May 20 2009

Taiwan Surprises

Published by at 4:36 am under PSO 2009 Asian Tour

Stage at Kaohsiung stadium

Stage at Kaohsiung stadium

Stage at Kaohsiung stadium

There are so many unexpected moments in China. Here in Taiwan we’re in a hotel connected to the Japanese Department store Hanshin which has a large food court on the basement level and eight floors of shopping. The food court is a riot of interesting places including a McDonald’s offering a Big Mac Meal or a Happy Sharing Meal. There’s also a Joy Box Restaurant nearby. It’s interesting that when there is an English word amidst the Chinese it often denotes something pleasurable or joyful. I heard a pop song in Chinese on the radio with only two English words, “Beautiful Sunday.” Also in the food court in Kaohsiung, the Curry House—Coco features “Good Smell Good Curry” and the Mei Nung Restaurant serves “Blissful Heaven Vegetarian Meal.” A large pharmacy sells a potion for any ailment. Contrabassoonist James Rodgers stocked up on Tiger Balm here, and swears by it for any repetitive motion ailment or sports injury.

Mark Huggins and Hong-Guang Jia on the jumbotron

Mark Huggins and Hong-Guang Jia on the jumbotron

Mark Huggins and Hong-Guang Jia on the jumbotron

On the seventh floor, the housewares department offers an enormous variety of fragrance dispensers spraying a fine mist of delicate perfume, and a rack of dozens of fragrances. We have similar units at Kaufmann’s, but not with seven or eight brands of diffusers, and not such delicate, exquisite machinery doing the spritzing. The hotel is fragrant everywhere, with perfume in the elevator and the lobby. I also think I detect a little of the fragrance of an old lake house like the ancient guest cottages of Chautauqua. Maybe it’s my imagination, but with all the water nearby and the almost 100% humidity and 90 degree heat there might be something odiferous beneath the perfume. Another surprise happened at closing time, 10 pm. As I came down each of the seven escalators, the sales staff had gathered in a quartet and were bowing deeply to each customer, and smiling their thanks. After seven rounds of bowing on each floor you really feel like they mean it. On the elevator as you exit near the Chanel counter, there’s a smiling young woman wearing an Easter-egg-yellow outfit and a pillbox hat like Jackie Kennedy used to wear. She has white gloves and she raises her hand high as you leave the elevator to say, “thank you for shopping with us today,” in a theatrical flourish. The fragrance and makeup floor is as elegant as in any Saks, with familiar brands and complete mysteries in equal number.

The weather is sunny and hot. From the hotel we can see the constant parade of container boats, barges, and ships of all sizes and shapes parading through the channel. Some musicians have taken the day to travel by ferry to a nearby island. I heard that Neal Berntsen rented one of the tiny scooters that are parked in great numbers everywhere here.

24 hours till the opening of Kaohsiung stadium

24 hours till the opening of Kaohsiung stadium

24 hours till the opening of Kaohsiung stadium

I spoke with Martin Schebasta, the Chorus Master of the Vienna State Opera Chorus, who brought thirty of his singers to join two Taiwanese choirs in singing the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He’s been here several times working with the Vienna Boys Choir. He knows Manfred’s brother, Rainer, who is one of the four concertmasters of the Vienna Philharmonic. The Philharmonic plays for the opera in the pit, so sooner or later you see everyone in Vienna. Martin told me the Taiwanese have never sung the Beethoven, and it’s a little work to get the German correct, but he’s pleased with the outcome. The Viennese singers are getting a short break from their opera season—they usually do several operas in a given week. This week, Seiji Ozawa and Bertrand de Billy are conducting, and Massenet’s Werther is in the lineup.

Honeck and soloists rehearse Beethoven's Ninth (Gregg Baker at right)

Honeck and soloists rehearse Beethoven's Ninth (Gregg Baker at right)

Honeck and soloists rehearse Beethoven's Ninth (Gregg Baker at right)

Gregg Baker is the bass-baritone among the Ode to Joy soloists. He sang this past season for Marvin Hamlisch and the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops in Showboat. He’ll be back next season for Richard Danielpour’s Pastime, when Danielpour is the PSO’s Composer of the Year. Gregg is tall and handsome with a commanding voice. He is working this summer in Graz, Austria with conductor Nicholas Harnoncourt for a performance of Porgy and Bess. Harnoncourt is more known for his Mozart than his Gershwin, so I’m certain it will be an interesting production.

I meant to mention that several members of the orchestra reported seeing former Pittsburgh Symphony Managing Director Gideon Toeplitz in Washington, D.C. at the Kennedy Center concert just before this PSO tour. Gideon is recovering heroically after brain tumor surgery had left him paralyzed and unable to speak. He nearly died of a staph infection, but is doing much better with his D.C.-based daughter looking in on him.

Percussionist Andrew Reamer (left) with Manfred Honeck

Percussionist Andrew Reamer (left) with Manfred Honeck

Percussionist Andrew Reamer (left) with Manfred Honeck

Manfred Honeck welcomed me to his room for an interview. He is delighted with the tour results, and makes no apology for the incredibly fast tempo he’s chosen for Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture despite the challenging acoustics of the new stadium here in Kaohsiung. He didn’t have time to climb the Great Wall, but the presenter of the concerts in Beijing took him for a forty-course Chinese feast after the concerts. He ran into a few Viennese friends who are living in Berlin, including a former member of the Vienna Philharmonic. On this tour, Honeck also enjoyed conducting a youth orchestra at the Beijing Conservatory. He says the 1812 bells should sound like those of a Russian Orthodox Church, even though Tchaikovsky doesn’t write a specific tune to be played.

Maestro Honeck is looking forward to Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, that will close the PSO season at Heinz Hall. You can hear it live on QED 893. In 30 minutes, I’ll be on the bus to join 35,000 Beethoven lovers at the new stadium. When the Penguins open their new arena, they should test it with the Pittsburgh Symphony before the first puck hits the ice. Many members of the Orchestra watched the playoffs via the Internet even though the sound didn’t always synch up with the action.