09 June, 2022

Moscow Trained Chinese Conductor and Ukrainian Soloist

Concert Review: Moscow Trained Chinese Conductor and Ukrainian Soloist

June 6, 2022, Shenzhen Concert Hall
Shenzhen Symphony, Zhang Guoyong 张国勇, Lesya Kot
Prokofiev and Mahler


Click pic to enlarge.

Finally, a real concert one can sink one’s teeth into! Given my admiration for conductor Zhang Guoyong, my expectations were high but only partially fulfilled.

I have heard Zhang many times, and shall never forget his valedictory Shostakovich with the same orchestra in 2010 (my review in Chinese only; if you read Chinese, I urge you to read it as it contains much info). He was his own unflappable self, but on this occasion seemingly a little more animated than usual. The gargantuan Mahler 5th unfolded naturally, with firm control of its sprawling elements and gear shifts. Colossal sounds were unleashed at the climaxes (the most cataclysmic I have heard from this orchestra) but as things went on one could not help feel something was amiss. The opening Funeral March lacked a heavy footstep (when called for). The following movement and Scherzo lacked fantastical elements and were not sufficiently differentiated from each other (admittedly not an easy task). The Adagietto went very well and brought some respite, but the Rondo-Finale imho was not successful in conveying the repeated stop and go quality of the music, as it lacked true romp that a rondo must possess.

Mind you, it was still very good, but for many of us steeped in decades of Mahler performances, a structurally sound and well executed performance that is on the literal side (like this one and the HKPO under Sinaisky in 2014) is not going to totally satisfy (but it’s better than the flaccid one by BSO/Nelsons I heard in NYC). Mahler may not always need the kind of angst Bernstein brings, but the music certainly needs a little tug here, a little agogic accent there - in other words, a little manipulation. In this respect, the performance last year by director Lin Daye had more fire, momentum and a sense of the macabre.

I was seated to the left, a little more more upfront than my usual seats, and the sound was not quite the same as what I have been used to. Lovely bass, but coarser and louder winds and brass. I shall listen again to the broadcast (aerial mikes, 3, + 2 in tandem) on 6/18 and see what’s the difference. I bet it’s very interesting. I doubt it will revise my views but I shall post an addendum then.

What’s even more interesting was the unusual opener, Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2. Now, Prokofiev was Ukrainian-born, from the currently conflicted Donetsk region (which has an airport to his name). It’s important to know he spent his substantial musical life in Moscow, both in his formative years (around the Revolution and Civil War) and upon his hard decision to return from the West many years later to Soviet Russia. Although many regard Prokofiev as a Soviet composer, and though he had won occasional governmental recognition, he had also been blacklisted and lived in fear, as Shostakovich had. It is also important to recall that many brilliant Russian-Jewish artists, like Rostropovich, Oistrakh and members of the Borodin Quartet, worked as closely with him as with Shostakovich in bringing forth the many masterpieces they wrote. Prokofiev's life is fascinating, and this Britannica entry is very good place to start.

Conductor Zhang Guoyong, like many Chinese conductors, studied in Moscow. He was a star pupil of the very great Gennadhi Rozhdestventsky. I have heard Zhang many times in recent years, and he is an excellent conductor (though Mahler may not be his forte)!

The choice of soloist is even more interesting. Lesya Kot is Ukranian, and Principal Second Violin of the SZSO (mind you, SZSO have always had Russian and Ukrainian musicians). There is not much info on her anywhere. Chinese Sohu (here) has the following:

1993年出生于乌克兰基辅,3岁学习小提琴,7岁被基辅米可拉李森科天才音乐学校录取,16岁破格考入德国汉堡音乐与戏剧学院,师从Christoph Schickedanz教授,23岁满分毕业取得小提琴演奏硕士学位并受聘于德国北德广播易北爱乐乐团,柏林国家歌剧院。

蕾西娅·柯特8岁就与乌克兰基辅国家交响乐团合作协奏曲开始了在欧洲的职业演奏生涯,并在国际小提琴比赛中屡次获奖,包括大卫奥伊斯特拉赫国际小提琴比赛,捷克Kocian小提琴国际比赛,德国保罗欣德米特小提琴国际比赛。

My Translation: Lesya Kot was born 1993 in Kiev, Ukraine. She started learning the violin at age 3, was admitted to a Talent School at 7 (the transliteration of the school's name sounds like Michaela Lischenko) and first performed with the Ukraine National Symphony at 8. At 16, she was admitted to Hamburg Conservatory and studied under Christoph Schickedanz. She graduated with a master's degree and Top Honors at 23. She has worked for the NDR Elbphilharmonie and Berlin Staatsoper. She had won prizes at several prestigious International Competitions, including the David Oistrakh, Kocian and Paul Hindemeth.

