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Taiwan Connection Chamber Orchestra celebrates 20 Years

In 2024, Taiwan Connection (TC) celebrates its 20th anniversary. This year, the Music Director Nai-Yuan Hu has chosen to perform Schubert's Symphony No. 9 "The Great" and his renowned String Quintet in C Major, D. 956. Hu describes Schubert's mindset while composing these pieces as "eagerly grasping the precious creative life, expressing his inner world without reservation to the world." Since its founding, TC has evolved from a fledgling string orchestra to a full-fledged symphony orchestra, with musicians spanning "three generations." Violinist Vladimir Chang Shan-Hsin, who joined with admiration in high school, describes TC as having laid the foundation for its forward-looking infrastructure in the music scene twenty years ago. TC's senior member and clarinettist, Kai-Ni Liu, says that despite the twenty years, "we are all as sincere and enthusiastic in interacting with music as we were on the first day, true to our original aspirations."


Typically, a 20th anniversary is a cause for celebration, and one would expect lively and joyful pieces to be chosen. However, Hu is redoubling his efforts and somewhat ruthlessly urging himself on. Both of these pieces were written by Schubert with increased creative intent after he knew he had a fatal illness.


What should we cherish in life? From human civilization to material life in this world, have we truly cherished them all?


Particularly noteworthy is that the year Hu reluctantly announced TC's temporary hiatus, the featured piece was the "The Great" Symphony, and this year, the series of concerts is named "The Great Revisited," with this same piece being chosen once again. Music critic Yuan-Pu Chiao describes the twenty years as a milestone and a new starting point for TC.


Schubert's Greatness and Death

In 1823, Schubert learned that he had contracted syphilis, an incurable disease at the time. The following year, he wrote a letter to a friend, revealing his feelings after falling ill. "I feel myself the most unhappy and the wretched creature in the world. Imagine a man, I say, whose most brilliant hopes have perished, to whom the happiness of love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain, at best, whose enthusiasm (at least of the stimulating kind) for all things beautiful threatens to disappear., and I ask you, is he not a miserable, unhappy being?"


Despite the physical and emotional toll, Schubert exhibited a powerful force in his compositions. Beethoven's influence on classical music was immense, including on Schubert. While Schubert is best known for his prolific and melodious art songs, he also aspired to follow in Beethoven's footsteps, creating symphonies that would be as acclaimed as Beethoven's. After learning of his illness, Schubert began work on these ambitious works, with "The Great" Symphony showcasing his creative talent.


Hu describes Schubert's music as having the flavour of life's journey, with grand and expansive landscapes, as well as a poignant expression of human frailty. The first movement of "The Great" Symphony opens with bright French horns, seemingly symbolizing the start of a great journey. The music is filled with optimistic and uplifting sentiments, but along the way, there are encounters with rough seas, storms, and the various joys and sorrows that everyone experiences in life.


The second movement features a highly dramatic passage, with the music's emotional intensity and powerful melodies suggesting a crisis in life's journey. The entire orchestra suddenly falls silent at the most intense moment. Then, the faint plucking of strings, the delicate whispers of the cello and clarinet, as if recounting the fragile body and mind after a severe blow.

Schubert is the only renowned classical music composer born and raised in Vienna. In the third movement, he incorporated melodies from local folk dances. "Nevertheless, you can always sense that it's not purely joyful dancing. There are always some segments in the music that seem to exist in a world that's not entirely about joyful dancing. Throughout the hour-long symphony, you seem to hear the composer lamenting at times and feeling lost in life."


Despite life's dangers, the fourth movement maintains a vigorous vitality and fullness of emotion. As the notes and melodies pile up, each instrument constantly responds, climbing one peak after another in life, as if the music continuously inspires the attempt to strive upwards. The music ultimately returns to C major, ending with an intense melody, as if using music to welcome a bright and clean endpoint.


