Music festivals in China these days are a dime a dozen. What’s newsworthy is when a fledgling event makes it to a second year. The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s Music in the Summer Air, which opened last year in a makeshift tent on a car park near the Shanghai Conservatory, this week inaugurated the Shanghai Culture Square, yet another new performing arts complex sprouting amid the city’s construction boom.
It was not, frankly, an ideal match. Despite the festively garish setting – the 2,000-seat hall was designed primarily for commercial musical theatre and opens officially in September – the facility has yet to settle a few practical matters, including the sound itself. Amplification was often unnaturally brittle, varying both in volume and quality in various sections of the hall.
In fairness, the programming offered its share of challenges. On the opening night, the Shanghai Symphony’s respectable rendering of Friedrich Gulda’s eclectic Cello Concerto, under music director Long Yu, pitted soloist Li-Wei Qin variously against a wind ensemble and a jazz band, and never quite achieved an acoustical balance. Violinist Vera Tsu and the SSO strings fared better in Astor Piazzolla’s The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, channelling Vivaldi through tango nuevo with more timbral focus and fewer challenges for the soundboard.
Greater trials came the following night with cellist Jian Wang and guitarist Xuefei Yang, whose light-hearted programme was all but swallowed up by an enormously deep stage. Although the two performers reached true musical parity in Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, their post-intermission selection – short works by Piazzolla, Villa-Lobos, Falla, Elgar and a suitably theatrical encore of “Memory” from Cats – saw Yang spend much of the time with her head in the score, making her more of an old-style accompanist than an equal chamber music partner.
The results, at their best, were nonetheless musical. Yang was in fine form in two solo movements from Albéniz’s Suite Española, and, with Wang, rendered some of their quietest moments with an intensity that hushed the hall. But whereas ushers had kept a tight rein on latecomers the previous evening, Wang and Yang had to contend with a steady stream of people entering between movements. And despite the sound engineers having only two sonorities to contend with, Yang’s guitar was occasionally drowned out by the ring of a mobile phone.
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