Chinese get a charge out of PSO's powerful Beethoven

Editor's note: This is the first of a series of reviews and reports by classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod, who is on tour with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in China and Taiwan.

BEIJING -- By rights, there should be pieces of the National Centre for the Performing Arts lying all around the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra after this concert.


In this mammoth oblong structure the Chinese affectionately refer to as "the Egg," the orchestra broke through with a charged performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 Thursday evening.

Although the concert started slowly, that work and two encores introduced the power and the passion of the PSO and music director Manfred Honeck to a new generation of Chinese who have become avid classical music lovers. The PSO performed in Beijing in 1987, but a lot has changed since then with new policies of openness to the West.

This first concert of the orchestra's 2009 Asia tour was one that no doubt landed it new fans, although that was not certain after the first half.

The concert opened with Christopher Rouse's "Rapture," which seemingly failed to capture the audience's interest. While it is admirable that the PSO would take an American piece abroad (one it commissioned), Rouse's slowly building work didn't do the trick, despite its triumphal ending. In a similar fashion, the transfiguration of Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration" elicited only polite response from the audience, many of whom bolted for the doors.

The incredibly short intermission of less than 15 minutes probably played a role in their rush. The cavernous interior of the Egg, while stunning with its wood and glass juxtaposition, made for a hike to get coffee. The logistics probably have much to do with why about a quarter of the audience didn't stream in until after the Rouse piece.

In general, the concert experience at the Egg was not much different than that of Europe or America. However, the ushers were not the music-loving volunteer type, but strict taskmasters who scanned the crowd constantly for unruly behavior. Sometimes they overdid it, but on other occasions, their actions were warranted as some audience members talked loudly during the performances. Anyone trying to take a photo got zapped with a laser -- well, a laser pointer.

Honeck's ferocious Beethoven Seven -- already a minor legend in Pittsburgh -- brought the Chinese to their feet, hands clapping above their heads and even eliciting some whoops. The people's heroes were the same as in Pittsburgh, with Rhian Kenny's bouncing pied piping leading the way in the first movement and Timothy Adams' buoyant timpani barreling underneath. The rhythmic vitality of the strings was impressive and the horns and trumpets had a grace amid potency, the latter using new rotary valve trumpets made in Vienna that help Honeck get the orchestra timbre he wants in the repertoire.

The Concert Hall at the Egg, while visually resplendent with silver organ pipes, a rippling ceiling and a clear plastic canopy, came across as dry and tending to resist blending. It was most apparent in "Death and Transfiguration," which calls for an individuality of wind instruments that still melds. But the Beethoven blew right through that in impressive fashion. Honeck's statement here, including ending the second movement with pizzicato in all of the strings (counter to how it has been done, but possibly what Beethoven intended) is tremendous, and its uplifting effect on the audience could not be mistaken.

Shaken but unbroken, the Egg ably showcased the power of the PSO, which performs its second concert here tonight before moving on to Shanghai.

Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at . He is now blogging about China at Classical Musings . First Published May 15, 2009 4:00 AM


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