Now, readers of tea leaves, does that tell us something about the political stance of China, SZSO, Zhang or Lesya Kot? Add to this the very strange poster design. We can forget about the totally inapt name “Back to Nature". However, why is Zhang's face half in the dark?

Back to the music. Though not perfect, the soloist played very well and as expected was thoroughly into the idiom. The orchestra was not big but the brass and woodwinds sometimes covered up her tone. Nonetheless, I very much appreciate her authenticity (much more than many a more famous names). A very good performance for which she received generous applause.

On 6/18, 8 pm, the concert shall be broadcast “direct” 直播 on Bilibili.





































23 April, 2022

Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra Recorded Concerts


Click pics to enlarge: Top, Principals Winds; Clarinet, Zuo Cheng 左丞; Bassoon, Hsieh Ming-Ching 谢明静; Flute (assistant P) Rao Dan 饶丹; Oboe, Cui Xiaozheng 崔晓峥. In my view, the SZSO winds are fabulous and coherent, a feeling I never get with the HKPO.


Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra Recorded Concerts (and more)

It has been a frustrating few months for the SZ concertgoer. Ever since Hong Kong’s massive Covid Fifth Wave (Omicron) started and spilled over into China, Shenzhen has gone into constant cycles of alert: massive testing mode, imposition of restrictions, and cancellation of concerts, including 2 that I most look forward to, Bruckner 7th and 4th. :-(

So nothing for a while, but suddenly, for the past weeks, SZSO has gone active on the internet, and in quick succession offered many recorded concerts for streaming. The programs so far overlap with but do not exactly match those of the canceled concerts. So some of these were planned anew and carried out expediently, and many are works the orchestra had played before. These were recorded mostly not in their main performing venue, the Shenzhen Concert Hall, but in an unspecified hall, likely their headquarter in SZ (Luohu area).

The administration of the SZSO exasperates me. These concerts were announced almost last minute on their Official Account (公众号) on wechat, and one better subscribes to it to receive the news. Incidentally, they seem to have finally revamped their long dilapidated Official Webpage, and it looks better than before (here and here), but I have little faith they will keep it consistently updated (China has basically abandoned the web and focused on smart phones apps - many things can be found only through cellphone apps and wechat official accounts).

These videos were recorded live without an audience, and cast on Bilibili.com (which I use, as I have its app on my Windows laptop) or Wechat and 小红书, usually at the concert time of 8 pm. Some become permanently available later, some are not - there’s no rationale to it (perhaps some are held back because the conductor is not satisfied? I wonder). Here are archived videos and here is the Live Room (only when there is a cast). I am not sure the links will work; if not try searching in Chinese 深圳交响乐团 ). Here are a few I listened to:

4/17 Conductor Lin Daye 林大叶
2012 winner of the prestigious Solti International Competition, Lin is Musical Director of the SZSO. So far I have been very happy with him, live as well as, as we shall see, virtually. This Mahler is creme de la creme.

Concert started with a (Chinese Award Winning) tone poem of veteran Ye Xiaogang (美丽乡村), which SZSO had played before and available on Bilibili. (I am indifferent to the vast number of tone poems by modern composers, which come with meaningless notes in concert). And then, Mahler Symphony No.1, in a Titanic performance (punt intended)! The orchestra was well nigh perfect, and amazingly thoroughly into the idiom. Interestingly, Lin adhered to the Viennese orchestral placement, with divided violins, and the brass stood up for the rousing finale. And the orchestral playing had more than a little Viennese feeling to it, especially the beautiful strings. Lin has again proven himself as a excellent Mahlerian (I attended his very good M5, each of the 5 movements irritatingly available separately on Bilibili: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5; note the Hall is not the Shenzhen Concert Hall, but the Bay Opera Concert Hall). This performance of the M1 was much more impressive than Jaap van Zweden 10 years ago (I watched his RTHK Telecast with the HKPO before attending his concert with the NYPO).

