Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s Music in Summer Air Festival: there are other worlds out there

One press release about a music festival on the other side of the world triggers all manner of questions about a little known subject

At (yet another) febrile moment in the UK’s politics when a remainer Prime Minister clings on to power in a desperate bid to get her questionable Brexit deal over the line and cast the country off into the brave new world of global trade, news from China has piqued my interest.

Earlier this week International Trade Secretary Liam Fox sought to demonstrate his efforts in selling the UK’s strengths to the world with an announcement about how British music was ..

And yesterday, an announcement that the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s 10th Music in the Summer Air Festival (2 – 15 July) featuring a selection of high profile UK classical music brands are venturing east to put their best foot forward.

I’m intrigued by the announcement. Not cynical. Obviously.

It’s more evidence of a strategy people were trumpeting at the ABO conference in Cardiff back in January 2018. Whilst most were picking over the various permuatations surrounding Brexit (they were, inevitably, doing a similar thing this year and will no doubt next year too), some management types were encouraging their peers to look further afield.

At the time this challenging outlook appeared pragmatic. Now I see it realised in another China-related announcement, its less of novelty and more of a thing that’s actually happening.

What raises my eyebrows is the way the existence of an familiar market on the other side of the world challenges my assumptions about classical music audiences across the world.

For all the understandable worry and lobbying around the catastrophic impact of Brexit, there are some in the industry who have done the only thing they think they can and seized the opportunity that greets them. What I’m interested in is who the audience is that the likes of the New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony are pursuing out in China.

What is it about that market that is so appealing? Is it altruism? Is culture being used to deepen international relations? Or are there financial gains to be made, channels to be dug, and new audiences to be tempted? And what does the appetite for western classical music in the East say about the popularity of the music that originates from China? Where did that appeal originate? And what is Chinese symphonic music? Who are the people who are attending these concerts? What is the appeal to them? And how does the appeal they perceive for the music in China help compare to the classical music world here in the UK and the US, for example?

The NY Phil and the BBC Symphony aren’t the first of course. Far from it. The LSO went to China last year (albeit with a considerable array of developmental partners, suggesting that a tour of China is far from a cash cow). So too the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and the Halle. The London Philharmonic was the first to visit China in 1973.

These are the kind of questions that fly around when another press release arrives in your inbox referencing China at the same time the UK is vacillating over a European outlook versus the supposed tantalising opportunities presented by free trade deals across the world. It’s probably a podcast. Or at best a series of interviews. Who knows, even an article for someone.

Music in Summer Air marks the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra‘s 140th anniversary and features a series of concerts given by China’s oldest orchestra, many of which will be in the Shanghai Symphony Hall which, now I search for pictures of it on Google, appears to be utterly gorgeous.

Very pleased to see composer Raymond Yiu making an appearance on the programme with his work Xocolatl in what amounts to a Last Night of the Proms-esque type programme with the BBC Symphony and Andrew Davis. Also good for Colin Currie and his band of merry percussionists taking Steve Reich to Shanghai.

The programme as a whole isn’t going to scare the horses. Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Mozart and Britten.

My attention is particularly drawn to the Shanghai Youth Orchestra appearances, because its there that some of the answers to that stream of questions could be found.

Music in Summer Air runs from 2nd – 15th July 2019 in Shanghai, China

BBC Symphony Orchestra to move out of historic Maida Vale studios

Announced today. The BBC Symphony Orchestra along with the BBC Singers will move into new premises in East London in 2022/23. 

It’s not a complete surprise. Many who work at the BBCSO’s present home have vigorously pointed to the former skating rink’s unsuitability as a base for the orchestra. In particular its music library which was, the last time I was in there, prone to leaks in the roof whenever there was rain over Maida Vale.

And given that most of the BBC’s other orchestras have purpose-built premises designed for their primary function as a radio orchestra, it seems only right that the flagship band gets an upgrade. 

But there’s a sting in the tail. The BBC’s Maida Vale studios may no longer be fit for purpose, but they are even more part of the Corporation’s fabric than Television Centre was. Historic recordings were made at Maida Vale (not just classical music but in multiple genres). It is an incredible location, and part of the organisation’s history.

I notice the press release makes absolutely no mention of Maida Vale, suggesting its another building the BBC will sell off. It’s a bold move to make such a break with the past. Celebrating the past is an absolute must. Maybe we’ll see that when the BBC marks its centenary in 2022. 

