Editor's note: This is part 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.
SHANGHAI -- The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was held in the warm embrace of a city Saturday night, when the people of Shanghai wouldn't let the orchestra off the stage.
In a concert at the spectacular Oriental Arts Center, conductor Manfred Honeck had just finished the second of two planned encores, Grieg's "Morning Mood" from "Peer Gynt," when the audience began robust and rhythmic clapping to demand another. Mr. Honeck made several curtain calls and the musicians took to their feet several times in acknowledgment, but it was not enough. The crowd would not allow the PSO to leave unless it got another.
Luckily, PSO librarian JoAnn Vosburgh had packed all of the tour's encores into the musicians' onstage folders, because Mr. Honeck eventually gave in to the crowd's demands for more. To the audience's delight, the orchestra tore into Brahms' "Hungarian Dance No. 5." Even missing some wind musicians, who weren't needed for that night's program, the piece brought the house down. Mr. Honeck egged the audience members on, asking them to clap with the orchestra.
The fuse that ignited this audience explosion was Mr. Honeck's incendiary interpretation of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7. As has been the case throughout the tour, the energy and drama he drew out of the orchestra was irresistible. And again, it made up for lackluster soloing in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, "Emperor," by pianist Orion Weiss.
Luckily for the PSO, the Beethoven Symphony ended the program, and the excitement of the musicians in tutti and solos left the audience wanting more.
The Oriental Arts Center is an architectural marvel, with a flower-blossom shape when viewed from above and tall glass-panel walls seen from below. The interior of its concert hall (one of several auditoriums) mirrors the shape of the entire building, with petal-like seat sections.
Acoustically warm, the hall got better marks from PSO musicians than the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing.
With its concert here, the PSO closed the Shanghai Spring International Music Festival, which included concerts by Staatskapelle Dresden, Chanticleer and the Shanghai Quartet. A vice mayor of the city gave a lengthy pre-concert speech extolling the festival, no doubt sharpening his skills for the many speeches to come when Shanghai hosts the 2010 World Expo. Signs of preparation for that are everywhere, but the PSO did its part for the United States early in this concert by displaying not only its talents, but its spirit of cooperation with enthusiastic audiences.
In restaurants and in street booths, the food was ample, diverse and appealing -- well, perhaps pigeon on a stick didn't appeal to everyone. Food stalls with this and other unusual cuisine came alive in the dinner hour around the city's Yu Gardens, an old park that also is home to a bustling bazaar. There you can find a wide range of gifts, from exquisite jade sculptures to "splatter pigs," round, plastic jelly toys that spread out flat when thrown on the ground. But be prepared to haggle for a decent price for whatever you buy.
In the center of the Yu Gardens on a small pond sits the exquisite Huxinting Teahouse, built in 1784 with zigzag bridges to ward off evil spirits.
With the exception of Hong Kong, Shanghai is the most Western city in China. It was forcibly opened when the country lost the Opium Wars with Britain. Starting in 1842, the city had different zones, or concessions, in which foreign countries followed their own rules. Britain, France and America among them.
As a result, the city is more cosmopolitan than Beijing, where the PSO opened this 2009 Asia tour, and also more gregarious. Government presence is hard to find and China's communist past is faint, giving way to both the old-style markets and modern shopping venues such as the huge Super Brand Mall.
Shanghai also is architecturally rich, with an array of compelling buildings. The most distinct is the Oriental Pearl Tower, which looks like a spaceship. But the towering Shanghai World Financial Centre and the early 20th-century skyline of the Bund, a promenade on the Huangpu River lined with hotels and banks, are just as stunning.