Anne Midgette Music Review: National Symphony Orchestra Plays Xi'an and Shanghai

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 17, 2009

SHANGHAI, June 17 -- The National Symphony Orchestra found itself Sunday night at the unlikely venue of a conference-center theater in the dusty midsize city of Xi'an (population 8.5 million), where visiting ensembles the size of the NSO are a rare and rather splendid event. Much of the political hierarchy of the province turned out for the occasion, sitting in sober silence in seats equipped with writing desks for conference attendees.

Small though the Xi'an theater was, it had a certain period charm. And despite dry acoustics and the whine of an overly loud air-conditioning system, and despite having flown in from Beijing after a day off and performing without a rehearsal, the orchestra offered one of its best performances of the tour. Daniel Kellogg's "Western Skies" developed a more pointed, crystalline quality in an ambiance that evoked the dry air of the West. The Dvorak Seventh regained the warmth and luster that had marked it in Washington. Afterward, a gaggle of autograph-seekers waited by the stage door, collecting musicians' signatures as they came out.

In Beijing, the orchestra was the guest of the Ministry of Culture, which issued the initial invitation to the NSO in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of U.S.-Chinese diplomatic relations. But in Xi'an, the NSO's other host came to the fore: Dow Chemical, the tour's major sponsor. Dow has a base in Xi'an, and a much bigger regional headquarters in Shanghai.

One manifestation of this, after the orchestra arrived in Shanghai on Tuesday night, was considerable outreach activity on Wednesday: NSO musicians played in the atrium of Dow's new headquarters, built for 2,000 employees, and then at a bilingual elementary school, a well-appointed facility, its halls lined with bulletin boards pinned full of art projects. In fact, the only obvious difference between it and an American elementary school is that when Yvonne Caruthers, a cellist, asked a room full of first- and second-graders who could read music, most of them raised their hands.

At the end of the event Dow's senior vice president for emerging economies, James D. McIlvenny, took the mike and addressed the children, saying he hoped they would all grow up to be scientists or musicians.

"China is changing so fast," McIlvenny said later, "that it's possible to have an effect." Meaning, in part, that bringing an orchestra to town might actually matter.

Shanghai is certainly in the throes of change. As Beijing was rebuilt for the Olympics, this city is remaking itself for Expo 2010, which means that much of it is currently a construction site. The Shanghai Oriental Art Center, however, is housed well away from the city center. Designed by Paul Andreu, it is an earlier pendant to Beijing's National Center for the Performing Arts, which is also his work: Rather than locating its theaters under a glass dome, as in Beijing, this complex presents a collection of inverted domes opening up skyward, like a flower. The auditorium is of the modern, modular, warm-wood variety, with balconies swooping from the side walls like petals and seating extending around, and rising up from, the stage.

It was here on Tuesday night that the NSO played its final concert in China, before departing Wednesday for South Korea and the last two concerts of its Asia Tour. The capacity audience received the orchestra with the kind of warm but slightly restrained excitement that has been the norm on this trip: excited participatory clapping for the more rousing encores, quick dispersal afterward.

Sitting three rows from the stage, I felt I was in the orchestra myself; it was a difficult vantage point from which to evaluate the group's overall sound. Not surprisingly, from here Wagner's "Meistersinger" overture sounded fuller and more involved than it has yet. And the Dvorak, by now, is a comfortable suit of clothing, allowing the players more ease and freedom of movement. Proximity also allowed a better view of principal conductor Iván Fischer's impish gestures, particularly during the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, when he built up to certain moments like a boy about to peek at a Christmas present, all wide eyes and mischievous smile. Nikolaj Znaider, the soloist, kept up his inward focus, his not-quite-clean sound and his sprinkling of intonation issues. But he got the job done, and the audience loved him, demanding an encore (from Bach's Fifth Partita) before the intermission and forming a long line in the lobby for autographs after the concert.

Fischer has polished his delivery of a couple of Chinese sentences he uses to introduce the encores (which, Tuesday night, were one of Dvorak's Slavonic dances and a trashy-but-reasonably-fun arrangement of a Chinese tune called "Beijing News" that brings down the house). No one in the orchestra was sure what he is saying, but it got a huge laugh from the audience, particularly whenever he forgot a word and had to start over.

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