Mehta’s Splendid Mahler in Shanghai

ChinaChina Schubert, Mahler: Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Zubin Mehta (conductor), Shanghai Symphony Hall. 14.06.2015 (RP)


Schubert: Symphony No. 8 “Unfinished”
Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D major


A 48-hour stopover in Shanghai en route to Singapore afforded me the opportunity to hear the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra for the second time in a matter of weeks. (See, David Stern with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, May 23, 2015). That Zubin Mehta was conducting the second of two concerts with the orchestra was just too good to pass up, even with jet lag and some doubts as to whether or not I would get a ticket. The concert was purported to be sold out weeks in advance, but tickets at a discount were readily available from scalpers, and there were a smattering of empty seats come concert time. None of this really matters except that sold-out notices do keep people away, and with such a superb performance, more the pity.

From where I sat, a middle seat near the rear of the balcony, I was better able to assess the acoustics of the new Shanghai Symphony Hall than from my seat directly above the violins the first time around. There is a perfect balance between the sections of the orchestra, while solo instruments are clearly heard, but never blaring and always remain part of the rich overall texture. The strings emerge warm, rich and full. Of course, Mehta had a role to play in it all with his masterly control of the orchestra. My hunch though is that the new hall played its part. It has fine acoustics.

Mahler featured in both of the concerts that I attended, and his Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4 offer many opportunities for instrumental solos. My first impressions of the orchestra were not only confirmed, but exceeded upon. The horns led by their impressive principal are just excellent. Solos by all of the orchestra’s principals were dispatched with verve. If there is a shortcoming, to my ear it is the cello section. Their sound can be a bit dry, lacking the richness one expects. That is a minor quibble with an orchestra of such high caliber, but I always just wanted just a bit more from them.

From the opening bars of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 with its soft string playing spanning seven octaves to the carefully controlled, yet thrilling, triumphant finale, Mehta drew a wide range of styles from the orchestra. The cellos introduced the sprightly ‘Ging heut’ Morgen übers Feld’ theme from Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer with restraint, giving space for the melody to evolve and charm in its myriad repetitions in the first movement. The strings really dug into the third movement. Visions of mountain farmers lustily playing and dancing Ländler sprang readily to mind. With equal verve but a completely different impact was the Kelzmer-like music of the fourth movement. Mehta is not afraid of harsh, jarring sounds, but under his baton there were also moments of quiet, transparent beauty. Loveliest of all was the ‘Auf der Strasse steht ein Lindenbaum’ theme, also from the Wayfarer songs, that brings the fourth movement to its conclusion. Visceral thrills were not lacking either, from the off-stage trumpets in the first movement to the powerful triumphant finale.

Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony opened the concert and foreshadowed what was to come in the Mahler. In the first movement, the stings propelled their theme forward with a pulsing urgency. At times intense, and at others joyful, the drama of the two movements unfolded. Solo contributions were rendered expertly. The oboe and clarinet solos (as the program booklet is chiefly in Mandarin, the principals must go unnamed) were particularly fine. Mehta tried to hold the mood as the final notes sounded through the hall, but to no avail. An immediate, explosive bravo and a smattering of applause left no time to savor the tranquil ending that was so beautifully rendered.

Mehta cuts an imposing, sartorially elegant figure, resplendent in his white tie and tails, and conducting without a score. Music making is serious business with him, and so it was with the orchestra. Gone was the relaxed, exuberant mood on display when David Stern was on the podium a couple of weeks back.  Instead, the orchestra played with fierce concentration and nary a smile or a bounce. It is one of the joys of live performances to observe such differences and savor them. When the final notes of the Mahler finale faded, the musicians relaxed. After several curtain calls, audience and orchestra were all applauding. Even Mehta let his reserve down just a bit. It was a splendid concert.

Rick Perdian

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