PSO tuning up for status boost in classical hotbed: China


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It has been 22 years since the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra traveled to China, but its upcoming concert tour to the mainland and Taiwan is more about the future of the orchestra -- and of classical music -- than its past.

That's not just because the PSO, which leaves Pittsburgh tomorrow for a four-concert tour, is debuting in the metropolises of Shanghai, China, and Kaohsiung, Taiwan, in addition to performing in a visually arresting new hall in Beijing.

Since China's oppressive Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, many Chinese have sought out other cultures. Western classical music, which had a history in China before Chairman Mao, has returned to be a dominating force in the country's entertainment and education industries.

"China is becoming one of the centers of Western art music," said PSO President Larry Tamburri.


PSO Schedule

Manfred Honeck, conductor; Orion Weiss, piano; Vienna State Opera Concert Choir, Taiwan National Experimental Chorus, National Sun Yat-sen University Women's Chorus and Kaohsiung Medical University Singers; vocal soloists.

Thursday: National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing. Rouse's "Rapture," Strauss' "Tod und Verklarung" and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.

Friday: National Centre for the Performing Arts. Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, "Emperor," and Mahler's Symphony No. 1.

Saturday: Shanghai Oriental Arts Center. Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5, "Emperor" and Symphony No. 7.

May 20: Main Stadium, Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 and Symphony No. 9, "Choral," fourth movement.


In a country of 1.3 billion people, even small trends expand to staggering numbers. For example, between 38 million and 50 million Chinese are now studying piano, according to varying reports. That's more than the number of Americans who go to orchestra concerts each year.

Consider also that China produces more instruments than any other place on Earth, more than 40 major orchestras have sprouted across the country and some of the great stars of the industry now hail from China, including pianist Lang Lang and composer Tan Dun.

The native populations of both China and Taiwan are producing more and more top quality musicians trained in classical music, a trend reflected in the PSO, which has several members born on mainland China and in Taiwan.

Since 2006, assistant concertmaster Hong-Guang Jia has been taking PSO musicians to teach master classes and perform at Tianjin Conservatory. In April, the group performed in Beijing's new concert hall complex, the National Center for the Performing Arts.

"I am so proud that China could have a hall like this," he said. "That China could be a world stage for classical music is so amazing."

It all adds up to a hot iron that orchestras in the United States and Europe are keen on striking to gain recognition.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra and New York Philharmonic have recently visited, and the National Symphony Orchestra is due this month. Many smaller groups also have toured there -- the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra and the Heinz Chapel Choir recently -- but for a multimillion-dollar budget orchestra such as the PSO, it may well be crucial to its economic plans.

"China is a viable and vital nation," said Marcie Solomon, general manager of the PSO.

A tour now enhances the PSO's reputation as a top touring American orchestra; the orchestras of Boston, Dallas and Philadelphia have recently canceled tours to Europe because of the economy. The PSO's tour is heavily supported by the Henry L. Hillman Foundation grant for international touring as well as Westinghouse.

In 1973, the Philadelphia Orchestra became the first U.S. orchestra to visit mainland China, followed by other luminaries, such as the Berlin Philharmonic in 1978 and violinist Isaac Stern in 1979, whose visit was documented in the film "From Mao to Mozart." But Chinese music critic Rudolph Tang said that today, politics take a back seat to finance.

"Here is the free market ruled by market demands," he said. "Just hold on and wait till the market is mature and its intellectual property fully recognized."

The PSO is wise to promote itself and its new leader, music director Manfred Honeck, in that fertile market. The Asia tour will be the first international event with the Austrian conductor.

Appropriately, this new chapter in the PSO's long history will take place in a concert hall known as "The Egg." The National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing is a massive ellipsoid structure covering nearly 330,000 square feet, or roughly the size of two Mellon Arenas. It rises half-a-football field high and nearly as far underground.

Proof of the importance of music -- Western and Eastern -- to new China lies in the hall's location: adjacent to Great Hall of the People, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, sites sacred to China past and present. Inside are four main auditoriums: a concert hall, an opera house, a theater and an experimental theater space. The PSO will perform two concerts, with canonical repertoire including Beethoven and Strauss.

The orchestra will then travel to Shanghai, once the West's portal to China and now at the forefront of its modernization. The orchestra will give a concert at the new Shanghai Oriental Arts Center, which from above resembles an orchid blossom. It opened in 2005 and also holds four halls.

Leaving mainland China for nearby Tawian and the tour's last leg, the PSO will play a most peculiar concert in Kaohsiung on the southern tip of the island. This event, complete with fireworks said to rival the Beijing Olympics, will inaugurate the city's Main Stadium, newly built for the World Games 2009.

The structure is perhaps the world's greenest stadium. Its 8,844 solar panels not only power the facility but also will offer an annual 1.14 million-kilowatt surplus for surrounding neighborhoods.

"It will be a bit of a spectacle. We wanted to make the repertoire festive enough," Ms. Solomon said. The orchestra will do just that with Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, "Choral."

That the PSO would be included in another country's showcase to the world demonstrates its international prestige. The Allegheny Conference on Community Development and its marketing affiliate Pittsburgh Regional Alliance are hoping to capitalize on it with another promotional trip coinciding with the PSO Asia tour.

"This is about attracting investment from China," said Roger Cranville, who as senior vice president for PRA heads Asia business initiatives. He will look to establish and improve business connections, with specific concerns in energy and in establishing Pittsburgh as an air cargo hub with China. The PSO joins the equation as anything from a status symbol to simply a meeting point.

"The Chinese have heard of the Pittsburgh Symphony, and it is important to be seen going to these concerts," said Suzi Pegg, vice president of global marketing.

She and Mr. Cranville credit the orchestra for helping with many successful business dealings abroad. A major one is the new direct flight from Pittsburgh International Airport to Paris, negotiated first in meetings in Amsterdam when the orchestra performed there last year.

In the newly capitalistic China, it is money that proves the prestige and power of the PSO's presence. Tickets for the mainline China concerts are selling for about twice as much as most natively produced concerts and more than most foreign ones, with some tickets reaching $150 or more.

That's a world of difference from the PSO's first trip to Beijing in 1987 as part of a Far East Tour with music director Lorin Maazel.

"It was everybody's first time," said violist Paul Silver. "No orchestras except for a few had been there."

By 1987, things had opened considerably, but the Chinese government was still wary of an American group.

"There was a government travel agency that took us around," Mr. Silver said. "You were free to walk around, but they kept a little bit of an eye on us."

Among other works, the orchestra performed Dvorak's Ninth Symphony at the Beijing Concert Hall and Beethoven's Ninth, with the "Choral" movement sung in Mandarin, at the Beijing Worker's Gymnasium.

"The audiences were incredibly enthusiastic," Mr. Silver said.

The PSO is banking on audiences having the same reaction 22 years later and hoping that the concerts will set up such reactions for years to come.


Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com . He blogs on wide range of related topics with your comments at Classical Musings .


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