Asia's reaction to PSO favorable overall
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The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra typically pulls in the plaudits when it goes abroad. Some European critics have even prized the PSO over traditional American powerhouse ensembles.
But in Mainland China, where the classical music scene is still developing, there are no full-time classical music critics.
The training and interest is just not there yet for newspapers to hire critics, says Rudolph Tang, the knowledgeable editor of Symphony World, a Chinese-language glossy magazine that carries mostly features on world figures. The paucity of reviews about the PSO's performances in Beijing, Shanghai and Kaohsiung, Taiwan, bears him out. Most is reporting, with scant -- though positive -- mention of the performances here and there.
The Jiefang Daily called the PSO's performance at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center "brilliant," saying that its interpretation of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 "was emotional, layered and full of personality, greatly excited the audience."
The Xinmin Evening News reported more on the audience than the music: "The relaxed, orderly rhythm and the well-measured performance carried the audience along, from the light skip of the beginning to the beautiful realm created by the woodwinds. The long ovation by the audience brought the orchestra back for an encore featuring Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5."
The Shanghai Evening News repeated other critics' assessments that the PSO "has always been celebrated for how well it combines the essence of Europe with the vitality of America, and the depth of Germany and Austria with American-style boldness, when performing German and Austrian compositions." The paper's only specific comment was: "The result is youthful, yet elegant."
The Oriental Morning Post had the most intriguing assessment of the Shanghai concerts -- and the most polemic: "Numerous American orchestras have paid us visits in the past two years, but they seem to have found it difficult to pass muster. The New York Philharmonic was condescending even while their arrangements turned chaotic, while the Chicago Symphony Orchestra brimmed with arrogance but lacked depth." Ouch.
"However, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was a little different this time. Having been led by European maestros like [Fritz] Reiner, [Andre] Previn and [Mariss] Jansons, and now with [music director Manfred] Honeck at the helm, the orchestra could be said to be among the most European of orchestras in the United States. It combines the essence of Europe with American vitality; the depth of Germany and Austria meets American boldness."
The paper goes on to quote who else but Tang, who said of the PSO: "The tones are bright, the brass is prominent and the linear nature of the conducting is good."
Although he was interviewed for the Shanghai concert, Tang is based in Beijing and heard the PSO there. As of yet, the PSO could garner no press from its concert there at the National Performing Arts Centre, known as the Egg.
The reason has a lot to do with the greater context for the PSO's 2009 Asia tour. Two of the four concerts corresponded with huge events and these received press. The music was not the primary driver.
In Shanghai, the orchestra's concert closed the Shanghai Spring International Music Festival. The concert was delayed while a deputy mayor gave a speech. Just a deputy, you say? Well, in a city of around 19 million people, a deputy mayor represents more people than Mayor Ravenstahl.
In Taiwan, the event was even more crucial. The concert marked the grand opening of the new sports stadium in Kaohsuing a few months before it hosts the 2009 World Games. With fireworks and nearly 40,000 people, including a slew of local dignitaries, the music was being put to work. The PSO went along with it, changing its tour program to include Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
I could find only one English-language report of the event, a bare-bones Central News Agency account that mentioned the capacity audience of 35,000 was "ecstatic." The day after the concert, newsstands brimmed with huge photos of the fireworks and the orchestra.
There weren't any reviews, but if one reporter can judge crowd reaction, so can another. At first, I thought they were less interested in the music than the opening of the stadium, since they cheered the fireworks-as-cannon-fire of the "1812 Overture" and sat calmly while Honeck's lively interpretation of Beethoven's Seventh sped by. But Beethoven's Ninth brought great reaction and some amazing, roaring cheers at the end. The audience especially applauded bass-baritone Gregg Baker. His entrance was electric, but little did the audience realize, that was in part because stage crews had accidentally left monitor speakers on the stage on, so that he was double amplified.
"That was a shock, actually," said Honeck. "I thought first he was too close to the microphone and that they made the wrong amplification. In rehearsal it was completely different."
Even with poor speakers, the audience seemed to really appreciate the orchestra's vigor. I didn't witness even one person whispering to another, whereas the audiences at the Egg -- mostly Chinese tourists to the city I am told -- and Shanghai were appreciative but noisy at times. The PSO will likely be back to both Chinas in the future. It will be intriguing to see how the classical music machinery continues to develop, to see if fuller reviews come forth.
In either case, the audiences had their say, and it was Xie xie (thank-you).
First Published June 3, 2009 12:00 am