I “attended” this concert “together” with shidi, Andrew (in HK). I am glad he scrambled last minute and enjoyed it! While listening, we were texting on wechat, commenting in real time on aspects of performance (and the great looking ladies) - it was simply great, and he said next time he’s going to have wine and nuts around. Try this with a friend! Even over distance, we had this camaraderie feeling, not easy to come by these days!

The great Mahler is now available on Bilibili for viewing (here). I urge you to do so.

4/14 Conductor Lin Daye
Concert opened with Bruch Violin Concerto No.1. Soloist Wu Qian 吴倩, a SZ local, was better than her performance of a year ago (here). Orchestral contribution was excellent. Amazingly, I found out she’s now one of the tutti first violins! Perhaps the experience has already helped her. In the Mahler 1st video (link above) she can be seen behind the concertmaster, next to a beautiful lady with pony-tail.

Then followed, amen for making up for the canceled concert, the Bruckner Symphony No.4. Just like the Mahler (above), it was a highly satisfying, thoroughly idiomatic performance. The difficult 4th movement was structurally sound and well controlled. Bravo!

This concert is unfortunately not available for replay at the moment on Bilibili.com. I wonder why!

3/4 Conductor Huang Yi 黄屹
This young conductor (bio here) has risen incredibly fast in China. He’s now one of the Principal Conductors of China Philharmonic, Chief Conductor of the National Ballet Symphony Orchestra (Beijing) and Artistic Director of the Nie Er 聂耳Symphony Orchestra (Kunming).

Concert started with a well turned Stravinsky Pulcinella Suite. The neoclassical style continued with Francaix’s excellent but little played L’Horloge de Flore for Oboe and Orchestra, expertly played by veteran Oboist Chen Qing 陈擎 (now head 团长of the Quanzhou Symphony). Then followed a disciplined Brahms 4th, ending a highly satisfying concert.

The Stravinsky is available on Bilibili (here) whereas the Francaix is not. The Brahms is not either, but the last 2 movements are available in an educational program (here, with a host introducing the pieces, sort of like a pre-concert talk; likely shot just before the performance of the whole symphony). Cut out the other stuff and start at 36:45.

June 2021
Duly impressed by the young conductor, I searched for other videos. Lo and behold, there was a concert last year  (here), which I regret I had missed! Damn! It started with Wagner Meistersinger Overture, which I had heard the SZSO play under their former director, Ehwald (here). At 17’ came the Saint Saens Violin Concerto No.3 (don’t know who’s the competent soloist). But the real meat came at 59’ for Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Most of us know this warhorse inside out, and I can say nothing much has perked up my ears this past decade, but the way Huang judiciously point and punctuate the music here and there is mightily impressive. One of the best accounts I have heard for a long time.

Hungry for more, I dug out his Dvorak Symphony No.9 with the Kunming Symphony (here). The video is subpar and the orchestra made mistakes (so not for everyone) but the overall narrative and flow was impressive. A young man to watch!

4/6 Conductor Lin Daye
Concert started with Haydn Trumpet Concerto (here), perfectly played by the Principal, but a little more smiling would not be amiss (lack of audience is probably worst for a soloist). Then came a chaste and properly turned Prokofiev Classical Symphony (here). It showed off the strings, anchored by the excellent playing of Concertmaster Guo Shuai 郭帅. Last was Copland Apalachian Spring (here), which was decently played, but lacking a little in a sense of the theater to bring it completely to life. For Lin, a good concert but not on the level of his Mahler and Bruckner, or Strauss.

Most of the above I watched at the designated “Live” Cast hour. And then I went back and streamed a few more.

4/2 Conductor Liu Min 刘明
This reduced orchestra concert displayed unusually mature Mozart playing. You would be amazed how many western orchestras often cannot do Mozart with style as good as livered here! The ensemble is really small for the lovely Divertimento No. 11 in D K251 (here). More strings were employed (just the right number for me) for one of Mozart’s best symphonies, the sunny Symphony No. 29 (here). In between is the Piano Concerto No. 12 in A (here). Veteran pianist Yuan Fang 袁芳 is a SZ fixture (often as host in interviews and pre-concert talks). She played simply and directly. The whole thing is intimate and very enjoyable.

