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Published by: ax-is on Feb 26, 2008
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February 23, 2008China and the Philharmonic, in HarmonyBy DANIEL J. WAKINSHANGHAI — In a chilly classroom at Shanghai Datong High School, the New YorkPhilharmonic musician counted out, “One, two, one, two” in Taiwanese-accentedMandarin. A dozen student violinists sawed out a theme from Bizet’s “Carmen,”laughing nervously when asked if they would like to go a bit slower.The musician, the violinist Mei-Ching Huang, was one of five Philharmonic playerscoaching groups of pupils from the Datong orchestra on Wednesday before a studentconcert conducted by the Philharmonic’s music director, Lorin Maazel.The Philharmonic was making its debut appearance in Shanghai, and it was far morethan a simple in-and-out pair of concerts. A local television personalityconducted an on-camera interview with Mr. Maazel. The orchestra took part in aneducation program with a number of schools. The visit made the papers. Audiencesrewarded the orchestra with robust ovations.It was the kind of reception not always given the Philharmonic at home, where ithas to compete with the loud hum of major international orchestras regularlypassing through New York.“It astounds me that we’ve never been to this cultural capital before,” ZarinMehta, the orchestra’s president, told a news conference of mostly Chinesejournalists. “We’re thrilled to be here.”The Shanghai sojourn, coming after visits to Taiwan and Hong Kong, was a final bitof calm on the orchestra’s Asian tour. The players were to travel on Saturday toBeijing, the staging ground for the ballyhooed journey to the hermetic, rigidlycontrolled nation of North Korea for a concert on Tuesday, a trip that wasproducing some anxiety among them.The focus in Shanghai was on the concerts, on Wednesday and Thursday. ThePhilharmonic was one of only a few major international orchestras not to haveplayed here, and the appearances were two years in the making, said Qian Shi Jin,the artistic director of the Shanghai Grand Theater. The orchestra came to Chinain 2002, but because of time constraints had to choose between Shanghai andBeijing, and the capital won out, Philharmonic officials said.The English-language Shanghai Daily said the debut was “warmly anticipated,” eventhough the Philharmonic “has recently been hailed by New York magazine as ‘themost boring major orchestra in America.’ ” But the article went on to say that TheNew Yorker had found “signs of life” in it.The first program, on Wednesday, was pure meat and potatoes: Beethoven’s“Coriolan” Overture, Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s“Pathétique” Symphony.The audience members were considerably younger than most of those at Avery FisherHall, the orchestra’s home. A man in his 20s wore a T-shirt, a young woman in afur-collared coat holding his arm. Several people wore stylish leather jackets.Sober suits were the uniforms for a clutch of city and local Communist Partyofficials.The modern Shanghai Grand Theater rises steeply in the back and has a deep stage,with an acoustic shell above. A buzzing, possibly from the air circulation systemor from lights, lay over soft moments. Applause was modest for the pieces on theprogram, although ovations grew during three rousing encores, including the
prelude from Act III of Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” a preview of the Pyongyang programin Korea.Illuminated signs on screens attached to the sides of the hall flashed during thefinal notes of movements, asking the audience not to clap between them. Theinstructions were followed. But with no message at the end of the “Pathétique,”applause started well before the somber last chord had died away.Earlier in the day Philharmonic musicians fanned out to five schools to coachstudents. Among them were Datong, a century-old high school considered one of thebest in the city; a school serving the children of expatriates; and a vocationalschool. Shanghai conservatory students lent a hand.In a separate project Philharmonic musicians guided students in composing theirown works using traditional Chinese instruments and the Western ones played by theorchestra. One boy demonstrated a shen, an ancient mouth organ, to a fascinatedPeter Kenote, a violist in the orchestra.Such educational activities are increasingly becoming part of the agenda oforchestra tours. Last November the Berlin Philharmonic took up residence in NewYork for several weeks and worked extensively with public-school children.At Datong the Philharmonic deployed three Chinese-speaking members.Ms. Huang announced at the outset that she was Taiwanese, in case the students hadtrouble understanding her accent. She later said she felt no political overtonesin coaching children from the mainland, given the sensitive relationship betweenthe mainland and her country.“For me, it’s a government issue,” Ms. Huang said. For the student violinists, itwas an ensemble issue: trying to keep the notes together. In another room QiangTu, a Philharmonic cellist and native of China, coached the lower strings. “Putthe bow in the right place,” he said. “Keep the tempo.”Mark Nuccio, a clarinetist worked with the woodwinds, struggling to make himselfunderstood and to get the players in tune. “Very secco, very short,” he said ofone passage. Liang Wang, the orchestra’s principal oboist, who is one of thehigher-profile Chinese musicians in American orchestras, came into the room andlent a hand, speaking softly in Chinese. He worked at length with a young oboiston a solo from the overture to Johann Strauss’s “Fledermaus.”Later the boy, Wu Zhiheng, 16, said of Mr. Wang: “He’s almost like a hero to me. Ilearned a lot from him. I’ve never met anyone like him before.”Mr. Wang, who left for the United States from Beijing at about the same age adozen years ago, said he saw himself in the high school students. “I was one ofthem,” he said.On Thursday students from the five schools gathered at the Shanghai Grand Theaterfor an open performance, conducted by Lorin Maazel, the Philharmonic musicdirector. Afterward many surrounded orchestra members, asking for autographs.One Philharmonic coach, Anna Rabinova, who was concertmistress at the studentperformance, said she was struck by the dedication of the students, compared withthat of pupils in other countries where she has coached.“The kids were so eager to learn,” she said. “They were so excited. It’s not likeyou come and have to make them do stuff.” She also said their enthusiasm for the

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