SHANGHAI – How does an orchestra play on the last night of a tour?
Anything from fatigue to inspiration may be the order of the day. Near the end of his life, conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler had microphones following him around so constantly that you can chart the progress of his Berlin Philharmonic tours – and varying degrees of inspiration and fatigue. More recently, Ivan Fischer’s Budapest Festival Orchestra ended tours with recording sessions - with performances that could feel over-examined.
The Philadelphia Orchestra, in my less-than-comprehensive experience, is at its very best at tour’s end – definitely the case Saturday at the Oriental Arts Center. With the World Expo concert out of the way, the orchestra could get back to working an acoustically sympathetic room with its great string sound – in pieces like Stravinsky’s The Firebird and The Rite of Spring that demand it.
The something-extra elements included a chamber-music-like interplay among the woodwinds. Solos in The Firebird can pass without a lot of incident because they’re so strongly connected to stage action; on Saturday, they took on extra majesty, especially from principal hornist Jennifer Montone. Then there’s chief conductor Charles Dutoit, who typically navigates Stravinsky’s rapidly shifting time signatures with something beyond mere elegance. I don’t normally advocate performing The Firebird complete in concert, narrative music and all. But this time, Dutoit made a great case for doing so. To use a jazz term, the players wailed. No matter what happens in the current music director search, one hopes that Dutoit will have an honored place in the orchestra’s future.
Ditto for Chinese audiences. The one on Saturday greeted Dutoit and the orchestra even more extravagantly than in Japan. After The Firebird, the man behind me sounded like he was having a spasm; from the way he was kicking the back of my seat, it’s possible that he was. The crowd roared after The Rite of Spring. In the classical music world, the Chinese may be the new Italians, both as audiences and performers.
The afternoon of the concert, I picked up locally made Beethoven symphony recordings by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra under Chen Xieyang, and though not world class, the emotional temperature and conceptual understanding of the music made the performances significant. Perhaps knowing the music under less-than-optimum circumstances fosters special appreciation for visits by the Philadelphia Orchestra, which reaffirmed its status as one of the world’s great orchestras on this tour. But would that have been so obvious without Chinese music lovers urging the players on?
More sophisticated music communities sometimes seem to give standing ovations routinely, as if to show their friends how appreciative they are of this high-tone stuff, and to convince themselves that they got their money’s worth. Among Chinese ticket buyers, the response had more-consuming passion. I even heard some of that among the student musicians – both in their playing and appreciation of music - in the distant town of Dujiangyan, where I accompanied Philadelphia Orchestra violinist Phil Kates for a concert celebrating the rebuilding of a school destroyed in the 2008 earthquake.
Upon leaving, we were asked to sign a guest book; I hesitated because I was there as an observer, not as a participant. I was also afraid of offending our hosts – and had also been thinking about Zhu Xiao-Mei, one of my favorite living Bach pianists who pursued her specialty with the composer during the Cultural Revolution. She was exiled to such a distant province that nobody knew Bach wasn’t Communist Party approved.
With her in mind, this is what I wrote: “Keep doing what you’re doing and don’t let anybody stop you.” In retrospect, they probably didn’t need to be told. I also wonder if we need to touch base with them more than they need to touch base with us.
- David Patrick Stearns