2/25 Conductor Zhao Xiaoou 赵晓鸥
The young conductor is associate professor at the Shanghai Conservatory and director of the (very important) Music Middle School under the Conservatory (like the Juilliard Pre-College). Kodaly Dances of Galanta was very well played and enjoyable. Most importantly, it had a good Hungarian and Gypsy flavor, so often missing in performances and recordings. As with most of the modern works, Shi Yongkang’s Memento for French Horn and Orchestra (played steadily by Gu Cong) was dispensable for me. Fortunately, concert ended on a high note with Dvorak Symphony No. 8, which was given a fluid performance of considerable merit. It balanced classical virtues with passion when needed. Everything just flowed naturally (starts at 35:26).

I am not sure readers in HK or the West can access these videos, but I have culled some of the best ones here, and I hope someone can enjoy.
The incomparablePrincipal Cellist, Karen Kocharyan

Unfaltering Principal Horn XuYiqi 徐毅奇

Concertmaster Guo Shuai 郭帅

06 January, 2022

Swan Lake

 

Click pics to enlarge. Above, note the locked feet in the corps. Below, the esplanade.

Jan 3, 2022, Bay Opera, Opera House
Shanghai Ballet
Tchaikovsky Swan Lake, Grand Version


With Chinese New Year on the horizon, the lockdown of Xian and a smattering of cases in many provinces surely have put immense pressure on Chinese health officials. Miracle of miracles, a string of performances in Shenzhen, at the Bay Opera, Concert Hall and Grand Theater went on as usual to end 2021 and start 2022. Shenzhen Art lovers had been well served! If not for living so far away, I’d have attended more of those performances, particularly those of the National Beijing Opera (traditional Chinese opera).

I’ll have it out: this was a miraculous performance that will remain in my memory for a long time. True to its name, it was Grand indeed.

The choreographer is English Derek Deane, who used to lead the English National Ballet. This ballet is well travelled and has had many versions and revisions over the years, even an amazing one “in the round” (Derek Deane on 20 years in the Round). English critics were not at all completely impressed, at least equivocal, in their reviews. Witness the Guardian 2016 Review.

This Ballet is one of Shanghai Ballet’s signature pieces and they have taken it on the road often, to great accolades. The SB’s official website (ChineseEnglish) quotes a Dutch review. Damn! This very production actually toured NYC in 2020, at the start of the pandemic! I don’t usually closely follow ballet so I missed out! Doubly regrettable since it had the estimable City Ballet orchestra in the pit (their excellent Christmas Nutcracker run is a NYC institution). This 2020 Review of NYC performance is excellent, and I urge you to read it as it pretty much sums up my feelings.

I watched the “matinee” performance, as it made the 2 hour travelling each way more manageable. It was a magnificent day and I took in the nearby waterfront like a fish to water. It was reminiscent of Hong Kong, but the air was better and there were less people (even on a holiday), enabling a more leisurely feel.

The leads were performed by the second cast of Feng Zichun 冯子纯 (Odette/Odile) and Tu Hangbin 涂汉彬 (Siegfried). The night before, they were performed by the better known pair seen in NYC and Europe.

The choreography, not so much for the leads than for the corps, is more stylized and geometrically patterned than more traditional versions (here my cheap concession ticket in the balcony, with its aerial view, actually confers an advantage). It was certainly a completely different viewing experience than the ABT and the Russian one I watched decades ago at City Center (NYC). The leads, especially Feng, danced beautifully, technically perfect (axial alignments of the limbs, even in turmoil, as in being snatched by Rothbart, were something to marvel at, not a whit less impressive than her Western counterparts,) even if slightly reticent in emotional expression, particularly as Odile (she is very young). But, of course, for this ballet, the corps have the pivotal role (punt intended). And it is here that the immensely high standard of the Shanghai Ballet manifests itself. Despite the height disadvantage when compared to Western corps, they are truly outstanding, the synchronicity truly astonishing, especially for such a large corps (48 swans in the corps! hence the name “Grand Version”). The way the members daisy-chained and locked their feet against each other (see pic above) was ravishingly beautiful. As was the way they folded themselves on the ground (for Odette, this also signifies hurt). The patterning are purposeful, as they do remind one of flocks of swans, some pronate and some standing. Rigorously regimented as it may be, the beauty is enormous, and is a case of function (emotional expression) following form. I urge you to watch some video clips. There is strangely nothing much on youtube, though there may be more from English troupes like the ENB, which I have not had time to investigate yet. On Chinese Bilibili there are some footages, but they are rather crude in quality:

Excerpts: https://www.bilibili.com/video/BV1LA411e76h/?spm_id_from=333.788.videocard.7

Act III and IV (I and II not available): https://www.bilibili.com/video/BV19q4y1N7Tk?from=search&seid=345722668198498571&spm_id_from=333.337.0.0

Credit must be given to the Set and Costume designer, Peter Farmer. Indeed, when the curtain first lifted, I was under the impression that I was watching a Watteau painting! Of course, that would not have happened without the aid of the superb Lighting by Howard Harrison. A complete triumph for production values.

