Finally, a long-awaited event: the first visit of a Chinese symphony orchestra to our city. It almost happened last year, when the Beijing Symphony was announced and then cancelled, replaced by a percussion ensemble. And this season there was talk of that same orchestra visiting us, but again it didn´t materialize. However, Nuova Harmonia obtained the presence of the Shanghai Symphony, and it was a positive experience at the Colón.
This needs a lot of historical background. It is of course by now common knowledge that the Chinese economy has grown prodigiously these last thirty years and has now surpassed Japan as the second in the world. As Gorbachov was the wizard that led to the implosion of communism in the USSR, Deng Hsiao Ping did something even more amazing: he led China away from the disastrous Band of Four and its infamous Cultural Revolution and gradually put China in the road of prosperity with a sui generis brand of capitalism.
Mind you, during the better years of the Mao Tse Tung (Mao Ze Dong) regime there were symphony orchestras in the Occidental mold, along with Chinese traditional instrumental groups such as those that the Colón saw accompanying the Peking (Beijing) Opera many decades ago. But the ten catastrophical years dislocated both cultural ways. However, afterwards matters gradually returned to some normality, as we can see in that wonderful film with Isaac Stern, "From Mao to Mozart". New orchestras were born, and old ones were revived. And as their economic system started to expand, and the midlle class grew, audiences became bigger and more sophisticated.
And late in the Twentieth Century, Hong Kong reverted to China. Their Philharmonic has been for decades one of the best orchestras in Asía, along with the NHK of Japan (the only Japanese orchestra that ever visited us, back in 1966). And another orchestra became important in that area, the Singapore Symphony. They have recorded a lot and would be most welcome here.
And that brings me to another matter: the fantastic capacity of adaptation of Orientals to what is basically an Occidental idiom; viceversa it doesn´t work: we don´t have experts in their music or their instruments. However, that applies to interpreters: China, as far as I know, hasn´t produced outstanding composers; Japan, very few. Of the Chinese, I would only mention as well-known (but not first-rate) Tan Dun and Chou Wen-Chung. I mean, of course, academic music in the Western style: a Peking opera or a Kabuki show have their ages-old music, always unvaried in their style.
This year Enrique Diemecke included some Chinese music in the Buenos Aires Philharmonic and, as I wrote, I found them rather poor, apart from the pleasure of hearing the pipa (Chinese lute). Although the choices seemed to me better in the Shanghai Symphony programme, I fail to find them of any substance according to our Occidental standards (I can´t feel like a Chinese). But they brought along in this tour a wonderful artist, Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov, whose recital years ago at the Colón was a high point of the musical year.
The Shanghai Symphony (95 musicians) took its current name in 1956 but started as the Shanghai Public Band in 1879, a time of strong British influence. In recent decades they had such guests as Muti, Masur and Dutoit, along with famous soloists. And they made many international tours. Long Yu, its Director since 2009, has also posts in Beijing and Guangzhou; also, he founded in 1998 the Beijing Music Festival and in 2000 the Chinese Philharmonic.
A ten-minute Symphonic Overture called "Instants of a Beijing Opera" (1999, revised 2004) was written by Chen Qigang (born 1951); the music was pleasant and brilliant but superficial. "The Butterfly lovers" is a sentimental one-movement violin concerto based on a Chinese opera; it is a score created by students : He Zhanhao (born 1933) and Chen Gang (born 1935) wrote it in 1959; there are numerous versions of it, including one for typical Chinese instruments. It has been recorded often. The 25-minute sectionalized Concerto purports to follow the destiny of two lovers that eventually convert into butterflies and live forever! The music is pentatonic, quite melodic but treacly and undramatic.
It was in the ideal hands of Vengerov, who adapted to his playing the constant sliding from one note to another; he was incredibly smooth with constantly beautiful sound. In both works (of course premières) Long Yu and the Orchestra impressed very favorably. But where Vengerov showed his mettle was in the encore, the intricate Sonata-Ballad Nº 3 by Ysaÿe, done with marvelous command and bite.
The great Symphony Nº 5 by Shostakovich proved a perfect choice to appreciate the quality of conductor and orchestra. Long Yu was completely faithful to the score and obtained both expressive pianissimi and massive climaxes, whilst his tempi were always right. The players were uniformly very good, though with some metallic feeling; they are probably more comfortable in this music than, say, Brahms, for they seem to lack the mahogany hues (especially the violins), but in a single concert with a Chinese First Part it would be unfair to go beyond a mere supposition.
In that sense the encore wasn´t useful, for it was a three-minute Chinese melody. But I was left with no doubt that the Shanghai Symphony was a star visitor.
For Buenos Aires Herald