Taiwan Philharmonic Impresses in Historic First U.S. Concert

By Truman C. Wang

taiwan phil collage.jpg

On the heels of the China Philharmonic’s Southland visit exactly a week ago, Taiwan’s own National Symphony Orchestra (known overseas as the Taiwan Philharmonic) also came to play, albeit in a different hall and under the auspices of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, which has brought many excellent but lesser-known world ensembles to Orange County for over 60 years.  How did the Taiwanese orchestra stack up next to the other visiting orchestras and, in particular, their political Chinese archrival?  Qualitatively and temperamentally, they were as different as night and day, Yin and Yang, with the Chinese orchestra more brilliant and powerful, and the Taiwanese warmer and mellower.  One could detect an underlying current of melancholy and fragility in the sounds of the Taiwan Philharmonic that, beautiful as they were, may reflect the island’s own political limbo and uncertainty on the world stage.  But on the concert stage, where music transcends political boundaries, Taiwan can go head-to-head with China on an even playing field and proudly claim its spot as a top orchestra in Asia. 

Chun-Wei Lee is a young Taiwanese composer of the millennial generation, but his new work The Last Mile shows a great deal of maturity and poetic sensitivity that normally come with age and experience.  Its inspiration is the indigenous Truku tribe of Taiwan, whose colorful costumes and ‘Rainbow Bridge’ are lovingly depicted in the music that weaves several Taiwanese folk melodies with gentle, shimmering Western harmonies. 

Violinist Cho-Liang Lin was and still is a household name in Taiwan as the first Taiwanese classical musician who ‘made good’ in the West, some 35 years ago.  Earlier this year I had the chance to hear Mr. Lin in a Beverly Hills recital, when I commented on his playing as “sweet yet tenacious” that pretty much also summed up his reading of Tyzen Hsiao’s Violin Concerto in D Major, and appropriately the Taiwanese spirit as a whole.   Popularly known as ‘Taiwan’s Rachmaninoff’, Hsiao’s Violin Concerto sounded to these ears closer to the late Romantic English music of Elgar than the unbridled Russian Romanticism of Rachmaninoff.  It is a fine work that also incorporates many Taiwanese folk tunes clothed in bold, colorful Western harmonies.  Maestro Shao-Chia Lu conducted with elegant precision, bringing out surprising Brahmsian warmth from the Taiwanese strings, blending perfectly with Mr. Lin’s dulcet sounds.  The elegiac Adagio dolente, was especially memorable for its heartfelt eloquence. 

The Taiwan Philharmonic is no slouch either when it comes to Western works.  A survey of its 2016/17 home season shows an ambitious Mahler cycle and other large-scale works.  For this concert, the originally-scheduled Dvořák  “New World” Symphony No. 9 was scrapped in favor of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 after learning the Chinese would also be playing the Dvořák.  Too bad, because it would have made a great head-to-head shootout.   The Tchaikovsky Fifth, in all its rich folk materials and melancholy splendor, brought to bear all the quintessential Taiwanese traits heard heretofore – precision, warmth, elegance and passion.  The famous French horn solo, played by principal horn Wang Chi-Zong, was a true cantabile con alcuna licenza (‘songlike with a touch of poetry’) per the composer.  The Taiwan Philharmonic  might not have the power and braggadocio of that big bad orchestra from Beijing, but it more than made up for it with heart and humanity.

As a further comparison of the two concerts, the Taiwanese played two encores (Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Tumblers” and Hsiao’s “Angel from Formosa”) to an ecstatic, overflowing audience; the Chinese played no encore in a half-empty Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Whatever the future of the U.S. “One China” policy may hold, it was amply clear from these two concerts that there are two Chinas and they are as different as night and day.

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.