A Concert Hall as Grand as Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand

ChinaChina Beethoven, Mahler: Soloists, Various Choruses (chorus master: Zi Wang), Tianjin Symphony Orchestra / Muhai Tang (conductor), Tianjin Grand Theater, Tianjin. 9.12.2016. (RP)

 Tianjin Grand Theater (c) Christian Gahl

Tianjin Grand Theater (c) Christian Gahl

Beethoven – Symphony No.8 in F major Op.93
Mahler – Symphony No.8 in E flat major, ‘Symphony of a Thousand’

My Chinese colleagues tell me that I must get out of Shanghai and explore their country. When I announced that I was traveling to Tianjin for the weekend, the response was “Why? Tourists don’t go there!” A city with a population of over 10 million people, Tianjin lies directly east of Beijing on the Bohai Sea. The major nineteenth-century European powers carved it into walled enclaves in an era of rampant imperialism. A surprising number of its pre-World War II buildings are well preserved and now enjoy landmark status. The musical draw for my trip was conductor Muhai Tang, whose work I enjoyed when I was living in Switzerland; I have especially fond memories of Zurich Opera’s productions of Rossini’s Le Comte Ory and Otello, both with Cecilia Bartoli, which he conducted. Since 2012 he has been Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Tianjin Opera and Tianjin Symphony Orchestra (TSO), and has done much to make the city so culturally vibrant.

Like most major Chinese cities, it has a spectacular cultural complex, the Tianjin Grand Theater designed by a German firm, gmp architekten, which houses a 1600-seat opera house, a 1200-seat concert hall, and other facilities. It is situated in a culture park, and the design incorporates elements of Chinese philosophical thinking about the earth and sky, embodied by a half-circular roof which floats above the grounds in harmony with the lake on which it sits and the neighboring buildings. The state-of-the-art theater which opened in 2012 even has mobile phone jammers, which may account in part for the exceptionally attentive audience at this concert. More importantly for the Mahler, it has a massive pipe organ by the Czech organ maker Rieger-Kloss and a wrap-around balcony that can actually accommodate the requisite huge chorus.

This was the eleventh and final concert in the TSO’s transversal of works by Beethoven and Mahler entitled ‘Holy Chant’, obviously referring to the first movement of the Mahler symphony, which is based upon the ninth-century Latin hymn ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ (Come Creator Spirit). The second half of the symphony is based upon the final scene of Goethe’s Faust. This massive Mahler work, running 90 minutes, might well suffice on its own, but Tang chose to begin with Beethoven’s Eight Symphony. It is one of Beethoven’s shorter and far less weighty symphonies, serving here as an overture to the main event.

Tang bounded onto the stage. With a quick acknowledgement of the audience’s applause, he spun around and gave the downbeat. His reading of the Beethoven was just as fast and furious. The string sound was particularly vibrant and intense, especially when they dug their bows into the strings of their instruments, clearly articulating repetitive thematic and rhythmic passages. Tang played on the humor that Beethoven injected into the symphony, peering at times into the player’s stands, although he shot daggers at some late comers who took too long to get settled. Apart from a few lapses of intonation in the woodwinds and brass, the playing was fleet and nimble, and the sound warm and rich, abetted by the hall’s excellent acoustics.

I do not understand Chinese, so although I cannot identify the choruses that participated, I could count them – there were seven. Mahler wrote that he used the combination of text and voices to bear the whole poetic idea of the work, and treated the voices (it calls for eight soloists, double chorus and children’s chorus) as instruments. For those of us seated at floor level, it was almost a surround-sound experience, as two children’s choruses, which together must have numbered well over 100 singers, extended far into the house on both sides. The young voices of the combined choirs, firm and clear, sang with great commitment, although the text was basically incomprehensible for chorus and soloists alike.

My non-existent Chinese skills were also a barrier to identifying the soloists, but the three that I could through a translation app said much about the overall high quality of the octet. The young Chinese baritone ZhengZhong Zhou is a graduate of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and participated in the Royal Opera Covent Garden’s young artist training program. He has a beautiful voice and was particularly compellingly in the Pater Ecstaticus aria of the second movement. As for the women, far too little was heard from the rich-voiced mezzo-sopranos Guang Yang and Ning Liang. Yang was winner of the prestigious 1997 BBC Singer of the World Competition in Cardiff. Liang was a Metropolitan National Council winner in addition to placing in other important competitions, and she sings regularly in the world’s major opera houses. It was such luxury casting. The unidentified tenor deserves mention for his heroic voice and the impassioned singing of his difficult solos.

One might think with such monumental forces that it would be the loud, dramatic passages which were most impressive, but not so. The extent to which Tang could reign in all of that energy and produce music of soft, transparent beauty was remarkable. One memorable example was the entrance of the solo violin and horn after the lengthy tenor solo in Part II, followed by the male chorus that entered with shimmering sound to the orchestral backdrop of viola tremolos. It was just beautiful. When volume was needed the sound was impressive, although things could get a bit raucous at times, especially with the battery of brass perched in a box high above the stage who were more enthusiastic than accurate. The same cannot be said for the horn and trombone players sitting on the stage who were splendid throughout.

It was only in 2002 that the Chinese premiere of Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand took place at the Beijing Music Festival. This is what first brought me to China: I along with 50 other members of the New York Choral Society were a part of a chorus of hundreds. Few, if any, mentioned Tianjin and Mahler in the same breath back then. How things have changed.

Rick Perdian

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