments. I look forward to hearing him again after a few more years of study.
Then there was Georgijs Osokins, a Glenn Gould-type from Latvia. He travels with his own piano bench, sits low at the keyboard, projects a moody image, and barely acknowledges the audience, but his musicianship is of the highest level. He has the uncanny ability to turn a large concert hall into an intimate salon with his superbly imaginative, often exquisite playing (Chopin’s E minor Concerto). There is a feline agility to his touch, and he can project the softest notes clearly to the back of the hall.
The concerts in Tokyo and Osaka also included works from Japan – Yasushi Akutagawa’s Musica per Orchestra Sinfonica, a coy, brash, Shostakovich-influenced, ten-minute concert opener that fairly blew the roof off – and, as the Philharmonic always offers on tour, something from its homeland. Taiwan boasts a wealth of excellent composers, but Jiang Wen Ye’s Formosan Dance Op. 1 was a disappointment, a seemingly shapeless little piece that left no impression. Taiwanese-born Richard Lin, gold medalist at the 2018 Indianapolis Violin Competition, played the Mendelssohn concerto.
Shao-Chia Lü will conclude a decade-long tenure with the orchestra in 2020. Whoever succeeds him will inherit an orchestra even George Szell would have been proud of.
Formerly a horn player in the Montreal Symphony, Robert Markow now writes program notes for that orchestra and for many others in Canada, the U.S., and Asia. He writes regularly for such classical music journals as American Record Guide, Fanfare, Symphony, Strings, The Strad, Opera, Opera News, and Opera Canada.