PREVIEW — For a brief time, the NCPA Orchestra was known as China’s youngest orchestra. That was back in 2010 when it was founded as the resident ensemble for Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts and hit the ground running with all the excitement and frustration of a Silicon Valley start-up.
The NCPA Orchestra has embarked on a six-city U.S. tour (which opened Oct. 28 at Chicago’s Symphony Center and continues on to New York, Philadelphia, Chapel Hill, San Francisco, and Ann Arbor) ostensibly to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its parent organization. The scope of its offerings, though, paints a larger picture of China’s musical life in the 21st century.
This is not the first time the orchestra has crossed the Pacific. The ensemble made its North American debut in 2014 in time-honored Chinese fashion by renting the venues and mostly self-producing the events. This time, each of the orchestra’s appearances takes place in the regular concert season. “This is not just a milestone for us,” the orchestra’s managing director Patrick Ren explains. “It makes us stand apart from many other Chinese orchestras.”
The NCPA Orchestra does stand apart — and not only from its Chinese peers. Few orchestras maintain such a balance of operatic and concert repertory — the Vienna Philharmonic, the Mariinsky and, to a lesser extent the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra come to mind — and none have had that balance so carefully cultivated from their inception.
Much of that success in the pit has to do with Lü Jia, the orchestra’s current music director and chief conductor who is also the former music director of Italy’s Verona Opera. Beyond Lü’s leadership, the orchestra has had a steady stream of guest conductors, from Zubin Mehta to Myung-Whun Chung and Fabio Luisi. Lorin Maazel recorded his Ring Without Words Wagner distillation with the NCPA Orchestra for release on Sony Classical (available in the U.S. on iTunes).
China being China, the NCPA Orchestra didn’t remain the country’s youngest for long. New symphonic ensembles have been sprouting across the country — China now has 75, according to a conference of Chinese orchestra administrators last month in Guangzhou — and each has its own particular history and artistic and civic identity.
So the former new kid on the block soon found another claim to fame – China’s hardest-working orchestra, or as many Beijing musicians have cynically observed, “note-for-note, China’s worst-paid ensemble.” Even the orchestra’s administration admits to a tough workload, mostly spent in the rehearsal room.
“You have to remember, we have no concrete repertory experience to draw on,” says Ren. “Each performance is the first time that the full orchestra — and indeed, many of our individual musicians — have played a particular piece.”
The NCPA performance season may be full, but its scheduling is hardly arbitrary. With no musicians’ union in China, the orchestra’s administration consulted a wide range of orchestras in Europe and the United States to determine both a standard level of programming and a reasonable workload for individual musicians.
What was not negotiable was the orchestra’s presence in the opera pit. The NCPA opened in 2007 with the Mariinsky Theatre’s production of Borodin’s Prince Igor, and Western opera has been in the forefront of its programming ever since. With at least 15 opera productions a year, each with four or five performances, pit duties alone require a minimum of 70 performances. On top of that, Ren says, is the orchestra’s own concert season, which consists of roughly 20 programs annually, most with more than one performance.
“We tried to work out a scheme where the orchestra — though not each musician — would have 100 performances each year,” he adds. Individual musicians are responsible for about 70 concerts annually. With rehearsals, that adds up to some 300 “service sessions,” to use the industry term. “People often say that the future of classical music is in China,” Ren says. “I’m not sure if that’s really true, but our orchestra is composed of precisely the young musicians that people are talking about.”
If the orchestra management needed any further justification for marathon rehearsals, it came in late August with Mariusz Trelinsky’s Tristan und Isolde, an NCPA co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, the Polish National Opera and Festival Baden-Baden. Unlike the orchestra’s earlier Wagner outings in The Flying Dutchman and Lohengrin where Lü Jia emphasized the composer’s Italian influences, guest conductor Shao-Chia Lü (the former head of the Staatsoper Hannover) embraced Wagner’s fully Germanic maturity. And after five hours, the playing in the pit still showed no signs of strain.
The NCPA Orchestra’s tour programs are (mercifully) shorter, but more far-reaching. Brahms’ Fourth Symphony is balanced by Lou Harrison’s Pipa Concerto (with soloist Wu Man) – and Sibelius’ Second Symphony is matched with the Yellow River Piano Concerto (with soloist Haochen Zhang). Each program features a U.S. premiere by a living Chinese composer. “Classical music in China has always been a fusion of classic and contemporary, with East and West learning from each other,” Ren says. “Most of all, this tour is a way of showing American audiences what we’ve been doing at home.”
In trying to showcase the breadth of China’s contemporary music, one could do worse than juxtaposing the works of Zhao Jiping and Chen Qigang. Zhao’s reputation as “the John Williams of China” is hardly an exact fit, but both composers have led organizations steeped in musical vernacular (Zhao’s Shaanxi Song and Dance Theatre broadly matches Williams’ tenure with the Boston Pops), and both have become intrinsically associated with iconic film directors, with Zhao sonically characterizing Zhang Yimou (“Farewell My Concubine”) as much as Williams has defined Steven Spielberg.
For Ren, though, the relevance goes much deeper. “The film music has a folk-like beauty,” he admits, “but Zhao’s concert works really opened doors in national music much like Dvořák and Tchaikovsky.” Zhao’s First Violin Concerto, with soloist Ning Feng, appears on programs in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Chapel Hill.
Chen, though, is a different matter entirely. An elder member of the “Class of ’78” — the first students to enroll at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music after the Cultural Revolution — Chen was the first to leave China. Well before his colleagues Tan Dun, Chen Yi, and Zhou Long relocated to America, Chen was awarded a state grant to study in France. He fell in with Olivier Messiaen and became the French master’s final student between 1984 and 1988.
“In China, you learn to be subservient to everyone. If necessary, you must be entirely at the disposal of society,” Chen told me when his music was featured at Carnegie Hall’s “Ancient Paths, Modern Voices” festival in 2009. “Messiaen was the first person to teach me you have to be true to yourself.”
Chen was certainly true to himself — raising a few eyebrows in the process — earlier this month by cancelling Itineraire d’un illusion, a work co-commissioned by the NCPA and Carnegie Hall that was to have received its world premiere in Beijing and performances on tour in the U.S.
“I made the decision after watching the rehearsals,” Chen told the China Daily. “It’s just not what I want. It’s the first time for me to cancel a scheduled premiere. But for artists, it’s important to acknowledge wrong ideas and start all over again.”
The NCPA Orchestra will replace Itineraire with Chen’s Luan Tan, a 2015 work premiered by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Xian Zhang. Also on tour programs is Chen’s Reflect d’un temps disparu with cellist Gautier Capuçon. Both pieces are U.S. premieres.
Chen’s La joie de la souffrance, written for the China Philharmonic Orchestra and violinist Maxim Vengerov, is scheduled for its world premiere Oct. 29 to close the Beijing Music Festival.
Ken Smith divides his time between New York and Hong Kong, where he is the Asian Performing Arts Critic of the Financial Times.