Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Shanghai

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I am just back from a little under two weeks in and around Shanghai.

The Great Firewall of China precluded (at least for a casual user such as I who has not mastered the art of internet proxies) any posts while I was there.

With a little difficulty (a craven and admittedly very last-minute request for assistance from the SSO having been met with the proud but not-quite-on-point response that the concert was sold out, as to which more later) I managed to get to hear the SSO’s Shanghai concert.

The program (which had already been given in Beijing and was to be repeated elsewhere) was:

Rachmaninov – Vocalise
Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No 1
Prokofiev – Symphony No 5.

Soloist was Behzod Abduraimov and Vladimir Ashkenazy conducted.

D (with whom and his mother I was staying in Shanghai) thought little of my desire to go to this concert, particularly as it necessitated a trip across town earlier in the day to the venue to buy a ticket in person. Why, having coming half way across the world, would I want to squander a day seeing something I could see at home?

The true answer is probably sentiment, coupled with a pathetically tragic element of I-can-blog-this. Aside from that, for the purposes of argument, the reasons and the content of this post can be divided into musical and extra-musical.

Taking the extra-musical first, there is this question of a “sold-out” concert. This may be true from the point of view of the official box office (there were perhaps 7 or 8 tickets for sale when I fronted at about 3 pm) but there is in fact an extensive secondary market, which is to say: touts. I spotted (and you can, too, in the picture below) a posse seemingly permanently encamped with booklets of tickets for numerous events in the afternoon. In the evening, between the metro exit a few hundred metres away and the concert hall, I estimate there were maybe 40 or 50. As a foreigner you are at a bit of a disadvantage in this market, being both presumptively rich and unlikely to walk away and also being unfamiliar with the vendors and with the indicia of an authentic tickets: forgery remaining a kind of sovereign risk. Having secured a ticket (at the top price of 680 rmb – more fool me), I didn’t put it the test, but in the past I have found it possible (preferably as undisclosed principal with a Chinese front man) to get tickets at 40 to 60% discount. I suspect that ticket prices are in truth a bit like airlines’ full fares – few really pay them unless it really is a hot ticket. This must also mean that the intermediaries in this market (ie, the touts) must get their tickets at an even bigger discount for the exercise to be worth their while.

Some things are universal: the cheaper seats (apart from a few opposite the piano and to the side) were pretty well fully occupied. The top-price bloc was much emptier, and given that this included VIPs (including the SSO team: I sat just behind the assistant conductor, Nicholas Carter and [graceless grudge alert] I’d say the official party could well have spared me a seat in their rows) the actual sales of this bloc cannot have exceeded 30%.

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The Shanghai Oriental Arts Centre (pictured above), where the concert was held, is in Pudong (literally: on the eastern side (dong) of the Haungpu river), and after the Shanghai Grand Theatre at People’s Square is the city’s No 2 venue (In Beijing the SSO played at the Forbidden City Concert Hall, which is possibly No 2 aeq with the Beijing Concert Hall or maybe No 3). The nominal ticket prices were the venue’s standard prices, and included a 50 rmb price for students. By way of comparison, the top nominal price for the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra, playing the next two nights at the SGT with Ricardo Chailly, was 1880 rmb.

There was an x-ray-style baggage search at the entrance. These are now becoming ubiquitous in China. D was stopped on our way into the box office in the afternoon and quizzed about a container of hair-gel he had just bought, which seems a little over the top, whatever the perils of peroxide bombs may be in aircraft.

A recorded announcement (in English and Chinese) broadcast at intervals in the foyer gave instructions on concert etiquette. It included:

  • please remain seated during the performance;
  • please remain silent during the performance;
  • please do not applaud between movements;
  • do not let children run around auditorioum lest they fall and hurt themselves; and
  • smoking and chewing gum are strictly prohibited.

The last seems rather tough on anyone with a Nicorette habit, but such people are probably rare in Shanghai.

Adherence to the first four precepts was pretty good: no children ran around and there will always be some applause after the first movement of the Tchaikovsky. I didn’t spot anyone smoking in the auditorium.

