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NSO Translates Well
Orchestra's First Stop on Asian Tour Underscores Experience Most Universal

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

MACAU, China, June 10

Hearing a concert in an unfamiliar setting underlines the universality, if not of music, then of the concertgoing experience. The National Symphony Orchestra played Tuesday night in the Grand Auditorium of the Cultural Center in Macau, which is a Special Autonomous Region of China. It was the first concert of the NSO's tour of China and South Korea that will include performances in Beijing, Xi'an, Shanghai, Seoul and Goyang.

In Macau, the orchestra was meeting a new audience in a new venue. But there was the same warm, wood-paneled auditorium with red plush seats; the same program bios, here in Portuguese and Chinese; the same ushers pouncing like hawks on young people trying to text on their mobile phones during the show. (Both ushers and young people here showed a striking degree of determination.)

Of course, there were plenty of differences. It was a noticeably young audience, with so many teenagers and families with children that one couldn't help wondering whether a sponsor had stepped in. It was an attentive audience, silent between movements. It was slow to warm up, with lukewarm applause after the overture to Wagner's "Meistersinger" that opened the program, and slow to let the orchestra go at the end, with bravos and cheers that elicited two encores. I'm with the audience: The "Meistersinger" was my least favorite piece of the evening, but I thought the performance went, on the whole, pretty well.

The Macau Cultural Center, completed months before the Chinese takeover of this former Portuguese colony in 1999, is a distinctive building with a roof that arcs like a gentle ski jump, and is surrounded on all sides by the monoliths of mega-casinos -- Sands, MGM, Wynn -- blinking and shining like giant space toys. This image sums up post-handover Macau: a core of European culture (Macau still has an Old World feel) holding its own amid the dominant narrative about the rise and fall of a Chinese Las Vegas. In 2004, Macau out-earned Las Vegas itself, and there was much talk of establishing Las Vegas-style entertainment here, starting with Cirque du Soleil.

Then came the recession and, last August, new government restrictions on how often Chinese nationals could visit Macau, which dealt the gaming industry a double blow. Now, casinos are struggling; the shells of half-built hotel towers stand dormant around the Venetian; and Cirque du Soleil, the only one of the planned shows that actually launched before the downturn hit, has been struggling since it opened "Zaia" last summer, according to Milan Rokic, Cirque's Macau-based vice president of marketing, and playing to 50-60 percent of its capacity.

By contrast, classical music in Macau sells almost exclusively to locals, and tends to sell pretty well. Warren Mok, the artistic director of the Macau International Music Festival since 2000, says that lines go around the block the first day tickets go on sale, and performances play to 95 percent of capacity.

Under the previous Portuguese administration, the festival was mainly a showcase for Portuguese culture. Mok, an operatic tenor with a career in the West, set out to create a more international profile for the government-subsidized festival; it now features orchestras such as the Royal Philharmonic and the Sydney Symphony. (Leonard Slatkin, the NSO's former music director, has played this festival twice, with the BBC Symphony and the Royal Philharmonic.)

For the rest of the year, however, musical life here centers on the Macau Orchestra (itself recently expanded from a chamber orchestra and stocked with international players). So the NSO represents a higher-profile act than usual. Its concert was promoted as a celebration of the hall's 10th anniversary; "otherwise," Mok says, "we would not have the budget to invite a big orchestra like that." And its ticket prices were higher than anything else offered here in May or June, with a top ticket of 450 patacas (about $55), as opposed to 300 patacas (about $37) for the top ticket to the Macau symphony.

The "Meistersinger" overture sounded much as it did in Washington in October, a little dry, understated and plodding (though the dry hall was partly responsible for its failure to bloom at the end). But there were significant changes on other parts of the program, starting with the violin soloist, Nikolaj Znaider, who stepped in when Leonidas Kavakos announced last week that his doctor had required him to cancel all his concert engagements for the next six weeks because of surgery.

It would be hard to find two international-caliber violinists more different than Znaider and Kavakos. Kavakos is a technical machine; Znaider, a delicate poet. Where Kavakos steamrollered the Mendelssohn Concerto in E Minor in Washington in April, Znaider, here, made his instrument sing so openly he sometimes sounded at risk of cracking like a teenager. Indeed, though the second movement was awfully pretty, his incipient weaknesses, and a few coordination problems with the orchestra, made one fear for the third movement. Instead, he turned around and approached it with a smooth legato that made it sound unusually flowing and easy, his fingerwork as smooth as his bow.

And there were some differences in the Tchaikovsky Fifth as well. Conductor Iván Fischer's clear delineation of the themes in the first movement had smoothed out somewhat. The third movement was still graceful and delightful, but it was the second movement that was outstanding, from the beautiful rich horn solo that opened it to the closing phrase of the clarinet, as fragile as a dried leaf ready to crumble to dust but holding the perfect outline of its original form. Usually I get heartily sick of this movement's main theme well before it's over (it's the first line of "Annie's Song" by John Denver), but this performance was terrific.

The audience was discriminating enough that only some people gave the orchestra a standing ovation, and warm enough that Fischer eventually offered an excerpt from Copland's "Billy the Kid," and finally, "Peach Blossom Takes the Ferry," a folk song that was arranged for last year's Olympics. He then led the concertmaster, Nurit Bar-Josef, off the stage before the music could descend any further in the direction of casino entertainment.

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