Russian Musical Passion in Xiamen
7 December 2009 | Franz Felicius
It’s hard to imagine the suffering Russian people endured between the 1st performance of Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto no.1 and the premier of Shostakovich’s 11th symphony in 1957. The juxtaposing beauty’s of the two pieces eerily capture the change in Russian mentality after the nation had passed through 80 years of hell: two world wars, a civil war, two revolutions and the brutality of forced collectivism and the Great Purge: where more than 650,000 Russians were shot, at 1000 people per day.
Eager to become a cultural centre of China, and perhaps Asia, Xiamen and its philharmonic displayed musically refinement in its performance of these two classical masterpieces. Conducted by Zhu Hui, the Xiamen Philharmonic performed at the new concert Hall on Hubingdong road on Friday night (27th/Nov/09). Maestro Zhu – short in height but tall in vigour – lead the orchestra powerfully, drawing from the music both the rich emotional landscape and colourful melodic currents. Joining him for the Tchaikovsky piano concerto, which is considered one of the most popular, was the gifted soloist Wang Jia who wrestled happily with the octave heavy score.
The Philharmonics new music hall outdoes itself. Seating is both comfortable and private while the thoughtfully placed lightning helps create a sophisticated atmosphere. The curved angles of the architecture complete a setting perfect for classical musical. The evening started when Wang Jia, blonde streaks eluding to his showmanship, entered to a round of applause followed closely by the statesman like Zhu Hui.
The opening of Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto paints life in late 19th century Russia as a optimistic and free spirited place. The sharpness of the string sections early staccato runs, which also show off the acoustic success of the new music hall, took the Xiamenese Audience on a cheerful tour of orchestral sound and timbre. Joining the action with a flurry of “end to end” piano passages, Wang Jia’s captured the attention with Tchaikovsky’s famous opening melody.
Born in Shenyang, Wang Jia learned his musicianship in both Shanghai and Germany before going on to win a cabinet full of national piano competitions. Intriguing like so many young successful Chinese, Wang has a understated, physically compact playing style expressing itself most evidently through his distinctive, tai-chi like, hand movements.
The third movement, who’s virtuoso piano writing could electrify the entire Siming district, brought to life a sense of daring and eagerness in the listener. As with a lot of classical music, orchestral players often favour one movement over others and the energised playing of the last movement eluded to this favouritism. The piano and orchestra where in sync thought-out the movement, weaving the music together and reminding us of the attraction of concerto’s. The final notes, with orchestra and piano at full velocity, collided with the audiences applause before the last note was sounded.
Shostakovich’s 11st symphony opens with the soft trembling of the string section. The trembling notes hold steady and slowly envelope the hall with a feeling of sombreness. A feeling which the composer would have experienced throughout his life in Russia. Rising from this atmosphere a lonely trumpet adds depth to the mood, reminding us of Shostakovich’s brass heavy orchestration style.
For this second piece, the philharmonic is full with 67 players (as per scoring – minus one harp) including a large brass and extensive percussion sections – all of which are richly exposed over the four movements. If Russian was a lonely, defeating place in Shostakovich’s time then the first movement captures this mood overwhelmingly. The combination of focused concentration and the oriental inclination to expressionlessness, gave the orchestral players the appropriately forlorn ‘expressions’. Maestro Zhu, unembellished for much of the first movement, urged the youthful orchestra through the dramatic scoring carefully.
The drama came to life in the second movement. It was Shostakovich’s intent to express the tragedy of Bloody Sunday in this movement. The solo’s by both the oboe and bassoons were particularly outstanding and it was real pleasure to hear the full power of the Xiamen philharmonic crescendo into the climaxes of the movement – the kind of loud orchestral playing that send tingles down the spine.
The final two movements are bound together by percussion driven marches. Both movements are a chilling tribute to the impact violence played in Russia history. Screaming brass melodies reminded us of the ultimateness of death. Visually, the trusting action of the violins bows, up and down, up and down, conjure images of falling swords. And the onslaught is complete with the unfaltering beat of the drums – mercilessly driving the violence forward.
Intertwining revolutionary theme songs learned during his socialist upbringing, Shostakovich maintains the seriousness of the symphony while giving the music “a film score without the film” taste. Listening to the symphony, there can be no doubt that Russia was a dramatic place in Shostakovich’s lifetime. Some say that the Eleventh is a requiem for his generation – what I can say for certain is the passion of this music was brought vividly to life by the philharmonic – a sign of good things to come for Xiamen.