China Ascending: The Shanghai SO Shines In ‘Gateways’

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Gateways – Qigang Chen: Wu Xing (The Five Elements)suite for orchestra. La Joie de la souffrance (The Joy of Suffering), concerto for violin and orchestra. Fritz Kreisler: Tambourin chinois, Op 3. Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, Op 45. Maxim Vengerov, violin. Shanghai Symphony Orchestra/Long Yu, conductor. DG 483 6606. Total Time: 74:21.

DIGITAL REVIEW – Many years ago while I was teaching at the University of Hong Kong (1966-69), I moonlighted as a double bass player in the Hong Kong Philharmonic. And so it was that I had the pleasure of playing under Arrigo Foa, an elderly Italian musician who had been the first concertmaster of the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra, the forerunner of today’s world-class Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.

More recently, I had the honor of visiting conductor Jonathan Sternberg (1919-2018) at his home in Philadelphia. Sternberg had briefly been the conductor of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra at the end of World War II. Such connections have made me want to know more about this distinguished orchestra – it is celebrating its 140th anniversary this year – and it has become one of my lifelong spheres of interest. And to know more about the SSO and its history is also to learn a great deal about China and its on-again, off-again love of Western classical music.

One of the best books on the subject of China and Western classical music, and the origins of the SSO is Rhapsody in Red by Sheila Melvin and Jindong Cai (New York: Algora Publishing, 2004). But now we are also getting a steady stream of recordings by the orchestra, produced by Deutsche Grammophon. Carmina Burana, recorded live in the Forbidden City in Beijing, came out last year in CD (836 5944), DVD (735 6136), and Blu-ray (735 6143) formats, and now we have a Qigang Chen-Kreisler-Rachmaninoff CD featuring violinist Maxim Vengerov. Also available for download only (483 64497) is a set called “The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra: Great Recordings Vol. 1” with performances of the Beethoven Ninth and the Mahler Second and a variety of other works.

The new CD is titled Gateways although there is no explanation in the booklet as to its meaning. I would guess, however, that Gateways refers to the city of Shanghai and its history as a place where musicians and others came from all over the world to find refuge. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, for example, many White Russians fled to Shanghai. During the Second World War, Shanghai was welcoming to Jews from Europe when doors were closed to them elsewhere. Apparently, it is Shanghai’s Russian connection that the DG programmers had in mind by including a Russian violinist in the CD mix as well as Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, even though the piece was composed and premiered in the United States. As far as I know, Rachmaninoff never set foot in either in Shanghai or anywhere else in China.

Qigang Chen

Qigang Chen (1951-) is one of the most prominent of contemporary Chinese composers, and he is represented on this new CD by two major works. Chen was born in Shanghai but has lived in France since 1984. He was a victim of the Cultural Revolution but survived to go abroad to study and became the last student of Olivier Messiaen.

Chen’s orchestral suite Les Cinq Elements was composed in 1998-99 and recorded in 2003 (Virgin Classics/EMI 7243545549). The suite is in five movements depicting water, wood, fire, earth, and metal, and in the words of the composer, seeks “to establish relationships between the materials, so that each element generates the next one and the last therefore becomes the consequence of the first.” The suite is for the most part quietly contemplative with harp and winds in the foreground. It is pleasingly beautiful music but to some listeners it might appear to be lacking in drama or conflict.

The violin concerto La Joie de la souffrance is similar in style and with few opportunities for solo display. My sense is that in both works the composer has carefully chosen each note for its own special meaning and is inviting the listener to react accordingly. In his notes for the recording, James Jolly states that in the violin concerto the composer makes use of a “quite French-sounding orchestral palette that is also undeniably Chinese.” By French-sounding, I would guess that he means impressionistic in the manner of certain works of Debussy and Ravel, with a possible touch of Messiaen. Perhaps so.

But the Chinese part I think is more debatable. There is no attempt to imitate traditional Chinese traditional instruments or stick to pentatonic scales nor to simulate Chinese folk songs. In any case, Chen has moved far beyond what used to be called chinoiserie. On the other hand, Vengerov, the excellent soloist in the violin concerto, offers an encore that is unquestionably the real thing as far as chinoiserie is concerned, Kreisler’s Tambourin chinois. It is a brilliant and charming encore piece, and Vengerov plays it for all it is worth.

Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances is the major work on the CD, and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra plays it like the world-class ensemble it has now become. The orchestra has an impressively refined sound from top to bottom with distinguished woodwind soloists and well-schooled string sections. Conductor Long Yu knows how to shape phrases with the utmost delicacy and brings out the prevailing melancholy of these dances without wallowing in it.

Yu has become what one might call the general music director of China, simultaneously heading up its three leading orchestras in Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou. He also finds time to appear as a regular guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic. But Yu was born in Shanghai, and one suspects that the SSO may be closest to his heart.

The Philadelphia Orchestra was the first American orchestra to visit China, in 1973. Since then virtually all the major U.S. orchestras have traveled to China, and some of them have established annual residencies there. These cooperative efforts reflect an explosion of interest in Western classical music in China, and not surprisingly the country has developed its own orchestras to a standard never seen before.

And the touring is no longer one-way. This past summer the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra under Yu made an international tour with stops at the Ravinia and Wolf Trap festivals in the U.S., the Proms in London, the Edinburgh Festival, and the Lucerne Festival. This was not the first major tour by a Chinese orchestra, but it confirmed the growing impression that China is no longer a developing country as far as classical music is concerned. It has arrived.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.ludwig-van.com (formerly musicaltoronto.org) and www.myscena.org.