A Shanghai Prom

SSO Prom

I’m not exactly in the mood to celebrate glossy official showpieces for Chinese modernity, but I appreciated the TV broadcast (here for a stingy month) 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 (b.1934), 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 ShanghaiKunqu, 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”.

Buck

The Harlem Gentlemen at the Canidrome ballroom.

* * *

The Prom began with The five elements by Chen Qigang, 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.

Now I dream of a Shanghai Daoist ritual at the Proms…

Daoists

 

 

Pizzica at the Proms

CGS

As the end of this year’s Proms approaches, I went along to the “late-night” gig of Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino (CGS), hot on the heels of the Vienna Phil. Much as I love the Proms (and I recall some wonderful gagaku and raga in the Good Old Days), world music has never played much of a role there. This was another kind of Passion at the Proms.

Complementing Italy: folk musicking, this is the latest in a series of posts on taranta-inspired musicking in south Italy:

and while you’re about it, try

Based in Salento, the original CGS group dates back to 1975, led by Rina and Daniele Durante. The current leader is their son Mauro, on violin—which drew me back to the less polished fiddling on the extraordinary early footage of Ernesto De Martino.

Don’t get me wrong, I love loud music; but in the hall the volume seemed excessively loud and the sound rather fuzzy—it may work better on the radio broadcast (here, for the next month). With gutsy vocals, tamburello frame-drumming, organetto, wind playing, plucking, and dancing, the combo seemed more successful when they grouped more closely on the large stage.

Of course, it’s not just about sound. Pizzica—like Bach, The Rite of Spring, and Turangalîla, indeed—demands a physical reaction; with such pieces it’s hardly possible in concert, but in this case it’s an essential part of the experience. As large concert halls go, the Albert Hall makes a suitable venue; the prommers in the Arena, whether mobile or static, always enhance the occasion.

In LCD World Music fusion fashion (cf. my final rant here), guitarist Justin Adams and Malian kora master Ballaké Sissoko joined the band—though I’d still rather hear the latter playing his own music…

On this eclectic playlist, featuring scenic tracks from CGS in full MTV mode, as well as other groups, the intoxication of their live gigs features only rarely:

For the other CGS videos on that list, you may prefer the audio tracks over the glossy visuals. Elsewhere, here’s a 2013 gig in New York:

I’m really not being an old purist fogey here, but maybe what I want is the original line-up—though of course they were always seeking to be relevant to the changing times. Among several tracks on YouTube (search for “vecchio Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino”), try this:

 

Tchaik 6, conductors, applause

 

I’m reminded of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” 6th symphony (1893) by the recent Prom, a few days after his violin concerto. For audiences and performers alike, both works may seem like old warhorses—you think “Yeah yeah” and then suddenly you find yourself immersed in all this soul-searching intensity.

Among recordings, Mravinsky is a popular choice (see also this typically engaging article by Tom Service). Here’s his vivid 1949 recording with the Leningrad Philharmonic, as the whole society was recovering from the appalling sufferings of war—in mourning, relieved to have survived, anxious, re-internalizing dissimulation:

And here’s the great Rozhdestvensky with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, at the Proms in 1966 (alas, audio only):

I also want to feature Bernstein—mainly because I love him, but also because I’m reminded by my post on Paul Bowles, as well as John Eliot Gardiner’s recent vignette. Here he is in 1974 with the New York Phil on tour in Sydney, his stage presence mesmerizing as ever—as often, conducting from memory:

Far from the myth of the aloof Maestro-Dictator, the adulation for Bernstein is based both on the dynamic passion of his conducting and on his innovative role in the counter-culture. Norman Lebrecht, in his ever-readable The maestro myth (pp.180–205), explores Bernstein’s consecutive relationships with the New York and Vienna Philharmonic orchestras (for their Mahler, see also here, here, and here). Amidst Lebrecht’s signature exposé of the machinations of Big Business, it’s clear that Bernstein’s charisma inspired even hard-bitten musicians (for whom, see here, and here).

Mahler admired and promoted Tchaikovsky’s music, conducting celebrated performances of his operas. But though the dying finale of Mahler’s own 9th symphony echoes that of the Pathétique, it seems he never conducted it.