Review: Symphony Psalms & Prayers / Tenebrae / BBC Symphony Orchestra

Symphonic Psalms and Prayers from Tenebrae and the BBC Symphony Orchestra is a beautifully curated selection of choral works by Berstein, Stravinsky and Zemlinsky. The crowning glory is undoubtedly a recording of Schoenberg work Friede auf Erden.

It’s also a stunningly produced recording capturing two recording locations – Maida Vale studios and St Augustine’s Church in Kilburn – but four distinct sound worlds.

Stravinsky’s three movement ‘symphony’ for voices and orchestra has a dry theatrical pit sound. The padded intimacy surrounding the chamber orchestra gives this performance an irresistible sense of urgency and menace.

Tenebrae‘s smooth texture punctuated by cut glass consonants make Friede auf Erden the real highpoint of the album. Schoenberg’s constantly shifting harmonies are spun into increasingly intense harmonic climaxes. Tenebrae’s exquisite performance is bright sunshine cutting through a deep blue sky. I absolutely adore this. Revelatory.

The production choices made for Berstein’s Chichester Psalms provide this album with another fresh perspective, giving the BBC Symphony Orchestra far greater depth than I’ve heard before, emphasising the vast musical (almost Copland-esque) canvas in Bernstein’s score. This expansive sound is contrasted deftly with a dry precise articulation in the second movement. And at the beginning of the third movement, a string sound shaped by audiophiles for audiophiles, demonstrating breathtaking dynamic contrasts, and gripping ensemble playing.

I was less keen on the Zemlinksy, although musically it’s inclusion at the end of the album did work. In terms of material I’m less convinced about some of the twee-sounding moments in his setting of Psalm 23 compared to say the comparatively more sophisticated musical orthodoxy Bernstein brings to his score in the Chichester Psalms.

Sure, I know that sounds a bit pompous. All I really mean is, I think Bernstein’s twee-ness is more convincing in the context of the Chichester Psalms than Zemlinsky’s.

But it’s a very minor point. One wonders why I’ve even bothered to mention it because to my mind Tenebrae and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Symphonic Psalms is the most brilliant thing about 2018 so far. And whilst I don’t really wash with awards and understand less how they’re decided on, I think I’d like to see this pick one up for Signum.

Discover Tenebrae’s Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Berstein album on Idagio
Symphonic Psalms with Tenebrae and the BBC Symphony Orchestra is also available on Spotify

Selected London Concerts This Week (Mon 5 – Sun 11 Feb 2018)

I’ve been meaning to put together a timetable of concerts like the one above for a few months now.

The original idea was borne out of the frustration I find trying to keep track of what’s going on when across the capital. After last week’s marathon set of announcements – Southbank’s 2018/19 season plus the four resident and associate orchestras, Barbican, and Wigmore Hall – I revisited the original planner idea.


It’s not meant to be exhaustive though could be if I scaled it up (something I wouldn’t mind trying eventually). Instead, it’s just a way for me to map out what’s going in a given period of time. It’s also deliberately meant to be analogue as opposed to digital. The very act of drawing out a timetable, searching through the listings and writing it into a chart increases focus, in turn helping make decisions about what to see and what not.

Note – the London Mozart Players gig is on Wednesday not Monday. We’re all allowed to make mistakes.

Scope, Range and Busy-ness

It became really obvious very very quickly (even restricting myself to just seven days) that there’s not only a lot of options to hear classical music live, but there’s also a lot of information to take in. Potential ticket buyers are having to process location, time, names of performers, and works. That’s a lot of variables being considered before deciding on what to go to.

As a freelancer I have a lot more flexibility now. Concerts on ‘school nights’ aren’t such a thorny issue like they used to be. Interestingly for me however, it’s the lunchtime opportunities which seem more appealing because I feel as though I can fit them into my day more easily where evening concerts present themselves as a commitment.


What surprises me is how an event like Martha Argerich, Janine Jansen and Mischa Maisky at Barbican this week could have completely gone unnoticed. The fact that it’s sold out makes getting a ticket at this late stage a bit of a challenge, but I’m going to give it a damn good shot. But the Marin Alsop conducting masterclasses is a must-attend. It’s free. And on a Wednesday lunchtime. Peachy.

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