By Kyle MacMillan
The playing of even the best Chinese orchestras long lagged behind that of their counterparts in the West, but they are quickly catching up and attracting international attention, especially the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.
Famed American conductor Leonard Slatkin, who celebrated his upcoming 75th birthday at Ravinia leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on August 7, has been traveling to Asia as a guest conductor for nearly four decades. He led three of mainland China’s orchestras in March and was particularly impressed with the Shanghai ensemble. “The level of [talent] in that orchestra in the three years since I conducted there last and this year was markedly higher,” Slatkin says. “It’s become a very important orchestra, and they play very well.”
The Shanghai Symphony is enjoying a major moment in the spotlight. The orchestra is marking its 140th anniversary with its first-ever studio album on the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label and a three-week world tour. Its itinerary includes stops at Amsterdam’s famed Concertgebouw and debuts at the BBC Proms and Edinburgh International Festival in Great Britain and Wolf Trap in Vienna, VA.
The trip also features the orchestra’s first-ever appearance in the Midwest at the Ravinia Festival on August 16, with famed cellist Alisa Weilerstein as guest soloist. It is a return visit for its esteemed music director, Long Yu, who conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra there in 2007 with Chinese pianist Lang Lang, “I was very impressed with this most famous festival,” Yu says. “I’m so glad that I can take my hometown orchestra and visit Ravinia this year again.”
Western classical music all but died out in China during the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and continued until the death of Mao Zedong 10 years later. As part of this brutal political crackdown, intellectuals, artists, and others seen as “class enemies” were persecuted, exiled to the countryside, and, in some cases, killed. But interest rekindled with the reopening of the Central Conservatory of Beijing in 1978 and other music schools across the country as well as with top students later seeking advanced training in the United States and Europe.
In recent years, the country’s interest in the genre has exploded. The Wilson Quarterly reported that some 36 million Chinese children were studying piano in 2012, six times more than their counterparts in the United States, and that number has no doubt climbed since. [A substantial part of that particular growth can be attibuted to the influence and stewardship of Lang Lang, whose career skyrocketed in 1999 when at Ravinia’s gala benefit concert he substituted at the last minute for André Watts in a performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.] New concert halls and opera houses have sprouted across the country, including the sleek, 1,200-seat Shanghai Symphony Hall, which opened in 2014. It was designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, who won the 2019 Pritzker Architecture Prize, the top honor in the field.
“The Chinese have become an important factor in the global marketplace,” Slatkin says, “and in order to do that, they realized, much as the Japanese and Koreans did, that they also had to have an understanding of the Western cultural world, especially after the death of the Mao. You had whole generations that didn’t know a single note of either Western classical or pop music, and then all of sudden this explosion took place to try to be part of the global economy.”
After advanced studies at what is now known as the Berlin University of the Arts, Yu returned to China in 1992 to become principal conductor of the Central Opera Theatre in Beijing. In the more than 25 years since in the country’s flourishing classical environment, Chinese orchestras have “amazingly developed,” the conductor says, and some of the credit no doubt belongs to him. The Chinese maestro made his debut with the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra in 1993 and became that ensemble’s music director in 2003. In addition to his leadership post with the Shanghai Symphony, he also serves as artistic director and chief conductor of the China Philharmonic Orchestra in Beijing.
In all, Yu says, mainland China has more than 80 professional orchestras, including five top-tier orchestras—the three he leads as well as ensembles in two cities with populations of more than 10 million people. They are Shenzhen, a city in the Guangdong Province that is bordered by Hong Kong to the south, and Hangzhou, the capital and most populous city in the Zhejiang Province in eastern China. Each of the five boasts extended concert seasons and regularly books international guest conductors and soloists.
But while many of these orchestras were founded in recent decades, like the Hangzhou Philharmonic Orchestra in 2007, the Shanghai Symphony is a striking exception. Not only is it the oldest symphony orchestra in the Far East, but it is also one of the longest established such ensembles anywhere in the world. In comparison, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra marked only its 125th anniversary in 2016. “Even the Berlin Philharmonic was later than the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra,” Yu says. “Can you believe that? That’s amazing.”