* * *

Whether or not we care to imagine the 1893 premiere, or indeed the lives of Soviet audiences in 1949 (cf. Haydn), the intensity of the Pathétique constantly deserves to be experienced afresh.

I’ve mentioned the “limping waltz” of the second movement in Taco taco taco burrito, introducing a range of aksak additive metres in different cultures.

The transition from the exhilaration of the third movement to the anguish of the finale, with the abrupt change of mood often interrupted by joyous applause, is one of those moments that continue to excite tedious controversy.

Applause between movements has long been a rallying cry for competing factions, only stimulated by the HIP movement, with conductors like Hogwood and Norrington encouraging it; but it remains a minefield. It’s worth reading this article by Alex Ross, and Chi-chi Nwanoku has revived the debate, eliciting a range of responses here.

Indeed, in the Good Old Days [sic] applause was common not just between movements but (as in jazz) even while the music is going on, as in the much-cited first performance of Mozart’s Paris symphony:

In the middle of the opening Allegro there was a passage that I knew people would like; the whole audience was carried away by it, and there was tremendous applause. But I knew when I wrote it what sort of an effect it would make, and so I introduced it again at the end, with the result that it was encored. […] I was so happy that I went straight to the Palais Royale after the symphony, ate an ice, said the rosary I had vowed…

Anyway, at the 1893 premiere of Tchaikovsky’s symphony the audience applauded after the third movement, and it’s always been common—not so much a tradition, or a superior piece of authenticity-upmanship, as a natural, spontaneous reaction. It seems cruel and pompous to deprive the audience of such a response, when the admission of is so intimidated by “rules”: when the slightest hint that what is going on here might be a dynamic social activity, or any physical response, must be suppressed. At the same time, conductors may not manage to forestall applause entirely, but they may interrupt it promptly by launching into the finale (as Rozhdestvensky did in the Prom).

In defence of the Proms audiences, a popular scapegoat for the puritans, there’s no other venue where silence is so exquisite.

Continuing to zoom out, how about the ullulations of the ahouach in Morocco, or (now I come to think of it) almost any other form of musicking?! For participants in most musical events around the world, the prissy niceties of WAM concert etiquette are mercifully irrelevant.

* * *

BTW, the opening of the finale is a “composite melody”, a kind of trompe l’oreille whereby the tune as we hear it (descending, conjunct motion) is divided between 1st and 2nd violins both playing unlikely, angular lines:

Tchaik 6

The two parts are demonstrated separately in Simon Broughton’s film Great composers: Tchaikovsky, with profound Russian thoughts from Yuri Temirkanov.

Anyone have other instances of this in WAM? It’s not quite like the hocketing cymbals of north Chinese ritual percussion, but hey.

This is one of many cases where the original antiphonal seating of the violin sections, facing each other on opposite sides of the platform, must enhance the audience’s experience. Indeed, placing them together only became common from the time of Stokowski and Henry Wood; several conductors, from Klemperer onwards, have retained or restored the traditional seating, both in the HIP and “straight” scenes.

More Messiaen at the Proms

 

messiaen

I spare no efforts to remind everyone of Messiaen‘s astounding Turangalîlabut an equally monumental (if rather less catchy) later orchestral masterpiece is his Des canyons aux étoiles (1974), which I attended at Sunday’s Prom, hot on the heels of the NYO concert.

Composed “to Glorify God in the Beauties of His Creations; from the colours of the earth and the songs of the birds to the colours of the stars and the Resurrected Ones in Heaven”, it was inspired by the canyons of Utah. It features a vertiginous solo horn part (notably the sixth movement “Interstellar call”) alongside piano cadenzas with Messiaen’s signature birdsong. The mystical intimacy of “The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran” makes a tranquil centrepiece, akin to the enchanted Jardin du sommeil d’amour in Turangalîla.

Again, short of staging it at Bryce Canyon itself, the Royal Albert Hall makes a rather suitable venue. Given the work’s cosmic dimensions, it uses quite modest forces, with percussion prominent—notably xylorimba and glockenspiel, aeoliphone wind machine and geophone sand machine, with impressive solos from Nicolas Hodges (piano) and Martin Owen (horn). Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra really know their way around this kind of music. Indeed, the orchestra did the first UK performance under Boulez in 1975.

