Magnificent Mahler by Shanghai Symphony

The bird
calls of the First Symphony were unhackneyed, and those who recalled
Mahler’s early programmatic references in the work to the awakening of
spring — to fruits and flowers — found themselves in a magic garden
for a program that combined the Wayfarer Songs and the four-movement
version of the First Symphony. Even had it been performed in a Midwestern
blizzard, however, this was Mahler that made one sit up and listen — and
be grateful for a moving musical experience.

The Shanghai Symphony, which dates back to a municipal band in the 1870s, is
today the outstanding orchestra of Eastern Asia. Under Music Director Long Yu
it has toured Europe and the US and has even been heard at the movies on the
sound track of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Although it must be
said that the SSO does not have the refined and mellow sound of many Western
ensembles — the silvered strings and burnished brass, it has something of
greater importance: the dedication of its instrumentalists and their full
emotional involvement in what they are doing.

Guest conductor for Mahler was Chinese-born Lan Shui, currently music
director of the Singapore Symphony and — since 1907 — chief
conductor of the Copenhagen Philharmonic. Given the conductor’s
adolescent mien, it is difficult to believe him old enough to have once been
tutored by Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood. In the States he has held positions
with orchestras in Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore and Los Angeles.

Lan Shui is elegant and unmannered and he knows his Mahler as if by
instinct. His reading of the First Symphony was analytic, but never academic.
He sensed in the score a narrative impulse, but knew how wrong it would be to
make that into a romp through field and forest. And outstanding was his
“feel” for the irony that gives the First that
“there’s-more-here-than-meets-the-ear” sensation. He
deliciously caught the tongue-in-cheekedness of the hoarse bass that leads to
“Brother Martin” in the third movement, thus making clear that this
is funereal music of quite a different color from that heard in the Fifth

For even the still-youthful First can grow lugubrious in the hands of a
conductor with no understanding of the many levels of the score. Thus it was no
surprise when Lan Shui brought the horn section — bells up-turned —
to its feet in the brass blast that concludes the First. This was exuberant

China’s Yang Jie is a true alto with a radiant and resonant low
register well suited to the Wayfarer Songs, on which Mahler worked in
the years of the First Symphony. In the West she includes Carmen in
her signature roles. Long gone is the day when Wayfarer with its story of
unrequited love was consider male property — just as the outwardly
maternal Kindertotenlieder were once assigned to female vocalists. With perfect
German diction Yang Lie is totally at home in the cycle with its shifting
moods, its light and dark moments.

The quality of the March Mahler was undoubtedly enhanced by the presence in
the orchestra of all four members of the Shanghai String Quartet. Founded in
the city three decades ago and now on the faculty of the local conservatory,
the four men enjoy “sacred-cow” status in Shanghai. When in town
they teach at the Conservatory from which they graduated. (In the States they
are in residence at New Jersey’s Montclair State University.) First
violinist Weigang Li served as concert master on March 12.

Although the Shanghai Concert Hall, the orchestra’s local home, was
built by a Chinese architect in 1930, it would be at home next door to
Vienna’s gilded Musikverein or any of the historic halls of Europe that
have survived. The hall — 1200 seats seems a good guess at its size
— was reopened in 2004 following total reconstruction. It is acoustically
sound, and generous lobbies opened onto balconies on a mild March evening. It
is close to downtown, and taxis at a flat rate of 12 Yuan — no tips!
— abound.

It would be presumptuous for a first-time concert goer in China to draw
sweeping conclusions from a single experience. Nonetheless certain things were
happily obvious. The concentrated — indeed, devout — attention that
the Chinese bring to music is astonishing. Barely a muscle moves; even
breathing seems hushed. There is absolutely no applause between movements, and
the standing ovation now near-obligatory in the West is absent in Shanghai.
Enthusiastic applause continued until conductor took concert master by the hand
and left the stage.

The college-age set is a far larger part of the Shanghai audience than it is
in the States — explained in part perhaps by the fact that the city
boasts China’s major conservatory. And dress? As in almost all countries
today one comes as one is. The “little black dress,” if China ever
had one, has gone the way of the Mao jacket!

Wes Blomster

image_description=Shui Lan [Photo courtesy of Shanghai Symphony Orchestra]
product_title=Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 1 in D major (the “Titan”); Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer)
product_by=Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. Shui Lan, conductor. Yang Jie, alto. Shanghai Orchestra Hall, March 12, 2011.
product_id=Above: Shui Lan [Photo courtesy of Shanghai Symphony Orchestra]