The Anvil: Chinese soft power makes a magnificent impression with the Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various: Jiapeng Nie (cello), Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin), China Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra / Lin Daye (conductor). The Anvil, Basingstoke, 20.3.2024. (MBr)

Lin Daye @Clive Barda

Tan Dun – Excerpts from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Chausson – Poème
Saint-Saëns – Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso
Respighi – Fountains of Rome; Pines of Rome

I have to say, Chinese orchestras do not travel at all modestly when they go on tour. Extravagant is one way of describing it – outrageous might be another. If China were exercising its muscles as a country pushing for supremacy in cultural soft power, then I think this concert went quite some way as a demonstration of exactly that. But there was also something else that was quite clear about this concert and that is the superb quality of orchestral playing this country is now producing. Much of this concert was just outstanding, although perhaps in quite a specific way.

My experience of hearing Asian orchestras, mostly from Japan, but also from South Korea, is that they often rely on size, especially in the strings, to produce a bigger sound. But it is also a different sound – one you don’t often hear from British orchestras but one a conductor like Wilhelm Furtwängler would have been extremely familiar with. One reason Japanese violins are often divided antiphonally is because the sound of the cellos and basses are so bottom up it is just unbalanced to have them stuck to one side of the orchestra. It was perhaps a surprise that wasn’t the case in this concert with the China Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra – and although if it may not have been so necessary in the works by Tan Dun or Respighi it may have benefitted that of the Chausson.

However, acoustic matters. The Anvil in Basingstoke may not be the largest concert hall by any stretch of the imagination but it does have one of the best acoustics of any in the country. I sometimes find sitting in the stalls here a little on the breezy side – but that never stops orchestras having the warmest of strings tones. You might be sat in an overcoat, but you can hear pretty much everything going on in the orchestra. My feet were literally vibrating during the climax of the ‘Pine-Trees of the Appian Way’ from Respighi’s Pines of Rome but the clarity of the sound from the orchestra was amazing: you never get the former in London’s concert halls and you’re lucky if you get the latter at all.

Tan Dun might not be a modest composer either when it comes to some of his orchestration and the film score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is hardly that. However, from it Tan extracted what has become known as the Crouching Tiger Cello Concerto a work that doesn’t particularly follow the narrative of the film, nor even really fit into the standard structure of a cello (or most) concerto models. Written in six movements, in this concert just three were played. These were perhaps chosen to highlight three things: the lyricism of the two instruments that we hear in the ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ movement itself (the cello and flute/piccolo), the orchestra’s superb percussion and depth of string tone and its virtuosity in the rhythmic fifth movement, ‘To the South’ which almost draws on Stravinsky for some of its inspiration.

I am, it should be said, a sucker for great percussion playing in symphonic (or film score) works – and here Tan writes it on an epic scale. This should never be an entirely aural experience in my view – it is as much a theatrical one, the impact of it at least half visual if you want to get inside the music. The point about rhythm is you really need to feel it and Tan points you to it through every conceivable sense. With five percussionists playing with militaristic precision (even the height of the sticks was important here) the playing was matched by a weighty depth in the strings.

Jiapeng Nie

I suppose my only quibble with this performance – and it is a very small one – was that the superb cellist, Jiapeng Nie, despite some amplification (intended by Tan) was sometimes overwhelmed by the orchestra. This was less a problem when playing with the flautist (Qiao Zhang), or even at triple pianissimo, but more of an issue in a short thrumming section when the cello appeared largely obscured by the orchestra behind him. Nevertheless, this was a refreshing and imaginative opening work and the playing had been superb.

Also somewhat different was the lack of a conventional concerto to end the first half of the concert. There are quite a few great works for violin and orchestra we don’t often hear, even less when paired together, so it was refreshing to hear two quite different ones side-by-side – Ernest Chausson’s Poème pour violine et Orchestre and Camille Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.

If the Saint-Saëns is closer in its Iberian character to Sarasate, then the Chausson is considerably more haunting in character, perhaps in part deferential to its partial Ivan Turgenev inspiration. And if the former is so obviously more virtuoso in its writing, the latter is a more inward-looking work with a soaring lyricism and intensity that makes it unusually difficult to bring into a concentrated form through its almost twenty-minute span.

I have sometimes been unsure whether all violinists can successfully bring off both of these works with equal ease and pairing them together can often expose this to even greater scrutiny. Tamsin Waley-Cohen was possibly more comfortable in the Chausson – although I had wondered whether her quite heavy breathing during the opening bars of the work would prove to be something of a distraction (they would not). An innate difficulty with this work is that its long single arc often leads to a fractured performance because of the tempo changes but Waley-Cohen was quite successful at avoiding this. She also weaved a quite beautiful tone, albeit one that was not on the large side. In a slightly bigger hall, and with a less warm acoustic, this would, I think, have been a performance that ran into some problems. There was no shortage of voltage in the Saint-Saëns, nor precision, but I might have wished for slightly more ‘Iberian’ character.  I certainly needed more of this from the orchestra who were rather heavy-footed.

Ottorino Respighi’s Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome filled the second half of the programme. I had wondered if these would work in The Anvil – and especially with this orchestra – but how wrong I proved to be. The performances were absolutely thrilling, and superbly played – indeed considerably more so than the last time I heard them (at least on the excitement scale) with the Philharmonia and Esa-Pekka Salonen in the Royal Festival Hall.

Perhaps the surprising element here was the freedom that the conductor Lin Daye gave to his orchestra, despite the fact that the precision of the playing was so sharp it almost felt over-prepared. I think that would, in fact, obscure some absolutely magnificent brass playing, for example. One could with some justification argue that trumpets and trombones had a certain regimented order to them; but that would also disregard their bright, yet shatteringly clear tone that never once felt less than absolutely nailed. Whereas once we may have got a slightly more barren view of the Fountains of Rome from a Chinese orchestra, here it did sound more pastoral, with a landscape that was as misty as it was fresh. If horns did roar like lions they did so with a golden blaze, when once it was so common for horns from Asian orchestras to sound like they were in a bar brawl.

The Pines of Rome was even better, at turns mysterious and solemn, rich in the catacomb, but so distinctive in the separation of the theme of children playing and soldiers on the march. How thrilling, too, to hear such a beautifully done nightingale to link the close of ‘The Pine-Trees of Janiculum’ to the ‘The Pine-Trees of the Appian Way’. Tempi hadn’t been noticeably quick for the much of this poem, but Lin Daye found a quicker pace for the consular army to break down the Appian Way towards the Capitol with unstoppable energy. With offstage trumpets (as it should be done) and a masterly beating of drums and uniformity of drama and rhythm from the orchestra the effect was both chilling and spectacular.

It is not often that I go to a concert and enjoy it rather more for the sense of spectacle and pure enjoyment than I do from the point of view as a writer. Often from the latter perspective music can sometimes feel a little remote. It is perhaps a little surprising that a Chinese orchestra should have provided this experience when so many other great orchestras I have heard have failed to ignite it.

This was wonderful stuff, and totally worth a trip outside the city in which I so often review concerts.

Marc Bridle

Featured Image: the Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra

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