D claims that, in Shanghai, there are two groups of people who are commonly held to be “difficult.” The first, unsurprisingly, is teenagers. The second is women of a certain age, say late 50s to early 60s – the lost youth of the cultural revolution. These are thought to be tough customers. Two such women not far from me upheld the Chinese tradition of in-concert commentary, ostensibly rendered inoccuous by masking with a hand held obliquely in front of their mouths.

Rule of law is laxer in China than Australia: seat hopping occurred even before the first half.

The ushers are definitely there to supervise the audience, and a few are specially assigned to stand facing it with a stern demeanour. Just before the concert began, they marched down the aisles bearing illuminated signs reinforcing the simultaneous recorded announcement forbidding photography. This was then flashed up on the tickertape-style illuminated signs at either side of the stage throughout the concert (visible in the picture).

At interval, Behzod Abduraimov came to sit next to Nicholas Carter. This prompted a little rush of autograph-solicitation and then the inevitable next step as one young woman left her seat and attempted to get a picture of herself with him with her mobile phone. At this point the orchestra’s managing director, Rory Jeffes, rose from the seat he had taken up for the second half and proclaimed rather lordlily [probably not a word; maybe “lordlily”? I suppose I should say “in a rather lordly fashion” but probably from a Shanghai perspective more reminiscent of the legendary but never-forgotten “No dogs and Chinese” sign] “No Pictures!” I bet Rory was a prefect at school.

As Shanghai-born SSO violinist Shuti Huang (promoted to acting principal for the tour) has already remarked on the SSO’s pseudo-blog of the tour, immediately the applause finished our egress was accompanied by loud recorded music of a vaguely crossover-popular Chinese style.

As to the live music, I didn’t think so much of the first half. The Vocalise is a confection. There were two conspicuous french horn fluffs or split notes in the Tchaikovsky, including, embarrassingly, on the very first note. Ashkenazy has been quoted as saying that Abduraimov, aged 19, and this year’s winner of the London International Piano Competition, has a great future, and this seems accurate enough. Perhaps this is sufficient justification for his choice of Chopin’s Etude Op 10 No 1 as an encore, which would otherwise be semiotically inappropriate and indeed a little vulgar. That’s probably snobby of me, because the audience lapped this stuff up.

The main point of interest was to hear the orchestra in a drier and hence clearer acoustic than its home venue. This wasn’t always flattering to the violins, because though it gave them a better chance to hear each other for the purposes of unanimity, it also revealed more clearly when they fell short, particularly in the Tchaikovsky. The woodwind were also much more clearly audible: heard away from home, Diana Doherty comes through as their star.

In the second half, it was clear that the hard yards [yuk: sporting cliche] had been put in, including by the violins, and the orchestra delivered a truly crackling perfomance of the Prokofiev. I’m looking forward to hearing that again in Sydney, albeit in the SOH concert hall echo chamber.

For an encore, Mr Ashkenazy asked the audience to guess the composer: it was Elgar’s Chanson de Matin. I understand this from VA’s point of view, and it was truly charming, but could we not have had something either Australian or Chinese? I know the latter would have required something else once the orchestra left China, and nothing characteristic by, say, Julian Yu, would be likely to be palatable, but I don’t think you can overestimate the value on tour of buttering up an audience by serving them a bit of their own fare by way of gracious, even if kitschy, tribute.

5 Responses to “Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Shanghai”

  1. wanderer Says:

    Terrific post M, laced with detail and little bits if old arsenic. The Arts Centre from your photo (still waiting for the final installment of My Camera The True Story) looks Gehry-esque, although googling shows it is anything but.

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    […] my third concert in the SSO Prokofiev series (plus the preview at Shanghai – did I tell you I’ve recently been there?), I’m beginning to wonder if I’m […]

  3. That Sydney-Melbourne thing « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] have raised it with the SSO’s Rory Jeffes, evident on the free list, but having witnessed his display of masterliness in Shanghai in 2009 I expect I would be wasting my […]

  4. Back to Bruges « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] night of a rarety – though I think I detected signs of some (mild) papering. SSO MD Rory (Prefect) Jeffes was there in preference to his own orchestra’s slightly B-grade (in the strings at […]

  5. Verdi Requiem | Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] the performance there was to be a chat in the Northern foyer between Mr Robertson and Rory (“prefect”) Jeffes, the orchestra’s managing director, about Robertson’s plans for the […]

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