When people realize that life is limited, they cherish it more. This sentiment is also evident in Schubert's late work, the String Quintet in C Major, D. 956. One can feel humanity's infinite attachment to life and all the beauty in the world. "For example, the second movement of the String Quintet is a piece that almost every musician would want to be played at their funeral. Because the music is just so beautiful." Hu revealed that violin masters like Eugene Ysaye and Fritz Kreisler, when playing chamber music privately, would vie for the second violin part that leads the harmony.


Just two months after completing this beautiful String Quintet, Schubert passed away in 1828 at the young age of 31.


Internationally Acclaimed Musicians

This year, TC has invited 16 internationally renowned musicians from 9 countries around the world to perform in Taiwan. The lineup for the 20th anniversary includes Frank Huang, Concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic; Timothy Cobb, Principal Bass of the New York Philharmonic; Denis Bouriakov, Principal Flute of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Inn-Hyuck Cho, former Principal Clarinet of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; and Sung-Kwon You, Principal Bassoon of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. Pianist Robert Levin will perform as the piano soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor.

Levin is an internationally renowned scholar and pianist. He recreates 18th-century improvisational performances when performing Beethoven's and Mozart's piano concertos. Improvisation holds an important place in classical music. According to historical records, musicians such as Bach, Chopin, and Liszt were skilled in improvisation. Levin believes that live performances of classical music should have a sense of freshness and excitement, with both performers and audiences anticipating the improvised changes in the music. Hu explains that composers of concertos would often place the cadenza at the end of a movement, leaving a section where the performer could improvise. Mozart, when performing his own concertos, would also improvise. "Mozart's composition speed was so fast that he would only write simple melodies, improvising during performances."


In 2007, Hu collaborated with Levin in chamber music. "What I read in books, he brought to life on the spot, which amazed me greatly." This year, Levin and his wife, pianist Ya-Fei Chuang, have been specially invited to perform Mozart's Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat major, K. 493, and Schubert's Fantasie in F minor for Piano Four-Hands, D. 940.


Twenty years are like the first day, with equal and stirring exchanges in music!

Looking back on TC's 20th anniversary, there are too many unforgettable moments. Liu's most memorable is the goose meat stall behind The Landis Taipei hotel. With the assistance of The Alliance Cultural Foundation (ACF) Chair Stanley C. Yen, an important figure behind the scenes at TC and the former president of The Landis Taipei, musicians in need of accommodation stayed there. "After rehearsals every day, Hu would invite everyone to meet at the goose meat stall in ten minutes. Everyone would exchange opinions on rehearsals and performances, and we would often end up staying until nearly 1 a.m." Despite this, she also admitted that she never thought it would last for twenty years. "Because every time after a concert when everyone was exhausted, I would ask Hu, 'What are we going to do next year?' He always replied, 'I'm going back to practice the violin.' Of course, about a month later, we would start discussing what pieces to play next year."


"The most unbearable thing was the two years when the orchestra stopped in 2015 and 2016!" TC, which performed annually, once paused for two years as Hu carefully considered the orchestra's future direction. During that time, Liu sent dozens of messages to Hu saying, "Please don't do this, I really want to perform again soon." Again and again, she appealed to his emotions. "I hope you remember that there is a group of people waiting for you!"

What charm does TC possess that musicians love? Chang recalls being deeply impressed the first time he heard TC perform in high school. "When I was young, I listened to albums of the Berlin Philharmonic and thought that foreign musicians were more impressive. But that night at TC, I was shocked. I realized that without a conductor, the orchestra could be so organized, with all musicians moving in the same direction, and the power was so strong!"


Rather than boasting about having no conductor, it's more about the members' pursuit of moving music, with a consistent attitude. Senior TC member and violinist Jimmy Hsueh Chih-Chang said, "The most unforgettable moments in TC are when we complete a flawless piece of music together on stage with the musicians. Those moments when everyone is focused and creating together, I get goosebumps, and the audience in the hall feels the same joy."


How is such music created? Hsueh also imparts this spirit of continuous pursuit to his students. "I always teach my students to search from all aspects for sounds that move them. Once you find it, you have the motivation to pursue it. Creating moving sounds is based on a thorough understanding of music, thinking about the meaning behind the notes, not just focusing on technique but seeking that emotional expression in music."

