Last autumn I was invited to join the NSO on its four-city tour of China. As we flew from Taipei to Xiamen via Hong Kong, then Xiamen back to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Shanghai, train from there to Beijing, and then home to Taipei, the 11 days felt like living with someone, as one does in the military or in a monastery, that is, we got to know one another's habits, manners, and temperaments. I mention this because, with 99 musicians and 21 additional personnel, I never once heard a raised voice, an argument, wild or drunken voices on busses or in hotels or at meals. No player was ever late for a bus, no luggage was left behind (as a trained professional tour manager, believe me, that's a major concern), and the players seemed to genuinely like one another.
I find that utterly remarkable. Yes, respect is a profound instinct among the Taiwanese, but the degree to which I witnessed this went beyond custom or protocol. I think it was reflected in what I saw on stage during rehearsals. The musicians' discipline had a special quality: rehearsals were efficient, orderly, and quiet, yet the atmosphere was always relaxed and respectful. Maestro Lu always used the same vocal volume he uses in a one-on-one conversation. That sounds so serious, doesn't it! That's not what I want to imply because I also sensed a buoyant, light touch to the atmosphere at rehearsals — you might say more of the sylph-like touch I often hear in Ravel's music, the kind that puts a smile inside my spirit. For these musicians rehearsals are business and pleasure.
In contrast, I also think of the thunderous power these pleasant souls produced playing Scriabin's “Poem of Fire” and Stravinsky's “Firebird Suite” at the end of last November, or the sheer virtuosity five years earlier (when the average age of players in the orchestra was only 36) in Mahler's Symphony No. 5. Yes, I believe it's the person on the podium who ultimately makes it all happen. But it's also the players themselves who either possess an innate feeling for pulse and flow, for incisive rhythms, and for melodic ecstasy, or don't. If they didn't, this orchestra would never have its extraordinary “ensemble”, that is, togetherness, not just “physically” in terms of rhythm and downbeat, but psychologically in terms of developing a united point of view with which they interpret a work. Ensemble is a quality that only the very best orchestras possess. The degree to which this orchestra's members not only listen to other players as they perform but take pleasure in their successes is evident on stage — it's in plain sight for anyone who uses their eyes. The NSO's players love making music together (not all orchestras do).
Even though I first attended my first orchestral concerts way back in 1963 with the St. Louis Symphony, even today I am still in awe of how, for example, violinists can play so many notes so fast so accurately for so long. It's inhuman — people can't do that! How many American orchestras would kill to have a principal trumpet like Nicolas Rusillon or a principal French horn like Yi-Hsin Cindy Liu (she's 30 centimeters shorter than I am)! How do such lyrical, soaring, elegantly phrased, profoundly expressive sounds come out of the body behind her horn! How does Shao-Chia Lu get the viola and cello sections to produce such a deep, rich, warm velvet sound! And how does the string bass section produce such a rich, firm foundation for the rest of the orchestra! I know of only one other orchestra whose string basses play without any vibrato in the majority of passages. That's an important element: the string basses are not playing treble melodies that imitate the human voice by using vibrato; they're providing a rock-solid foundation from which the rest of the orchestra gets a firm sense of harmonic movement and flow. One can thank Yung-Ho Fu for that — it's a special quality that comes and goes, depending on who the principal string bass player is.
The China tour was filled with the challenge of producing sound in four halls with widely varying acoustics, and none of them had anywhere near the familiar acoustics of Taipei's National Concert Hall. The musicians I got to know best talked about how they listened for acoustic feedback from the auditoriums (if there was any) so that they could adjust the way they projected their instrument's sound by adjusting the technique with which they played. Adaptation was a constant concern. It reflects how pianist-in-residence Kun-Woo Paik and guest conductor Neville Marriner both described the NSO during concerts last November: each appreciated the orchestra's remarkable flexibility. Marriner was even more specific, adding that some orchestras in Germany and Japan are fixed in interpreting a piece “the way it's always done”, whereas he said the NSO can do anything they're asked.
May I ask the NSO just one thing: When will you finally visit America?