Wednesday, June 11, 1997

An Evening with Beethoven in Olde Shanghai

A foreigner laying over in Shanghai for the weekend will find the new but already internationally renowned Shanghai Museum a worthwhile diversion, but what about the evenings? On just such a Saturday evening, I had a choice of attending a live concert of Irish folk music or the Shanghai Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra.

The Irish folk song group was the Chieftains, five-time Grammy award winners according to the local news article. On the phone, the ticket office explained that tickets were going fast and only ducats selling for ¥240 and ¥400 a piece, roughly $30 and $50, were left. Yanni had just swept through China before packed stadiums at those international prices and obviously the Chieftains were in the same league.

By contrast, the all-Beethoven program featured two native sons visiting from the United States where they have made their reputation. The soloist, Zhu Daming, was the first Chinese to win the Van Cliburn competition for pianists (most recently won by a local American school teacher) and is now teaching at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. Ye Cong, the conductor, was a graduate of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and had also won several international prizes including being one of three best young guest conductors of the San Francisco Symphony in 1989.

The ticket office of the concert hall did not convey the impression that the tickets were hot selling items. At a range of ¥10 to ¥40 ($1.25 to $5) per ticket, the price was right and made the choice easy. I didn't even have the chance to buy from the box office. As soon as I alight from the cab, I was persuaded to take one off the hands someone with extras and at no "premium."

The concert hall itself was vintage colonial architecture and had been designated a historic structure to be protected and preserved by the order of the Shanghai government. The rather dilapidated exterior seem at ease with the surrounding rubble, caused by the construction-in-progress of the cross town elevated expressway over that section of Yanan Road.

The interior of the concert hall was another matter. The foyer led to symmetrical stair cases that started in the middle and rose to the sides similar in form to many European opera houses. The stairs consisted of pink marble balustrade and the second floor accented with soaring and ornate rococo columns with black caps on pink marble. From the orchestra section one can see that the balcony was marked with stripes of subdued shade of gold filigree on maroon background and faded pink walls. The ceiling was also ornate consistent with the rest of the interior. In its glory days, this hall must have been quite an elegant setting for the colonial elite.

By now, the seats were lumpy and with random degrees of downward droop. As the audience shift from one uncomfortable position to another, the seats' creaking complaints tended to disturb the listeners. The stage was obviously too small for a full orchestra, especially evident when the grand piano was wheeled out for the Emperor Concerto and the violin section had to wrap themselves around it. Fortunately, the acoustics was rich and clear.

The program opened with Leonore Overture followed by a moving rendition of the Emperor Piano Concerto No. 5, by far the highlight of the evening. After the intermission, the orchestra played Beethoven Fifth Symphony. To my untrained ears, I thought the wind section was a little weak. Since the pieces were all popular and familiar classical music, it was most enjoyable listening and a great (and inexpensive) way to spend an evening.

Compared to the Beijing audience (where I attended a performance of Mahler Symphony No. 2, also featuring a returning artist, in this case, Ms. Deng Yun, a mezzo-soprano from New York's Metropolitan Opera), the Shanghai audience was more sophisticated. There were fewer young kids in the audience to fidget through the performance and there were only rare indiscretion of enthusiasm by applauding between movements.

I have been told that classical music is making a come back in China since Secretary General Jiang Zemin has been seen attending and enjoying the symphony. Obviously, the returning classical musicians, having made their reputation on the international stage, were making appearances to give something back to their motherland. It was therefore disappointing to me that the concert hall was only slightly more than half full for a fine event such as this. There were only a smattering of foreigners in the audience. They must have been bigger fans of Irish folk songs.

No comments: