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Shanghai Symphony Orchestra's 2003 Tour at ECU

October 2, 2003 - Greenville, NC:

A survey of performances of the mature piano concertos of Mozart heard in the central Piedmont over the past thirty years reveals a shameful pattern of single appearances. With string-shy regional orchestras, every five-year programming period ought to have revealed scheduling of these jewels from the master instead of too-frequently-repeated Romantic repertory. True, Mozart is a cruel perfectionist, and there is no plush scoring under which to sweep errors. The listing of Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K.488, a personal favorite, on the program of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra for East Carolina University's S. Rudolph Alexander Performing Arts Series more than justified a two-hour one-way pilgrimage from the Triangle on October 2. The able soloist was Tian Jiang, who was born in China during the famine resulting from the Cultural Revolution of condemned "intellectual" parents. He first came to international attention when he appeared with Vladimir Ashkenazy in a BBC film about the latter's historic visit to China. Jiang was one of the first artists allowed to leave after the upheaval, and he continued his studies at the Juilliard School. His honors include prizes at the William Kapell International Piano Competition and a Van Cliburn award. His playing was a model of classical style with all passages beautifully phrased and articulated. The close co-ordination with the important woodwind and brass parts were of chamber music quality. I believe he used the short original cadenza by Mozart. Music Director Xieyang Chen wove a carefully balanced accompaniment that fit like a glove.

The diverse complexity of Rossini's Overture to William Tell gave conductor Chen a chance to show off the quality of the 124-year-old orchestra. Based on ECU's previous experience with the Russian National Orchestra, I doubt that Wright Auditorium's shallow stage allowed all of the orchestra's "nearly a hundred veteran players" to be seated, but it was well packed. The solo cellist earned the conductor's acknowledgement with his sensitive and richly phrased playing of the famous opening solo, with divided cello section parts. Though a very string-dominated orchestra, there were fine solos from the woodwinds, horns and - not least - the trumpets. An older patron quipped "the 'Lone Ranger' theme" when he heard the infamous trumpet solo, and I had an urge to go get some Merita bread!

The "Polovetsian Dances," from Borodin's opera Prince Igor , were equally well played. Conductor Chen showed confident mastery of a wide range of musical styles.

The concert opened with "Night of the Torch Festival," the last of four movements from Xilin Wang's tone poem "Yunnan," which won an Excellence Prize in a 1981 National Competition in China. It is somewhat reminiscent of the regional folk music explorations of Rimsky-Korsakov and Khatchaturian, and the program notes drew attention to "three different themes (that) resonate throughout this movement: strong and vigorous male dancers; mild and graceful female dancers; and the rejoicing and feverish mass dance." The strings played a driving rhythm at the beginning, and there was fine woodwind playing later. In this piece, the solo oboe affected a special "pinched quality" that mimicked a traditional folk instrument. If all the sections of Wang's tone poem are as long as this one, it would make for a substantial portion of any program.

Pianist Jiang was the soloist in Jorge Calandrelli's arrangement of music "A Love Before Time," composed by Tan Dun for the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon . Labeled as "Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra," it is reasonably lush and romantic in style with a fairly continuous piano part. It is pleasant enough, if rather "busy," but it is certainly not on a level with the superb Mozart.

Lack of realistic instrumental sound and noisy sound reproduction has always reinforced my strong prejudice against compositions using recorded tape. Jian'er Zhu's Symphony No. 10 ("Fishing in Snow"), Op. 42, for tape (Chant-recital and Ch'in) and orchestra, was commissioned by the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University in December 1999 and was premiered in the USA. Featured on the recorded tape is the playing of the Qin, or using its full name, Guqin, China's oldest stringed instrument, dating back 3000 years. The Qin used in the recording was named "Thunder of Spring" and was made in the Song Dynasty (960-1280). So much for the Early Instrument Movement! The composer was inspired by a poem written by Liu Zong-yuan (773-819), a scholar and philosopher of the Tang Dynasty who was frequently exiled for his strong disapproval of the political corruption of the time. The text of the poem, "Fishing in Snow," is:

From hill to hill no bird in flight
From hill to hill no man in sight
A straw-cloak'd man in a boat, lo!
Fishing on river cold with snow.

None of the program notes provided by ECU or the orchestra was clear about what was being chanted by Changrong Shang on the tape. Alas, speakers mounted from the ceiling at the auditorium's four corners clearly carried a persistent low hum throughout the performance. Sometimes the scoring briefly made me think of an amalgam of Schoenberg and Shostakovich. The orchestral dynamics were very wide indeed, from extraordinary "ppp" high twitterings in the strings to forte, for full orchestra. The brass made some eerie sounds and the piano's strings were plucked using the wooden end of a drumstick. The exploitation of the harmonics of the cellos and double basses was interesting, but overall the work didn't make me hunger for a repeat anytime soon.

Two encores were given. Alas I did not catch the name of the composer of an unusually delightful Serenada for Strings, which would be a welcome addition to the repertory. The ECU audience was thrilled by a rousing and completely idiomatic performance of John Phillip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever." The conductor led a wily and witty performance and had the three piccolo players and brass sections stand for their showy episodes. This got the standing ovation the Mozart performance deserved.

The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra traces its founding back to 1879 when French flutist Jean Remusat established the Shanghai Municipal Public Band, which, after much growth and a plethora of name changes, adopted its current name in 1956. Xieyang Chen has been its Music Director since 1986. Most of its current players seem to belong to the generation born during or after the Cultural Revolution. Though its sound is string dominated, I suspect that acquisition of better string instruments would lead it to develop a much richer sound.