China Various: Augustin Dumay (violin), Hangzhou Philharmonic Orchestra / Yang Yang (conductor), Hangzhou Grand Theater, Hangzhou, 21.1.2017. (RP)
Gounod – Waltz from Faust
Ravel – Tzigane
Chausson – Poème Op.25
Massenet – Méditation from Thaïs
Rachmaninoff – Symphonic Dances Op.45
Synonyms for great (a word we hear tossed about quite a bit these days) include magnificent, imposing, impressive, awe-inspiring, grand, splendid, majestic and resplendent. Each visit to a major Chinese city drives home the fact that the connection between Western classical music and great performance spaces has been understood and realized. Without a doubt, the Hangzhou Grand Theater ticks all the boxes when it comes to greatness, as does the city where it is located. Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejiang Province and one of the seven ancient capitals of China; its beauty and charms have been extolled for centuries. The Italian traveler Marco Polo described it as the finest and most luxurious city in the world, while The New York Times included it as one of its ’52 Places to Go in 2016′. The G20 met there this past September.
The Hangzhou Grand Theater, which sits on the banks of the Qiantang River, was designed by the Uruguayan architect Carlos Ott, who is based in Canada. Ott came to international attention in 1983 when he won the design competition for the Opéra de la Bastille in Paris. Its curvilinear planes are topped by a titanium roof, which is a lustrous blue at night and symbolizes a pearl, with the slanted, double-curved glass walls representing the moon. In front, a large-manmade pond represents the city’s famous West Lake, and the fountains put on a spectacular show of water, music and light as you enter the theater.
Also new and impressive is the Hangzhou Philharmonic Orchestra (HPO), founded in 2009 and already established as one of the most promising and exciting orchestras in China. Chinese instrumentalists play in the world’s greatest orchestras, so it is no surprise that the HPO’s 80 members are high-caliber musicians, while nonetheless appearing to be disarmingly youthful for the most part. The HPO has toured extensively in Europe, Russia and China, including appearances at the Beijing Music Festival. Its conductor, Yang Yang, attended Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music and shot to international prominence by winning first prize at the 2006 Dimitris Mitropoulos International Competition for Orchestral Conducting. Yang presided over the founding of the HPO in 2009, and serves as its artistic director and chief conductor.
Violinist Augustin Dumay provided real French flair and the HPO responded in kind in three late nineteenth-century works for violin and orchestra. Dumay was a child prodigy, whose talents were spotted and nurtured by Nathan Milstein, one of the great violinists of the twentieth century. His international career was launched by no less than the legendary conductor Herbert van Karajan. Ravel’s Tzigane opens with an extended solo for violin, which was the first opportunity to luxuriate in Dumay’s warm, burnished sound. The fantastic duet for solo violin and piccolo that is one of Tzigane’s most exciting passages was expertly dispatched. After Ravel’s gypsy-inspired music came Chausson’s elusive, emotive Poème. With each repetition of its evocative melody, Dumay displayed new facets of color and emotion in his playing. Together, Dumay and the HPO transported us into that ‘gentle dreaminess’, as Debussy described the work’s closing measures, which is a lovely place to be.
If most of the orchestra appeared to be young, many in the audience were actually children. Dumay could not have hoped for a more attentive audience than those young listeners, but even so they sat up straight and perked up their ears when he started to play the Méditation from Thaïs. Perhaps they know it from the soundtrack of the film Titanic, or maybe just instinctively responded to its intoxicating melody, but they liked what they heard. Throughout, Dumay was charm personified, and gracious in acknowledging the HPO’s excellent work; gallantly handing his bouquet of flowers to harpist Yinuo Yang, who had partnered with him so beautifully in the Ravel and Massenet.
Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, full of rhythmic drive and energy, and uncharacteristically upbeat from a composer known for his sorrowful, nostalgic-inducing melodies, were a perfect match for the HPO’s exuberant playing. The first movement’s alto saxophone solo is one of the composer’s most beautiful creations, and was played with sensuous, soulful tone. Woodwinds, brass and percussion reveled in Rachmaninoff’s orchestral colors. If the string sound was not lush and sweeping, that will come. Yang put his all into the performance, capturing the many contrasting emotional facets of what was to be the composer’s last major work. Rachmaninoff provided the brilliant finale to the work; Yang and the HPO endowed it with precision and passion. Perhaps the conductor and his orchestra too are fated for greatness.