I’m not exactly in the mood to celebrate glossy official showpieces for Chinese modernity, but I appreciated the TV broadcast of the recent Prom by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Long Yu.
The Beeb still can’t help going to town on the unbeatable cliché “East meets West”—as if even now all this, um, International Cultural Exchange (oops, there goes another one) is some novel discovery, some audacious, exotic experiment (cf. They come over ‘ere, and China–Italy).
One of the most readable accounts of Chinese music,
- Richard Kraus, Pianos and politics in China (1989),
gives some leads to the chequered history of the orchestra. It originated in the Shanghai Public Band, founded back in 1879 by a German professor with six other European musicians. In 1907 it became the Shanghai Municipal Symphony Orchestra, and in 1919 they hired the Italian conductor Mario Paci (1878–1946; see also here), a graduate of the Paris Conservatoire; his orchestra included many White Russian and Italian musicians.
In 1922 the orchestra was renamed the Shanghai Municipal Council Symphony Orchestra. Under Japanese occupation it became the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra. Among the Jewish refugees from Nazism who swelled the city’s expat population from the mid-1930s were many musicians.
Some Chinese players were admitted from the late 1920s, but by 1938 there were still only four of them in the orchestra; paid less, they had no social interaction with the European musicians. The audiences too were mostly Caucasian.
Among the Russian musicians in Shanghai was the composer Alexander Tcherepnin, who promoted both Western and Chinese music in Shanghai and Beijing from 1934 to 1937. Bach’s B minor Mass was performed in Shanghai.
Paci was a leading light in the founding of the Shanghai Conservatoire in 1927. In 1935 he invited the composer Xian Xinghai to conduct the orchestra for a concert, but they refused to play under the baton of a Chinese. Paci was in charge of the orchestra from 1917 until 1942, when the orchestra had to disband, with many foreign musicians and conductors leaving. After the 1949 “Liberation” it was re-formed in 1950, becoming the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra in 1956.
One of the protagonists of Kraus’s study is the pianist Fou Ts’ong (1934–2020), who studied with Paci from 1943. Seeking political asylum after the 1958 Great Leap, he made his home in London, where he became a great friend of my own violin teacher Hugh Maguire.
The orchestra inevitably suffered grievously as the Cultural Revolution exploded in 1966. Whereas Soviet orchestras had managed to maintain high standards, Chinese orchestras, even after the liberalizations from the late 1970s, took many years to develop.
I’m pretty sure most of the band would be bemused by my own tastes in musicking around Shanghai—Kunqu, folk opera, silk-and-bamboo, Daoist ritual… Meanwhile the more cosmopolitan aspect of musical life in swinging Shanghai before Liberation is covered in another fine book,
- Andrew Jones, Yellow music: media culture and colonial modernity in the Chinese jazz age (2001),
It opens with a vignette on the African-American trumpeter Buck Clayton, leader of the Harlem Gentlemen in Shanghai on the eve of the Japanese occupation. Back in the USA he worked with Count Basie; Billie Holiday, no less, described him as “the prettiest cat I ever saw”.
Here you can watch a trailer for Marketus Presswood’s documentary Yellow Jazz, Black Music (2021(.
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The Prom began with The five elements by Chen Qigang, (b.1951), a Messiaen pupil and one of the most meticulous and imaginative of Chinese composers. Eric Lu then played Mozart’s wonderful A major piano concerto.
And a suitable choice, reminding us of Shanghai’s Russian heritage, was Rachmaninoff’s final work, the Symphonic dances (1941). I’ve only been getting know the piece quite recently, but it already ranks with the 2nd symphony in my affections. Among noted recordings are those of Golovanov, Svetlanov, and Kondrashin; but given that the piece was composed in American exile, Mitropoulos’s 1942 version is a popular choice. Here’s Kondrashin with the Moscow Philharmonic in 1963:
Among the glories of the Symphonic dances is a solo part for alto sax—again suggesting Shanghai’s jazz background. As an encore, a smoochy and bombastic arrangement of Molihua (another perennial Chinese music cliché)—strangely endearing as a snapshot of a bygone age of Chinese symphonic writing—led into a stirring rendition of Hey Jude, with fine jazzy solos on sax and trumpet and an audience singalong (for the Beatles original, see Alan W. Pollack’s analysis; cf. A Beatles roundup).
Now I dream of a Shanghai Daoist ritual at the Proms…