Classical Ballet is thriving in China, and many provinces have their own troupes. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Liaoning Ballet presented a more traditional Swan Lake. I’d love to have seen it, but one must choose sometimes. The 2 ladies in front of me said the Liaoning moved along more and was more dramatic (likely with cuts). Shenzhen doesn’t have that many full-length ballets, so it’s really unfortunate that these 2 troups duplicate repertoire. That’s a common occurrence even in event-rich cities like NYC, where one could hear several Mahler 5th’ in one year without the other ones.

I love ballet, but I love even more classical music, so my views are dependent also on the musical contribution. So, as in Opera, I am selective. In Ballet, For Tchaikovsky, even if I love musically the most Swan Lake, and I frequently play the whole thing through my audio system, I do think its set pieces, various Pas de Deux (or Trois or Quatre etc) are not as enticing as the Nutcracker, but its almost Wagnerian apotheoses are eminently thrilling. I have still to get into Sleeping Beauty. Otherwise, my hands down favorite is Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, which moves along more than Tchaikovsky’s creations. Ballet is a product of the Romantic era, but acts like Delibes’ Sylvia and Coppelia, good as they are here and there, in inspiration fail to sustain an evening, and are frankly not up to the standards of Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev. I otherwise rather prefer more recent neoclassical choreographers, like Balanchine, who knew his classical music, be it Bach or Stravinsky.

As intimated above, a good Ballet orchestra is an asset. Regrettably, perhaps due to pandemic concerns (just the company without musicians was 100+) this performance was to a taped soundtrack. It was decently performed and the sound was “reasonable” (identifiably solid state and digital) but of course it was not at all like the real thing. There were small gaps which allowed the audience to clap for the performers. This was good. The team all deserved it. Ah, but a live orchestra would have enhanced it beyond measure. Given that the Shanghai environs have some smattering cases, I have no complaints, and are grateful that the performance happened at all.

A Remarkable Success! It is also a testament to the quality of Tchaikovsky’s score, which, no matter your viewpoint, is a masterpiece.




09 December, 2021

Shenzhen Symphony Mahler 6, Qianhai, Bay Opera


Click pics to enlarge. Above and below show mostly view from the library.

Dec 2, 2021, Bay Opera of Shenzhen 深圳滨海艺术中心
Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra - Lin Daye 林大叶
Mahler 6th Symphony


The Venue
Although I am a die-hard fan of the SSO, I remain flabbergasted by their haphazard approach to concert management. Their last-minute dissemination of concert info is highly irritating, made more so during these covid times. It was a mere 2 days before the concert that I learned of it. It was a Thursday, as they would travel to Guangzhou the next day for the same concert.

It was a big hassle, as this concert took place in a just recently unveiled new venue far from me, the Bay Opera of Shenzhen, which is in the Baoan Qianhai 前海 CBD area (official link). The area is one of the poshest and trendiest now in SZ. As per the usual for this city, the cultural complex is in a less trafficked area, right next to the district government, and comprise a District Main Library, Youth Center 少年宫 and Concert Hall. In planning, it is highly similar to the older Futian and Longang complexes that I have chronicled, but it is clear that it is more modern, lavish, and “forward-looking”. This complex was invested in by the mega commercial group 华侨城,which is a major player in many of Shenzhen’s mega-venue developments. See my photos below. The “high-class” area is in its last phase of development, seeing a construction of Book City 书城, which will bring in much needed traffic and “culturally related” paraphernalia, as well as middle-class mass-oriented food courts and the likes. It is part of a massive waterfront development that is very impressive, and I have not explored it much. In the distant is a theme park and Ferris Wheel. More later.