Utah

Here’s a 2002 recording conducted by Myung-Whun Chung:

And here are the titles in English:

Part 1
The desert
The orioles
What is written in the stars
The white-browed robin-chat
Cedar Breaks and the gift of awe

Part 2
Interstellar call
Bryce Canyon and the red-orange rocks

Part 3
The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran
The mockingbird
The wood thrush
Omao, leiothrix, ‘elepaio, shama
Zion Park and the celestial city

For more Messiaen, see tag—not least Saint François d’Assise, and Éclairs sur l’au-delà …

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another great NYO Prom

I dragged myself away from the ullulations and percussion of Moroccan ahouach to go to the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain’s Prom. After a while away from WAM, it takes me some time to adapt to its conventions—music stands, behaviour, and so on.

But for all my reservations about WAM concerts, I’ve always loved the atmosphere of the Proms. The round building, and the arena, fosters a rare engagement with the audience. in the case of the NYO’s annual appearances this relationship is further enhanced by proud parents, but everyone shares in the exhilaration—their visits are always special (see here, and here).

This year’s all-Russian Prom was directed by Mark Wigglesworth. The highlight was his own arrangement of a suite from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, always riveting in performance. Only now that I read Figes’s The whisperers do I begin to appreciate the context of Prokofiev’s return to the Soviet Union in 1936, and the tribulations of artists and common people there.

NYO 1

In the first half, following Lera Auerbach’s Icarus (2011), Nicola Benedetti performed Tchaikovsky’s Violin concerto. It’s one of those pieces that I struggled with through my teens (cf. here), focusing on the virtuosity without beginning to understand where it was coming from. And, like Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto, it may suffer from familiarity, but it’s no mere lollipop (or, if you like, warhorse); it deserves hearing anew, with its plaintive wind solos. For Tchaik 6, see here.

As an encore, following her eloquent tribute to the band, Benedetti played Wynton Marsalis’s meditative solo As the wind goes, written for her. And the orchestra does a great line in encores too (cf. Hands free after Turangalîla in 2012!!!), continuing the Romeo and Juliet theme by launching joyously into Bernstein’s Mambo.

Just as inspiring an event, in its way, as an ahouach (also invigorated by the energy of young people)… The Terpsichorean muse, eh.

NYO 2

You can delight in the concert on BBC4 here, for the next month.

Mahler 3 at the Proms

After attending some memorable Proms this seasonMahler 10, Turangalîla, Ravel, Mahler 5, The Rite of Spring (post updated!)—I went out on a legal high with Mahler 3—a kind of  fin-de-siècle middle-European equivalent of the cosmic visualization of the Daoist jiao Offering ritual.

By now I must know what I’m in for when I go to hear a Mahler symphony, but it’s always overwhelming. And Prom-goers get to hear some great orchestras, but the Boston Symphony Orchestra with Andris Nelsons sounds incredible. Nelsons’ balletic conducting style reminds me of Otto Böhler’s 1899 silhouettes of Mahler.

Now that I have the time and inclination to attend concerts rather than earn a living of sorts by taking part in them, I experience a certain schizophrenia. I’ve been coming to the Proms since the 60s and playing in them since the 70s: this is my cultural background, my home base, so up to a point I might just sink into familiarity.

But with my perspective broadened by attending rituals in rural China and sessions in flamenco bars, and trained by reading books like Musicking and Professional music-making in London, I can’t entirely banish ethnographic thoughts—the genteel behaviour of performers and audience, with the latter scrupulously avoiding any bodily movements, sounds, or signs of emotion; the dress-codes; the complicated pieces of equipment like music-stands containing funny black dots on pieces of paper, on which the performers depend. And all the historical information at the audience’s disposal, like programme booklets (studiously consulted even during the concert), and the radio announcer’s suave comments—while the audience at a soul gig, or a Chinese funeral, may be still more steeped in contextual background, the WAM audience comes expecting to be educated with literate props. And tiny features contribute to the different sounds of European and American orchestras, like their different habits—even down to the way the latter come on stage early to take their places.

