Shanghai Opera Orchestra brings rich tone and excitement to Kravis program

By David Fleshler


Conductor Chengjie Zhang led the Shanghai Opera Symphony Orchestra Monday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

Classical music is booming in China.

The nation’s factories are churning out pianos and violins. China’s conservatories are brimming with students. And the country is producing world-class stars such as the pianists Lang Lang and Yuja Wang.

The popularity of Beethoven, Wagner and Verdi in Beijing and Shanghai may appear to be a recent phenomenon, but its roots go far back. The Shanghai Opera Symphony Orchestra, which performed Monday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, was founded in 1956, with the construction of that city’s opera house.

The orchestra, embarking on its first U.S. tour, which will take it to 22 cities, gave an impressive performance of an ultra-conservative program of Western classics, without a note of Chinese music until the encores.

The ensemble’s sound is formidable. The ample string section produces a rich, full-bodied tone, with accuracy and unity to the upper reaches of the violins. The brass section is weighted and balanced, capable of playing with throaty force when required. Winds, resonant as a section, gave well-phrased, sweet-toned solos. If not yet at the level of the top-tier North American and European ensembles, the orchestra gives the impression that such an achievement may be just a matter of time.

Under conductor Chengjie Zhang, the orchestra opened with Verdi’s Overture to La Forza del Destino. There were swooping string phrases, violent crescendos, delicate violin playing and brass tones that occasionally edged toward raucous. But in all, this dramatic performance restored some freshness to this concert hall staple.

Siheng Song

Siheng Song

The pianist Siheng Song, born in Shanghai and educated in Paris, joined the orchestra for a committed, full-bodied performance of another concert favorite, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Slight of stature, Song produced a formidable tone from the piano, drawing grand rolling chords from the opening that easily held up to the orchestra.

His technique was impressive, with a fluid, even tone in even the fastest runs. He engaged the keyboard with the sort of fearlessness that led to a few wrong notes but produced an exciting performance. And while he could play with steel-fingered force at one moment, Song could produce tones with the delicacy of a watercolorist the next, as in the muttering, buzzing second theme.

In the famous opening theme, the conductor held back the orchestra at first, opening it up for its final statement, which emerged with that much more force.

The second movement opened with a honey-toned flute solo in the main theme. Other solo instruments—clarinet, oboe and cello—also distinguished themselves in the main melody. In the final movement, strings gave soaring accounts of the melodies, while Song produced a heroic tone from the piano, with a roaring crescendo that led to the final statement of the melody in the full orchestra.

In the second half, the orchestra played Rachmaninoff’s epic Symphony No. 2. The long first movement plodded occasionally, losing track and losing energy. But there were moments of undeniable excitement—the shards of brass chords as a crescendo leads to a frenzied string passage, and the final big melody with the full orchestra opening up.

The Scherzo broke out with percussive energy, with the orchestra producing tones of clanging power in the intricate rhythms. The arching violin melodies of the Adagio were made more resonant by the orchestra’s strong bass section, given these themes unusual weight that was never excessive.

In the final movement, the orchestra’s impressive string section produced a big Rachmaninoff string sound, never thin even at the highest reaches of the violins, with an attention to phrasing that brought out the full power of his melodies.

The orchestra gave two encores, which the conductor announced from the stage in an inaudible voice. The first, Beautiful Evening (1928) by Liu Tianhua, showed off the purity of the violin section. Leroy Anderson’s Chicken Reel closed the evening with a boisterous performance.

Posted in Performances

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Tue Jan 29, 2019
at 12:05 pm
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