Perhaps even more amazing, Yu says, program books and other archival materials in the orchestra’s library make clear the orchestra performed consistently even during difficult times like the Chinese Communist Revolution, which resulted in the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution. In the 1930s and ’40s, what the conductor called a “golden period” for the orchestra, it was a refuge for Jewish musicians fleeing Nazi Germany. When the Shanghai Symphony traveled to Austria some years ago, he met an elderly woman whose father served as concertmaster in the orchestra during the early 1940s and she recalled living in the city with her family as a child.
Since 2009, when Yu became the orchestra’s music director, he believes the orchestra has taken a “big step forward.” That assertion jived with Slatkin’s impression of the orchestra, which came to his first rehearsal totally prepared, allowing him to focus on musical issues rather than technical concerns. “In the case of the three orchestras that I conducted,” he says, “it’s very clear that Shanghai is the one that has the most chops to offer and is closest in terms of understanding the Western styles very comfortably.”
In 2014, the Shanghai Symphony joined forces with the New York Philharmonic and Shanghai Conservatory to form the Shanghai Orchestra Academy, a two-year, post-graduate program for advanced orchestral training. As part of the joint initiative, the New York Philharmonic makes regular appearances in Shanghai and some of its musicians travel to the city four times a year for master classes and other instruction.
A further sign of the Shanghai Symphony’s growing stature, Deutsche Grammophon signed the orchestra to a contract last year—the label’s first with a Chinese orchestra. In January, the orchestra released a live recording of a concert at the Imperial Ancestral Temple outside Beijing’s Forbidden City, and on June 28 came its first studio recording on the label. The latter release, titled Gateways, combines selections by Fritz Kreisler and Serge Rachmaninoff with two works by Qigang Chen, a Chinese-born composer who was Olivier Messiaen’s final student in 1984–88. Chen has lived in France since, becoming a citizen of that country in 1992.
Included on the album is Chen’s orchestral suite Wu Xing (The Five Elements) and his 2017 violin concerto La joie de la souffrance (The Joy of Suffering), which features famed soloist Maxim Vengerov, for whom the piece was written. Music critic Richard Fairman wrote in the Financial Times that the concerto “has a distinctly French feel to it (Chen studied with Messiaen) together with a piquant touch of the exotic.”
The orchestra’s upcoming world tour will include performances of two works from that album—Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances and Chen’s The Five Elements, a piece that refers to the ancient Chinese philosophical belief the world was composed of five core elements: water, wood, metal, fire, and earth. “I really wanted to have the chance to introduce people to Chinese thought,” Yu says, “and also to how Chinese contemporary composers contribute to our musical order and bring the cultures together.” Also on the Ravinia program will be Antonín Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, with Weilerstein as soloist.
“I think Shanghai deserves a world-recognized orchestra,” says Yu, a Shanghai native who grew up during the Cultural Revolution. “It’s really a delight of the city. I’m very proud not only for myself but also for all the musicians who really worked with me. That’s an incredible achievement.”
China, especially with the country’s growing number of orchestras, is becoming a significant factor in the international classical scene and one to which Slatkin believes the West needs to pay more attention. “The Chinese are finding their way,” he says. “We’re seeing a lot of creative activity now. Chinese composers are becoming more popular and better known and are trying to integrate Western styles into their own cultural styles.”
But as its anniversary world tour is designed to make clear, few if any of the country’s classical institutions has soared higher than the 140-year-old Shanghai Symphony. “It’s an important force,” Slatkin says, “and it’s gaining in stature.” ▪
Kyle MacMillan served as classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He currently freelances in Chicago, writing for such publications and websites as the Chicago Sun-Times, Wall Street Journal, Opera News, and Classical Voice of North America.