Taiwan is barely on the radar as far as most Western classical music aficionados are concerned. A recent visit, however, by the 40-member Taiwan National Choir certainly alerted those who heard it that something extraordinary must be going on over there. Their concert in Montreal, last stop on a six-city tour of Ontario and Quebec, provided one of the most outstanding and satisfying musical experiences I’ve had this year. The rich, meaty program consisted of music by three major 19th-century Austrian and German composers, plus a sampling of Taiwanese folk songs in tasteful, modern arrangements.

Taiwan National Choir
Taiwan National Choir

Three Bruckner motets opened the concert. It was immediately apparent that the choir’s director, Agnes Grossmann (her father led the Vienna Boys’ Choir for many years), had molded these singers into an ensemble approaching the peak of perfection. The homogeneity and purity of sound (almost velvety at times), perfect balance, spot-on intonation (never have I heard perfect fifths more “perfect”), and the immaculate attacks and releases all pointed to hours – no, years – of hard work (Grossmann has led the choir since 2007). Perhaps most impressive of all were the ethereally beautiful pianississimos, whose effect was something akin more to gently vibrating air than to actual voices. The effect was otherworldly. The same composer’s 35-minute Mass no. 2 followed, for which an ensemble of winds (the standard symphony orchestra minus strings, flutes and tuba) was engaged. In a sense, the Mass provided something of a homecoming event for Grossmann, who had conducted many of these instrumentalists years before when she was music director of the city’s second orchestra, the Orchestre Métropolitain.

After intermission came songs by Schumann and the complete Zigeunerlieder (“Gypsy Songs”) of Brahms. The latter, along with Brahms’ Hungarian Dances for piano (and later in orchestrations), did far more to spread this composer’s name during his lifetime than did his symphonies and concertos. The popular demand in Brahms’ day for “gypsy” music, however ersatz it may have been, virtually ensured success for any works with this word in its title. Here, however, the TNC seemed on slightly less secure ground, as grappling with the fast-moving, tricky German texts commanded their attention to the degree that the sense of joy and good-natured fun inherent in the music was somewhat understated. There was the same level of contrast in dynamics as we had heard in the Bruckner works, but not as much contrast in character from one song to the next.

The choir’s extraordinary confidence and control, shown in the Bruckner works with their Latin texts, returned for the folk songs sung in the singers’ own language, some with the accompaniment of Chinese instruments and all without scores. Though I understand not a word of Mandarin, the choir conveyed the essence of each song in bright, clear, cleanly articulated sounds. Great fun! The enthusiastic audience demanded an encore, which it got in the form of another folk song. One left the concert wondering why most orchestral conductors do not demand the same balance of forces, homogeneity of sound, beauty of tone and technical precision as Agnes Grossmann draws from the TNC.