Hu's sensitivity and subtlety towards music are well-known, reflected in his demands and self-expectations for music. Hsueh said, "Sometimes I get a bit annoyed, why do you have to be so thorough? Sometimes it's tiring to talk to him, you can't hide anything, and he's the same way in handling music."


Therefore, whether there is a conductor or not is not the focus. Liu said that having no conductor is a practice of musical attitude. "Even if there is a conductor, our attitude won't change. This is the true core of TC."


From the first year to the twentieth, TC musicians have remained true to their original intentions. Patrick Jee, a cellist with the New York Philharmonic who participated in a TC performance in 2023, described, "I never been in a group with that much flexibility, spontaneity, and with that kind of inspiration. In a quartet setting or small chamber music, you will see scores, you will see people writing things in their parts and studying how the music is intervolved. But I have never seen that in a large ensemble like TC. It was quite inspiring, it's actually quite challenging to have so many members on the same page."


The spirit of TC passed down from generation to generation


From Hu's initial formation of a chamber group of 5 to 6 people to the current orchestral formation, with an age gap of up to forty years among the members, the communication during the orchestra's rehearsals remain equal and without distance. Chang and Hsiang-Yen Fan, two young violinists who have just turned thirty, both participated in Hu's classes at music camps during their student days, with Fan studying under Hsueh. Chang said that TC has had a more direct impact on musicians of their generation than music education within the system.

Chang recalled that he and Fan participated in an orchestra camp organized for youths from Taiwan and China by the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra in 2010, where the instructors were Hu, Scott Lee and Shih-Lin Chen, the earliest members to join TC. Hu helped the students understand the importance of each voice in the music and the roles they had to play. "It's not just about the first violin being glorious; what the second violin should do so that the first violin can shine. Everyone must listen to each other in the orchestra, and the effect of the performance will be very different." This spirit allowed the students to go through 8 days of training, tour Taiwan and Beijing, and build a strong emotional bond. During the final performance, after Hu performed his concerto, he sincerely thanked all the students for their dedication to the training and the four concerts, and dedicated the encore to them.

Fan said that TC gave him a feeling similar to the Saito Kinen Orchestra established by Seiji Ozawa. Ozawa used to invite outstanding European musicians he knew every year to gather and perform together. "In 2019, we performed Brahms' Symphony No. 2. I love Brahms' symphonies, and I still remember the anticipation I felt, wanting to create wonderful sparks with other musicians." He first encountered TC in high school, and now Fan is a member of the Kaohsiung Symphony Orchestra. "It's so beautiful to be able to move the audience with the music you play. I was like that as a listener when I was young. No matter which orchestra I perform with, I always hope to give everyone an unforgettable concert!"


Due to their participation in a music camp, a few months later, the two of them attended their first TC annual concert. Chang said, "The program that year was Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 Eroica. The kind of shock we felt immediately made us say, 'We should also organize a small TC and achieve this dream.'"


The Pursuit of Art Has No End


In fact, every year, TC's performances, from selecting repertoire, inviting musicians, organizing and researching scores, to a series of external publicity and interviews, are more mentally taxing than regular concert invitations. This has disrupted his planned music album recording project and research. What makes Hu persevere? His immediate answer without hesitation is, "Music!"


Hu recalled an important supporter who encouraged him to establish TC many years ago, the then New Stage Artistic Director Huai Qun Koo, once asked him, "Nai-Yuan, are you doing this with an optimistic or pessimistic mindset?" Hu immediately replied, "Of course, it's pessimistic!" Koo replied, "I thought so too." But he said, "We must always try, always do, because all art begins with constant pursuit."


Hu sighed that after the age of 60, every decade feels like time flies faster, which urges him to climb even higher peaks. Hu, who was only 43 when he founded TC, now has a head full of grey hair. Perhaps the significance of choosing Schubert this year is hidden in this.


Interview and original Chinese article by Hui-Ling Huang

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