Youthful enthusiasm can easily be ground down by the mundane realities of professional orchestral life—a tension well observed by Alan Bennett (here, and here). But then, suddenly, one can be transported—like hearing Wu Mei decorating the funerary hymns of the Daoists (again, notwithstanding ethnography).

So while I value the informed discrimination of the insider, I now wonder if the outsider’s experience, free of such worldly distractions, is just as valid. Even jaded orchestral players cherish those rare moments when they somehow merge into a magical organism.

And apart from all that, it might seem surprising that I’m so taken with the glossy streamlined sound of an orchestra like this. Sure, you can just hear the sponsors rattling their jewellery (to quote John Lennon)—the limousines, the champagne, the alimony payments. But the pain and transcendence of Mahler’s music doesn’t get drowned under the gorgeous sumptuous sound: it’s an irresistible experience, totally immersive, all the more in the intense atmosphere of the Proms.

For all the bravado of the brass-playing fraternity, there’s no shortage of deeply musical playing there (there’s much thoughtful discussion online, like this). Apart from the solos and the blazing tuttis, it’s the perfect blending of timbre that impresses—and that too (as with the Li family Daoists) is a result of a long accumulation of experience throughout the orchestra. I love the utterly implausible idea that Miles Davis, a reluctant pupil at Juilliard, might have ended up in such an orchestra; hearing the subtly calibrated vibrato of the Boston brass reminds me of his comments (for a wide selection of posts on trumpet-playing, see here).

So among all the varied, immersive ways of musicking that give meaning to the lives of sub-communities around the world—orchestral playing is one of them! “It doesn’t get much better than that—or does it?”

And while we’re on the Boston Symphony—on a lighter note, don’t miss the Eric Leinsdorf story.

 

 

Ravel: an enchanted Prom

Rattle’s Ravel, or Ravel’s rattle

Ravel prom

After Boléro as a pulsating early overture the previous week, S-S-Simon‘s Ravel Prom was a delight from start to finish.

Even the opening Ma mère l’Oyein the expanded ballet version (1912), less often heard than the suite—was charming, chiming with the childlike world of L’enfant et les sortilèges after the interval. Here too there’s a magic garden, a princess, and birdsong. Ravel’s orientalism, like that of Debussy, was inspired by hearing gamelan at the 1889 Exposition universelle. Indeed, the organum of the oboes at the beginning and end of L’enfant reminds me of the sheng mouth-organ.

Chinoiserie is prominent in Shéhérazade too. Last year at the Proms Marianne Crebassa sang it exquisitely; in a week when we rejoiced in Aretha Franklin and Madonna, Magdalena Kožená’s singing was further cause for celebration of the wonders of the human voice.

L’enfant et les sortilèges (first performed in 1925, but not heard in Britain until 1958!) is an enchanted, enchanting lyric fantasy. In the story the protagonist is 6 or 7 years old—the same age as the girls for whom Ravel wrote the original piano pieces of Ma mère l’Oye. 

Whereas Colette wrote the text in eight days, Ravel worked on it over several years—she was in awe of the way he brought her libretto to life. Full of variety, the piece blends the comic drôlerie of the furniture, with ragtime and foxtrot, and the astounding fire aria, with the moving scene of shepherds and shepherdesses from the wallpaper leading into the boy’s poignant duet with the storybook princess.

The cat duet leads into a magical evocation of the garden. Here Ravel’s music anticipates Messiaen‘s use of birdsong and the ondes martenot, with evocative use of a slide whistle (Sachs-Hornbostel 421.221.312!—the cheese grater escapes me, though). Now it’s the turn of the animals and birds to indict the boy’s casual cruelties.

Amidst all the quirky virtuosic pastiche, and ravishing orchestration, the moments of tendresse register all the deeper, as he reflects on his errors; redeeming himself at last, the final chorus is a moving atonement.

If only a certain other public figure in the news could be converted from infantile petulant tantrums…

* * *

Both as player and concert-goer, I do admire conductors who trust to memory, dispensing with a distracting score, as S-Simon did for the first half.

Here’s the audio link to the concert—and do watch it on BBC4 while you can!