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

More money for the New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

I blogged about the New York Philharmonic’s digital archive in March 2013. As I recall, I’d discovered it by accident. It was made available publicly in March 2011.

Earlier this week, the New York Phil newsroom announced that the project had secured a further $2.4 million from the Leon Levy Foundation. The money will complete the digitisation project, documenting the orchestra’s complete history from 1842 to the present-day. The total cost of the project – the total funding – amounts to $5 million.

The New York Phil's first edition score of Beethoven's 5 Symphony. It's official. I've died and gone to heaven.
The New York Phil’s first edition score of Beethoven’s 5 Symphony. I’ve died and gone to heaven.

It’s an incredibly exciting thing. It’s a free resource, beautifully designed with a user experience geared towards researchers but considerate to nostalgia lovers and buffs like me.The Phil have made their inaugural season available online already including management documents, the first orchestra list, programmes, music and the first edition score of Beethoven 5 used in the inaugural concert (the work was first performed in 1808).

Future releases include all of the printed programmes from 1842 through to the present-day (expected by the end of 2014), plus scores of Bruckner 4 and Beethoven 7 used by Mahler and Toscanini. There’s also going to be correspondence between Berlioz, Brahms and Mendelssohn to feast your eyes on to.

The project is an incredibly bold one. It’s also a refreshingly unapologetic statement about the importance of the orchestra, its heritage and classical music in the US. That in itself may appear at odds with a general downturn in the fortunes of many American orchestras at the moment. Or it might only serve to remind us what the cost is of unlocking your heritage to the wider world and who in the US foots the bill for the arts.


New York Philharmonic Digital Archive

The New York Philharmonic Digital Archive may possibly be my most favourite thing in the world right now.


The most obvious explanation is that it offers an online experience of something I longed doing when I was in my first job as an orchestral librarian in the mid-nineties. Back then, I’d sit at my desk and spend hours looking over old sets of orchestral manuscripts, almost drunk with pleasure at the thought of touching documents that had been used in performances long before I’d even been born. Transferring conductor’s markings from score to orchestral parts was the librarian’s equivalent of jostling with musical celebrities.

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Prom 58: New York Philharmonic / Lorin Maazel

It was a big night at the Royal Albert Hall tonight. At least it felt that way as I sat in the bar beforehand chatting to a handful of familiar looking people.

I knew I’d wanted to go to tonight’s concert when I was traveling back down to London the night before, listening to the New York Phil give the first of their two Proms on Radio 3. It’s the New York Phil, I thought. I want to be there tomorrow night. I’ve heard people mutter about the New York Phil. I definitely want to go.

The first half certainly didn’t dissapoint. The excitement partly came from this being a visiting orchestra. We want to show the visitors a good time. We want them to feel as though we appreciate them coming all this way. Give ’em a good show and they’ll give us a good show.

They certainly seemed like a different crowd on stage. Calm and collected. Focussed. They had stamina. They were cool. They looked good on the platform. And stylish conductor Lorin Maazel came with his own special, rather tasteful looking podium.

I must be a sucker for the popular stuff, because Ravel’s Mother Goose essentially seduced me from the start.

I’ve heard more orchestral music over the past few weeks (both at the Proms and on Radio 3) than I dare calculate. Maybe it’s that which fine-tunes the senses. Many more regular concert-goers I know comment on how individual orchestras have an individual sound.

Outside the stage door post-concert

To be honest, I’d not really appreciated exactly what they meant. Maybe I’d looked on them cynically. Surely, orchestras all sound the same?

This year, however, I’ve come to trust my judgement. I realise now that it doesn’t take long to hear how different individual orchestras can sound and it was really refreshing to hear the New York Phil’s individual sound. Just don’t ask me to describe it. This blog entry could go on for ever. And none of us want that.

It was the Tchaikowsky symphony I was really looking forward to. After the thrill of hearing the RPO play the 5th symphony last week, I wanted a similar style of transportation with what I thought was going to be an unfamiliar work.

I was wrong. So very wrong. I knew the work well. I’d played it in Suffolk Youth years back. The initial opening chords were an unexpected surprise as a result. But to then hear what Maazel did with the rest of the work was an even bigger thrill.

I’ve not seen the man conduct before, but it was apparent soon after he raised his rather long baton that this man was a real showman. Knowing the work myself probably helped a great deal, but there is something the man does with speeds which leaves me breathless and clearly kept the adept orchestra on it’s toes as well. The audience didn’t disappoint either with their appreciation. Maazel repaid them with a good three encores.

Prom 58 (Part One – Ravel / Bartok) on the BBC iPLayer
Prom 58 (Part Two – Tchaikowsky – Symphony 5) on the BBC iPlayer