The interior of the library feels like a hotel


Below is the less impressive exterior of the Opera House.


vs Hong Kong
The whole complex, which I have not even begun to explore to the full, gives me a sense that Hong Kong’s days are limited. True, there is not much traffic yet, but the infrastructure is at least HK’s equal, and more efficiently dispatched. For a long time, I have been disgusted by HK’s commercial intrusions into ostensibly cultural projects. I personally have long vehemently disfavored the West Kowloon Project. The planning and design had been pretentious, by “prestigious” western firms that have little identification with the Chinese population. Everything smacked of remnants of HK’s colonial past, and its self-aggrandizing international ambitions (an oxymoron these days), have been gravely costly, and will play little role in the future within the Greater Bay, especially now as Western anything is frowned upon by the powers that be. Mind you, I have been saying this long before the current HK scene plays out (it is likely already endgame).



The Concert

Per my previous experience with conductor Lin Daye in Mahler 5 (here), I expected a terse and efficient delivery, and sure it was the case. The first movement was certainly energico, though the more tranquil episodes were less well conveyed. The Scherzo lacked a little of the macabre (though that is not foremost in this work.) Only in the Andante did Lin bring out pathos, and it was up-heaving at times. It was here that we discerned the world was about to change. In the Finale, Lin kept up the tension, but did not fully differentiate the increasing devastation the consecutive blows had inflicted upon, so the passages with common themes that led up to the 3 hammer blows did not quite yield a cumulative effect, much unlike what Simone Young did so artlessly with the NYPO (here). However, overall, I was pleased by the performance. A note, the First Oboist seemed not the usual first desk, and had his unevenness, and didn’t quite blend in with the excellent First Clarinet, Yi Cheng 衣丞. So, the winds were a little below par, but the horns and brass played very reliably. As a whole, they played valiantly in tutti, but floundered a little in more intimate and expressive passages, where colors were sometimes not quite idiomatic (this is after all not quite yet a Mahler orchestra). I was gratified that a few in the audience yelled “Bravo”, which was a little warmer than the usual crowd in the Shenzhen Concert Hall in Futian.

In these covid times, The SSO has been hard to track, but I am glad to have caught up with them this time. No doubt, given China’s very strict covid guidelines, they have been faced with cancellations and sudden green lights. They scrambled, so did I!

Problem: The Acoustics
The hall did not sound very bad, but neither did it sound very good. From my seat, sound was somewhat constricted and overdamped, but better than the old and dry-sounding Longgang Cultural center. Tidy, but not expansive nor engrossing. Death Trap: My seat (Balcony, 4th row left) had a deadly ringing/reverberated distorted sound when the violins played forte (and louder) that sounded like distorted and overloaded upper harmonics. NOT a good job. Acoustically, it certainly fails to hold a candle to the Shenzhen Concert Hall. The hall was acoustically designed by Australian Marshall Day, which I think was just a big mistake. Judging by their consultation in HK's uneven to lousy sounding venues, they are imposters who know nothing about what music should sound like. Most of these so-called acousticians turn out garbage products that sound much inferior to traditional designs. Believe me, I know. In NYC, we had Avery Fisher, whose remedial efforts were failures. 

My Day
I started out in my home in Nanlian 南联, Longgang 龙岗 around 9:30 am. I took the Metro (Line 3) to 爱联 (3 stops) and transferred to the Express Bus E23, which travelled by highway all the way to Nanshan/Baoan. Weather recently has been absolutely lovely, and I voraciously took in the scenery along the way. Large swaths of industrial complexes are juxtaposed to some very nice scenery, reservoir and lakes around neighboring Dongguan 东莞. Previously, these were backwaters, but now one can see urbanization encroaching upon the landscape in every direction.

At Lingzhi Park 灵芝公园 I transferred back to the Metro and arrived at the Arts Complex a little short of 2 hours later. It was a 15-minute walk from the Metro to the Complex but I relished it, taking in the new scene.

The reason I had started out so early was to grab a concession ticket. The venue is very generous in offering a limited number of RMB 50 tickets, which can only be purchased in person at the Box Office (a correct policy). It being a working day, Thursday, I could have gone much later but I was not taking any chances, especially with Mahler! Concession tickets are in the balcony, which is usually favored by me for less acoustic anomaly (think HKCC).

I had researched some detours around the area, but improvised a little. With a lot of time to spare, I took a local bus which coursed through local (un-gentrified) neighborhoods before arriving at a nearby Metro Station. It went through an old part of town. On the bus, at the big wet market 
上川市场 I caught sight of an enticing Crispy Roast Pig 烧肉 and I got off and patronized the restaurant (see pics below). It was very good (as was the chicken), though still not quite up to the previously chronicled charcoal-grilled standards of my HK home-ground Yuen Long’s 添记! They told me they are a Guangzhou franchise.


