Taiwan Philharmonic’s U.S. Tour Underscored By Promise Of Passion

The Taiwan Philharmonic is touring the U.S. with music director Jun Märkl. (Photo courtesy of Taiwan Philharmonic/Tey Tat Keng)

PERSPECTIVE — After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in 2022 and China’s heightened military exercises near what it views as a break-away province, long-simmering differences over the island’s status have grown increasingly heated in recent months. This tension has become an unavoidable backdrop to preparations for the Taiwan Philharmonic’s first American tour since 2018.

“Everybody is aware that we are in a critical time,” said music director Jun Märkl, “but we are not [sending] a message about politics. We stay out of it. On the other hand, music and culture always have a very strong message, but it’s beyond politics. It’s about, we want to meet you, and we want to create this mutual understanding. We come to the United States to see who you are, and we want to show the best from our side.”

The Philharmonic’s trip to the U.S. begins April 14 with orchestra members joining the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for a concert at New York’s Alice Tully Hall. The tour continues April 19 with a concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. On April 21, the Philharmonic will become one of the first international orchestras to perform in Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall since it reopened in October 2022 to much fanfare following a $550 million renovation. The tour ends April 23 with an appearance at Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville, Ill., a suburb of Chicago.

While the orchestra has visited such West Coast cities as San Francisco, Costa Mesa, and Seattle during two previous visits, this trip marks the first time it has ventured east of the Mississippi River. “Many of the musicians have strong connections to the United States,” Märkl said, “because they lived there, studied there, and have friends and family members there. So, the excitement is very high, but, on the other hand, they are very nervous about it, because we are playing concerts in some of the most famous and best halls in the United States.”

Taiwan-born soloist for the tour, violinist Paul Huang, will play Bruch’s ‘Scottish Fantasy.’ (Photo by Marcco Borggreve)

Among the Philharmonic musicians especially looking forward to the American trip is principal violist Grace Huang. The Taiwanese native first came here to study at the Idyllwild Arts Academy in California as a teenager and later gained a scholarship to the Juilliard School. “So, for her,” said Lydia Kuo, the orchestra’s executive director, “it’s quite meaningful that after so many years, she could come back ‘home.’”    

The Taiwan Philharmonic — known as the National Symphony Orchestra in its native country — was formed in 1986 partly in response to the country’s fast-rising interest in Western classical music and growing reservoir of musical talent. About 90 percent of its members are Taiwanese, many of whom have musical degrees from schools in such countries as the United States, France, Germany, and Russia.

More than 10 years ago, the orchestra began touring internationally as a way to make an imprint on the larger classical world to which it is a relative newcomer. “We are happy to join it and create future history,” Kuo said. “It’s important for us to be visible all over the world, so we started this strategy, and every year or every other year, we went to a lot of music halls and created our profile.” The Taiwan Philharmonic has performed in such musical centers as Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Milan, Tokyo, Beijing, and Shanghai.

Märkl has held several major posts in Europe, including music director of the Orchestre National de Lyon in France from 2005-11, and he has conducted such top global orchestras as the Orchestre de Paris and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Although the German-born conductor has only been music director of the Taiwan Philharmonic since January 2022, he has a longer history with the ensemble, previously serving as its artistic adviser and guest conductor, beginning in 2018.

He was drawn to the Taiwan post because he wanted to build the ensemble in a way that wasn’t possible with only occasional visits. “It’s a long-term perspective,” he said, “and [one] that I found very challenging but also something that interests me because I have an Asian background. My mother is Japanese, so I’m always in between the cultures, and that I take as an advantage, so that I can dive into the culture, into the life and needs of people in Taiwan.”

The Taiwan Philharmonic is presenting four concerts during its U.S. tour. (Photo courtesy of Taiwan Philharmonic/Tey Tat Keng)

Märkl described the orchestra’s members as passionate, and that quality can be heard in their playing. “It has a really intense sound,” he said. “They have a very high potential, so I’m making quick progress with them. And they are open-minded, so that helps me lead them into different directions. It’s also a very friendly orchestra, and that’s also something that makes life pleasant.” Märkl speaks six languages but not Mandarin, so he relies on English to communicate with the musicians.

When any orchestra goes on tour, Märkl said, it should have something to say musically say about itself, its background and its culture. To that end, he has included two works on the Philharmonic’s American program that evoke the sea — Claude Debussy’s La Mer (The Sea) and Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, Op. 26, which was inspired by an archipelago off the northwest coast of Scotland. Taiwan is an island, and the sea is integral to its identity. “These [marine] elements are so important in those works, and the musicians can find a lot of common ground with them,” the conductor added.

At the same time, the orchestra wants to showcase some of the musical talent that the island has produced, including the Taiwanese-born soloist for the tour, the 33-year-old violinist Paul Huang, who resides in New York. The winner of a prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2015, Huang will perform Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46. In addition, the tour will feature works by two composers with Taiwanese roots: Ke-Chia Chen’s Ebbs and Flows will be heard in Washington, D.C., and New York, and Yuan-Chen Li’s Tao of Meinong will be featured in Chicago. “We show that we have a culture for writing for orchestra, and the musical language is different than that of composers from other countries,” Märkl said.

“When you go somewhere, you try to meet people,” he said. “You want to make friends, and, so, this is also what we want to show from Taiwan. We want to go to the United States. We want to meet people. We want to create relationships.”