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Shui Lan [Photo courtesy of Shanghai Symphony Orchestra]
16 Mar 2011

Magnificent Mahler by Shanghai Symphony

It was, of course, only a coincidence, but a week of ideal spring weather — no rain and low humidity — found Shanghai in a perfect mood for an all-Mahler program by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra on March 12.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 1 in D major (the “Titan”); Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer)

Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. Shui Lan, conductor. Yang Jie, alto. Shanghai Orchestra Hall, March 12, 2011.

Above: Shui Lan [Photo courtesy of Shanghai Symphony Orchestra]

 

The bird calls of the First Symphony were unhackneyed, and those who recalled Mahler’s early programmatic references in the work to the awakening of spring — to fruits and flowers — found themselves in a magic garden for a program that combined the Wayfarer Songs and the four-movement version of the First Symphony. Even had it been performed in a Midwestern blizzard, however, this was Mahler that made one sit up and listen — and be grateful for a moving musical experience.

The Shanghai Symphony, which dates back to a municipal band in the 1870s, is today the outstanding orchestra of Eastern Asia. Under Music Director Long Yu it has toured Europe and the US and has even been heard at the movies on the sound track of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Although it must be said that the SSO does not have the refined and mellow sound of many Western ensembles — the silvered strings and burnished brass, it has something of greater importance: the dedication of its instrumentalists and their full emotional involvement in what they are doing.

Guest conductor for Mahler was Chinese-born Lan Shui, currently music director of the Singapore Symphony and — since 1907 — chief conductor of the Copenhagen Philharmonic. Given the conductor’s adolescent mien, it is difficult to believe him old enough to have once been tutored by Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood. In the States he has held positions with orchestras in Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore and Los Angeles.

Lan Shui is elegant and unmannered and he knows his Mahler as if by instinct. His reading of the First Symphony was analytic, but never academic. He sensed in the score a narrative impulse, but knew how wrong it would be to make that into a romp through field and forest. And outstanding was his “feel” for the irony that gives the First that “there’s-more-here-than-meets-the-ear” sensation. He deliciously caught the tongue-in-cheekedness of the hoarse bass that leads to “Brother Martin” in the third movement, thus making clear that this is funereal music of quite a different color from that heard in the Fifth Symphony.

For even the still-youthful First can grow lugubrious in the hands of a conductor with no understanding of the many levels of the score. Thus it was no surprise when Lan Shui brought the horn section — bells up-turned — to its feet in the brass blast that concludes the First. This was exuberant Mahler.

China’s Yang Jie is a true alto with a radiant and resonant low register well suited to the Wayfarer Songs, on which Mahler worked in the years of the First Symphony. In the West she includes Carmen in her signature roles. Long gone is the day when Wayfarer with its story of unrequited love was consider male property — just as the outwardly maternal Kindertotenlieder were once assigned to female vocalists. With perfect German diction Yang Lie is totally at home in the cycle with its shifting moods, its light and dark moments.

The quality of the March Mahler was undoubtedly enhanced by the presence in the orchestra of all four members of the Shanghai String Quartet. Founded in the city three decades ago and now on the faculty of the local conservatory, the four men enjoy “sacred-cow” status in Shanghai. When in town they teach at the Conservatory from which they graduated. (In the States they are in residence at New Jersey’s Montclair State University.) First violinist Weigang Li served as concert master on March 12.

Although the Shanghai Concert Hall, the orchestra’s local home, was built by a Chinese architect in 1930, it would be at home next door to Vienna’s gilded Musikverein or any of the historic halls of Europe that have survived. The hall — 1200 seats seems a good guess at its size — was reopened in 2004 following total reconstruction. It is acoustically sound, and generous lobbies opened onto balconies on a mild March evening. It is close to downtown, and taxis at a flat rate of 12 Yuan — no tips! — abound.

It would be presumptuous for a first-time concert goer in China to draw sweeping conclusions from a single experience. Nonetheless certain things were happily obvious. The concentrated — indeed, devout — attention that the Chinese bring to music is astonishing. Barely a muscle moves; even breathing seems hushed. There is absolutely no applause between movements, and the standing ovation now near-obligatory in the West is absent in Shanghai. Enthusiastic applause continued until conductor took concert master by the hand and left the stage.

The college-age set is a far larger part of the Shanghai audience than it is in the States — explained in part perhaps by the fact that the city boasts China’s major conservatory. And dress? As in almost all countries today one comes as one is. The “little black dress,” if China ever had one, has gone the way of the Mao jacket!

Wes Blomster

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