Basically the belly coelomic lining. Owner told me they sell three a day.


I made my way by bus to IKEA to return something. With a little time to spare, I ventured via the elevated Metro on to Longhua 龙华 Wuhe 五和 and had a bowl of snail rice noodle at the specialty’s most famous venue in Shenzhen 周氏螺蛳粉. At 4:30 pm, the place was packed. My verdict? It was good and the soup had real snails in it (see pics), and the fermented bamboo shoots were of great quality (I am a bamboo shoots aficionado).











I then made my way back. Near the Metro Station, amid the highly posh malls and glitzy restaurants, a small alley (part of the structures), lined with small restaurants, that is semi-hidden, caters to the workers (this being a new area - there are no “locals”; but contrast this with HK, which would only put generic mediocrities like Starbucks near its venues). I had a beer at a Convenience Store. There are two, 711 and the local 美宜佳. As usual, 711 is more upscale, and sells beers like 1664 and mostly canned beers and small bottles, but as I am a fan of the large 500-700 ml glass bottles seen only in China, I always opt for the local chain.

People in squeezed HK may not know, in places like SZ and Taiwan, some larger Convenience Stores have Seating Areas, where one could consume some fast foods (noodles or boiled items 关东煮 麻辣烫or drinks.) Next to me, the young fellows wolfed down some noodles and proceeded to smoke, which is highly irritating (rule says no smoking indoors but there is no enforcement at local joints.)

A tiring day, but well worth it. You shall hear more about this venue.

10 October, 2021

Zuo Zhang Zee Zee Recital

Concert Review: Zuo Zhang (Zee Zee) Recital

Oct 9, 2021, Shenzhen Concert Hall
Zuo Zhang 左章 (Zee Zee) Recital 旅行岁月
Scarlatti - Wagner - Schoenberg - Liszt - Ravel

Shenzhen local Zuo Zhang, known as Zee Zee, had won prizes in many competitions, built up quite a reputation and is now DG artist. I likely could have heard her here in SZ many times in her more formative years but missed. I started to notice her after I heard her DG album with the excellent Z.E.N.Trio (with first rate partners; violinist Esther Yoo and cellist Narek Hakhazaryan): her playing and control of the narratives completely anchored the trio and captivated me.

This concert was supposed to have happened in May, after her similar program in Hong Kong (which my friend Andrew briefly commented on in a past post), but was postponed due to a sporadic covid case here then. The new date turned out to be a bad choice as a typhoon pounded the region (it rained heavily for over 48 hours). The turnout was very low.

The program was centered around some of the most famous numbers from Liszt's Annees de Pelerinage, a magnum opus whose Chinese translation 旅行岁月, suboptimal as it may be (as 旅行 is Travel, which misses the connotation of Pilgrimage,) is used as the Title of this Recital. 

First, the Liszt centerpieces. The First Half featured Vallee d'Obermann, the Second Les Jeux d'eau a la Villa d'Este and Venezia e Napoli - Tarantella. These were dispatched with aplomb, but in surprisingly efficient fashion - by this I mean tempi on the fast side, with less lingering and sculpting than usual. Indeed, dynamic range seemed less wide than usual. When the going got busy, there was a certain tonal and textural homogeneity. If all this seemed damning, it is not at all, as her considerable strengths ensured that everything worked. Although the color palette was not very wide, everything she played had a burnished quality; notes and hands were perfectly delineated from each other, miraculously without hint of dissection or intellectual dryness. She is definitely not one who would refine her treble notes compulsively a la Krystian Zimerman, but they have fullness, a rare quality (if coming across as slightly blunt at times). When it comes to the left hand, perhaps in absolute heft there are a few pianist who could deliver more, but she is no slouch and delightfully hers was always clearly audible even in busy passages. For all the musicality, fluidity and natural momentum, there were remarkable details to be had, and all the notes were for once not pulled around. These were refreshing readings that I enjoyed and that avoided the lugubriousness and longeurs which plague Liszt in lesser hands.

The Liszt Jeux d'eau was followed by the lovely Ravel piece of the same name instead of the originally scheduled, more substantial Gaspard de la Nuit. Too bad.

