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Made in China

11/16/2010 -  and November 15 (Bern), 17 (Basel), 18 (Sankt Gallen), 19 (Geneva), 2010
Liu Yuan: Train Toccata
Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3 op. 26
Tan Dun: Death and Fire, Dialogue with Paul Klee
Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird, Concert Suite No. 2 (1919)

Mélodie Zhao (piano)
Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra, Muhai Tang (conductor)

M. Tang (© Alberto Venzago)

Principal Conductor Muhai Tang, well known to Zurich audiences through his music directorship of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, was visibly delighted to introduce his Chinese orchestra to local concertgoers. The main interest in this Migros-promoted concert was how this oriental orchestra would actually sound, the impact of the two pieces by modern Chinese composers and a performance by 16-year old Chinese pianist.

The Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra developed from the Shanghai Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra (before that, from 1954 onwards, it was the Shanghai Film Orchestra); Muhai Tang is now its Music Director. It was only in 1997, some time after the end of the Cultural Revolution, that the orchestra embarked on its first foreign tours.

The concert opened with Liu Yuan’s Train Toccata, a fine evocation of a steam train, not however the first composer to have thought of that. The percussion had its day, of course, the woodwinds downed their instruments and sang along. The music, reminiscent of John Adams, is certainly great fun, but entries were not together and there was a general lack of finesse and ensemble.

Then on to the Prokofiev, and his Third Piano Concerto. The 16-year old soloist, born in Switzerland of Chinese extraction, certainly impressed with her aplomb and her dazzling fingerwork. Technical ability was never in question, but at times one wished for simply more volume, Tang not always muting his orchestra sufficiently. Tang revelled in the vitality and sarcastic wit of the work, but all eyes and ears were focussed on the soloist. She rewarded her enraptured audience with a splendid encore, noted for its difficulty, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6.

Tan Dun went to an exhibition some years ago on the Swiss painter Paul Klee at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He was extremely moved and wanted to write a symphony based on the title of one of the pictures, namely Death and Fire. He entitled his new work a dialogue between himself and Klee’s paintings, not in any sense a musical description of particular works. Although constructed of many small sections, his symphony is imagined as a complete, continuous whole. Death and Fire is more decidedly built on melodic ideas than some other Tan Dun pieces; the frequent scoring for low strings suggests the strong-lined black and white texture of a Klee painting.

Each of the seven variations is full of interest, introducing strange and mystical noises of all types from all sorts of musical and other instruments (such as large pebbles being knocked together). It is at times ear-splitting, at other times gentle and charming. Chinese overtones invade only one of the variations. Tang once again was alive to the wit of the piece and its savagery but the piece, for all its merits, is too long and interest wanes. It also managed to bring out in the audience the worst of the November coughers.

To end this varied and entertaining concert Tang brought us the Firebird Suite No. 2 which gave the orchestra a chance to show their mettle. Sadly, whilst there were some fine contributions from the principals, the overall impression was of a film music orchestra not quite getting to grip with more intricate Western music. The orchestra fared better in the louder passages where ensemble and finesse were not as vital. Flutes were inaudible throughout, horns and brass generally ragged, strings lacking any warmth or particular tone.

The audience was however clearly enthused by the novelty of seeing an (almost) entirely Chinese orchestra (rather than a Western orchestra punctuated by the now common heavy sprinkling of Oriental string players) and was amply rewarded by no less than three encores, a Chinese folk melody for strings, then the Boccherini Minuet, then a repeat of the final part of Liu Yuan’s Train Toccata.

One was left with an uncanny feeling that, as with everything else which is now “made in China”, the Chinese are getting there, slowly but very surely.

John Rhodes



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