David Stern with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra

ChinaChina Bloch, Mahler: Noah Brieger (baritone), Rao Lan (soprano), International Festival Chorus, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, David Stern (conductor), Shanghai Symphony Hall, 23.05.2015 (RP)

Bloch: Avodat Hakodesh, (Sacred Service)
Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G major

This has been a momentous season for the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. In September the orchestra began its 135th season in its new home, Shanghai Symphony Hall. The building, a collaboration between architect Arata Isozaki and acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, is a surprise in many ways. It is not a grand monumental complex such as Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts, New York City’s Lincoln Center and many others. Tucked into the French Concession, it blends into the neighborhood seamlessly. The concert hall seats 1,200 with the audience surrounding the orchestra in the style of Berlin’s Philharmonie. It also has state-of-the-art recording facilities and houses a 400 seat chamber music hall. In the world’s largest city with some of the world’s tallest buildings, it is on a human scale.

My seat, perched above the violins was not the proper vantage point to gauge acoustics or balance. The soloists had their backs to me, so their sound was diminished. I was likewise too close to the chorus to get a real feel for its work. The seat did however afford me the opportunity to see Stern in action and witness the engagement of the orchestral players in performance. Stern, the son of violinist Isaac Stern, has of course been surrounded by music-making at the highest level his entire life. Musically he cuts a wide swath as an opera conductor, the leader of a Baroque ensemble and a conductor with orchestras around the world. Judging from this concert, his musical taste is impeccable and his conducting style natural, with an economy of gesture.

Ernest Bloch’s Sacred Service was commissioned by Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco, and premiered there in 1934. Although born in Switzerland, with an established career in Europe prior to immigrating to the USA in his mid-thirties, Bloch is viewed primarily as an American-Jewish composer. In his so-called Jewish music, Bloch does not look to traditional Hebrew melodies and scales for inspiration, but rather captures its essence through orchestration. The harp and flute, the instruments of the Psalmists, feature prominently. Sacred Service, one of his most popular and enduring works, is monumental in scale, scored for baritone solo, chorus and orchestra.

The work has a passionate champion in Stern. Indeed, his Jewish heritage is as integral a part of his being as is music. Baritone Noah Brieger was an equal partner in both regards. His top notes were a bit squally in the opening movement, but his voice settled down quickly and he sang with authority and rich tone throughout. Even from where I sat, it carried throughout the hall. Beijing’s International Festival Chorus lived up to its name. The singers appeared to come from all ends of the earth, and they sang with enthusiasm and commitment. Diction was at times nonexistent, but Hebrew poses challenges to singers everywhere. The third section opens with the choir singing on its own and provided some indication of the chorus’ measure – a rich, balanced sound and attention to detail.

Just as spiritual, albeit in a differ vein, is Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. The shortest of his symphonies, it finds its inspiration in the song “Das himmlische Leben,” a child’s view of a heavenly banquet. The song is the basis of the fourth movement, set for solo soprano. Rao Lan wore a stunning dress of vivid green flounces (think of a very intense Granny Smith apple): such a dress clearly merits mention. Her physical mannerisms do not really evoke childlike wonder, but she did so with her voice. Her soaring top notes cut through the orchestra and were indeed lovely.

The voice is my thing. Give me two singers and a chorus and I tend to focus on them, but in Shanghai it was the orchestra that really engaged me. With their backs to me, I had little impression of the violins’ stage presence. The other string players were rather staid in appearance, although not musically. The woodwinds, brass and percussionists, however, were a lot of fun to watch. Energy and enthusiasm abounded. Mahler places great demands on the horns, and the Shanghai contingent was terrific, led by a fine principal hornist. Likewise, the principal clarinetist rendered Mahler’s Alpine melodies with panache. The Bloch also had many opportunities for star turns for the principal players. Concerts are not just for the ear: they are also for the eye. And at least to these ears, visual engagement often leads to greater musical rewards. In this regard, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra exceeded all expectations.

“Music connecting worlds” is emblazoned on the sign outside of the Shanghai Symphony Hall. In some ways, it seems a bit trite. But it speaks to a profound truth that those of us who have performed and attended concerts, operas and other performances in other countries know to be true. Music, and it need not be classical, does transcend time, place and culture. In an increasingly globalized yet fractious world, music is a rare force that offers genuine connectivity, as opposed to the online alternative. This was abundantly apparent with Stein on the podium in Shanghai.

Rick Perdian

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