In a time of heightened international tensions, it’s helpful to remember that the arts know no borders. Classical music in particular circulates globally. Audiences welcome artists, ensembles and orchestras from around the world, who bring timeless music as well as new works to appreciative listeners, many of whom may never have traveled outside their own countries.
In 2023, under its new music director Jun Märkl, the Taiwan Philharmonic (also known, at home, as the National Symphony Orchestra or NSO) will tour overseas for the first time since before the COVID-19 pandemic. In advance of that, it is thematically traveling the world this month with a program called “Virtuoso Music in Scotland” to open its 2022-23 season. The third of three performances around Taiwan takes place Sept. 25 at Taitung Art and Culture Center.
Maestro Märkl has had a distinguished international career. He has helmed the Orchestre National de Lyon, the MDR Symphony Orchestra in Leipzig, and the Basque National Orchestra. Since 2021 he has been the Malaysia Symphony Orchestra’s music director. In the U.S., most recently he was the artistic advisor to the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.
Märkl became the Taiwan Philharmonic’s artistic advisor in 2021 and took on the post of music director this year. He spoke with us about the season-opening concert and what lies ahead for the Taiwan Philharmonic.
Your parents were both musicians. How did they influence your career? And what led you to become a conductor as opposed to another kind of musician?
My parents were both musicians and provided me with a thorough musical education. I started studying the violin and piano from a young age and began conducting at the age of 20. Being a conductor immediately felt natural to me because I find joy in being on a team with other musicians while performing great works with boundless enthusiasm.
You became the Music Director of the Taiwan Philharmonic during the pandemic. How did this affect your developing relationship with the orchestra, and with planning its activities in the near term?
From the very beginning of my role as Music Director we have continued with performances despite the challenges that COVID-19 has presented. Through the Philharmonic’s dedication to encouraging the people of Taiwan we have continued performing despite setbacks and have also incorporated livestreaming. Even from early on, our concert halls have continued to be filled by our passionate audience. Especially in times of a crisis our contribution to the wellbeing of the society is in even more demand.
“Virtuoso Music in Scotland” will be performed at three venues across Taiwan. It will feature violinist Paul Huang and include music by Debussy, Bruch and Mendelssohn – none of whom, needless to say, was Scottish. What do you think it was about Scotland that inspired these composers? What inspired you to put together this program? What else can you tell us about these opening concerts?
I put this program together because both Scotland and Taiwan are islands with rich cultural heritage. The three composers on this concert incorporate different aspects or colors of Scottish tradition and views, either original folk tunes like in Bruch, an original march theme in Debussy or the sometimes melancholic feeling of life and landscape that Mendelssohn experienced during his visits.
You have a history with French music, having recorded Debussy, Ravel and Messiaen. This season you’ll be presenting Roméo et Juliette by Hector Berlioz and works of Debussy and Ravel. Do you perceive common threads, stylistically or otherwise, in the music of these composers?
I have started to introduce more French music to Taiwan, starting last season with 19th-century French music and continuing into the 20th century this season. The music has a special history and includes an extraordinary number of colors and textures. Like a French perfume, French music has a particular blend and refined structure. The music of Berlioz, for example, is very different from that of Debussy or Ravel, a distinction I want the orchestra and audience to feel and understand.
Your 2022-23 season also includes a “One-Minute Symphony Project” showcasing young composers. How does this program work?
In the One-Minute Symphony Project, young Taiwanese composers submit a one-minute (actually up to 1’59”) piece which is reviewed and workshopped by me and the Taiwan Philharmonic. This short parameter allows them to refine one or two main ideas. The composers participate in every step of the rehearsal and performance process and get a professional recording of their piece at the concert.
Last season there were 10 participants and this season there are 12, with the goal of continuing to grow and expand in the coming years. I regard this initiative as an important incentive and support for young composers to gain professional experience and to develop into the next generation of highly qualified composers from Taiwan.
You’ve worked with many orchestras over your career. What makes the Taiwan Philharmonic special?
The Taiwan Philharmonic encourages and communicates with the people of Taiwan. People of all ages enjoy and engage with the Philharmonic, in part due to Taiwan’s wonderful early music education programs. Taiwan is also a beautiful place to perform, with some newly constructed halls, some world-class halls, and our great main concert hall in Taipei. Besides always working on achieving the highest musical quality, we are highly dedicated to education projects as well as supporting the next generation of musicians in Taiwan.
What can audiences look forward to when the orchestra tours internationally next year?
As ambassadors of Taiwan, we hope to build a connection between Taiwan and other countries through our performances on tour. We are very excited to perform a newly commissioned work by Taiwanese composer Ke-Chia Chen, highlighting a contemporary work coming from a Taiwanese composer. Overall, during our international tours we wish to connect and start a dialogue with people of the world through the joy of performing music.
The Taiwan Philharmonic’s full schedule is available at its website.