By Truman C. Wang
The Western classical arts in China, like its economy, have experienced exponential growth in the last 20 years. When the Shanghai Symphony visited the Southland in 1990, it was a scrappy, provincial ensemble with few things to recommend it. But when it returned to Costa Mesa and Santa Barbara in 2009 with conductor Long Yu, the improvements were unmistakable and breathtaking. Fast-forward to 2016, the Shanghai Symphony has been supplanted by the China Philharmonic Orchestra in 2001 as the premiere symphony orchestra of China, and maestro Yu took the CPO to L.A. on its first tour of the Americas (3rd stop in a six U.S. city tour). Despite a poorly-sold house, possibly due to it being a Monday night, the L.A. concert by the China Philharmonic Orchestra showed it to be an impressively brilliant ensemble with a solid grounding in the Romantic works and a colorful orchestral palette.
The high standard of playing was credited to Long Yu, a Berlin-trained conductor who single-handedly built up two major orchestras in Shanghai and Beijing with a varied repertoire of classical favorites and newly-minted Chinese works. Qigang Chen’s Enchantements oubliés (“Forgotten Enchantments”), scored for only strings and percussion, is a harmonically ambitious, French-influenced work bearing traces of Debussy and Messiaen, and provided a favorable first impression of the orchestra. The strings sounded plush and refined; the percussion was exemplary, with special kudos for the virtuoso solos by a very petite female timpanist nearly dwarfed by her drum set.
Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, "From the New World" was no less fine in the ensemble playing, adding to it a mellifluous woodwinds section and punchy brasses and you have the stuff a top-tier orchestra is made of. Maestro Yu drove his players hard, producing a great deal of electricity and brio in the Allegro movements, but unfortunately at the expense of the famous English horn solo in the Largo, losing much of its ‘quietly nostalgic’ effect.
Similarly, the performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major was long on showmanship and short on the real Beethovenian substance of legato, rubato and sforzando. The precocious 12-year-old pianist Serena Wang played sweetly and elegantly in the best Mozartian style, blissfully unaware of Beethoven's 'con brio/with fire' marking. She (or her handler) also opted for an indecently long and flashy cadenza that Beethoven surely never wrote, effectively turning it into a mini-'Serena Wang recital'. The orchestral playing sounded choppy (too much 'portato' where smooth legato was needed) and flowed awkwardly, rendering the ‘long-short-short-long’ rhythm in the first movement as ‘long-short-short-short’. It was as though the Chinese musicians, despite being equipped to tackle the most virtuoso passages thrown their way, had hit a road block trying to navigate the finer sensibilities of the Classical composers. Louder, faster and more notes are not necessarily better.
Perhaps this is symptomatic of the present-day China as a whole. In a mad dash to create and amass huge wealth, the Chinese are living in the fast lane and gobbling up Western arts as voraciously and blindly as they do Western luxury goods. In a state-sponsored system, the arts tend toward either nationalistic showmanship or popular Western standards to show your best ‘face’ (Face is everything in the Chinese culture). This is why Western opera has trouble taking hold in China beyond the Bohemes, Turandots and Carmens; and the Chinese concert programs are peppered with Beethven’s Ninth and other such large-scale works of pomp and bombast, lacking in real substance. Even the Chinese classical music superstars like Lang Lang and Yundi are regularly paraded in front of TV viewers and game shows like glitzy pop icons.
For serious Western music and opera to prosper in China, more education beyond the occasional ‘master classes’ is needed to foster better understanding and appreciation. Judging from the low audience turnout and the applause in between movements, there is still a long road ahead. However, this first visit by the excellent China Philharmonic Orchestra was a promising start.
Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.