Concert opened with two Scarlatti Sonatas not originally in the program. A little more pointing would have had greater effect. Then came Liszt's transcription of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde Prelude to Act 1, which I presume ties in to the journey theme of the program (the couple were on a boat). The rendition was a little cool, and the simmering tension was not completely brought to the fore. All this did not prepare me for the astonishing performance of Schoenberg's Drei Klavierstucke, Op.11, his first atonal work (not sure where the theme of journey fits in). Unlike the rest of the program, the pianist here was fiercely concentrated and played in highly coloristic fashion, structurally tight yet warmly effusive. Her left hand was particularly telling and a comforting anchor. Unlike many a recording of this piece, which can make the piece seem white and bland, this live performance was a gem and worth the price of admission alone. Bravo!

The weather was horrible -  a bad day. The past year had been a very bad time for musicians, not to mention one who's just become a mother. I wonder if it had taken a toll on the pianist. Her shortening of the program, and the overall fast tempo, could have been efforts to combat the circumstances, including the morale-deflating low attendance (mind you, the audience here are of lower caliber too - fact, not a patronizing statement). She gracefully thanked the audience for coming despite the weather. Only one encore was offered. Now, all this is wild guess on my part.

My friend Andrew had commented on her stage manner. Having gained weight during her recent pregnancy, she was dressed in black, pants and a jacket. That was not the problem. Perhaps nerves? She was in a hurry getting on and off stage, and was a little awkward. A little more grace under pressure and willingness to work the audience would have been helpful. Nonetheless, I am convinced this lady is one I should follow, and I will. Technically secure, she has fire underneath and something most precious, unerring sense of direction.

24 September, 2021

Ningbo Symphony Orchestra Mahler 3


Click pic to enlarge.

Concert Review: Ningbo Symphony Orchestra Mahler 3

Sept 20, 2021, Shenzhen Grand Theater 深圳大剧院
Ningbo Symphony Orchestra 宁波交响乐团 - Yu Feng 俞峰 - Zhu Huiling 朱慧玲
Chorus of the Central Conservatory 中央音乐学院合唱团
Shenzhen Senior High School Lily Girls Choir 深圳高级中学百合合唱团
Mahler Symphony No. 3

While the threat of relatively nearby Fujian Province's COVID outbreak is still looming on the horizon, I lucked out on this narrow window (given the many previous cancellations, I am actually surprised that somehow the authorities here allowed these concerts, albeit at diminished capacity). Astonishingly, the second Mahler concert in 5 days!

Years of unprecedented economic growth in China had fueled the quest for cultural prestige, and with it growth of many symphony orchestras. A stone's throw away from China's leading orchestra, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, are (at least) the well established Hangzhou and Suzhou Symphony Orchestras and, the youngest, Ningbo Symphony Orchestra (established 2015). Keep in mind that these are all prosperous cities in China's most prosperous region. You may not know Ningbo is the largest port in the world (by tonnage handled) and ripples are still being felt around the world due to the worldwide shipping delays caused by its partial pause during a recent covid outbreak. Let's hope China's impending economic downturn does not impede the artistic growth of these orchestras.

A note on the venue. The SZ Grand Theater is an older (and nice) hall, home to its own medium sized orchestra (which I have never heard), which offers humbler fare than the larger Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra (which usually plays in the bigger and acoustically superior Shenzhen Concert Hall). The wood-paneled hall looks rather like HK's City Halls. This is a hall that sounded good when I attended concerts here before, though previously I sat downstairs, not upstairs.

I'd let the cat out of the bag here. Despite a valiant effort, the Ningbo is not quite Shenzhen. It began promisingly enough. The all-important trombones and horns were very good in tutti, and the trumpets were secure. The first oboe's entry was not very good, but she proved excellent later, as did all the wind principals (great clarinet soloist). As the gargantuan first movement unfolded, serious weaknesses manifested themselves. The horns are of supreme importance in this work, and the section sounded well enough when they played loudly in unison. However, when the level dropped to (mezzo) forte and below, they lost expression and became very bland, even tenuous. And then the strings, which were obviously of smaller size and impact than their Shenzhen counterpart. I am not sure whether the acoustics played a part - they sounded uncomfortably grainy when pushed.

The veteran conductor is an important figure in China. He still is head of the Central Conservatory. He moved things steadily on and navigated transitions skillfully, but was not necessarily the most expressive. As an example, the Minuet lacked lilt and the scherzo could have used more fantasy. The two vocal movements could also have been more hushed. The older ladies were in the back and the Girls Choir squeezed onto the front, on both sides. They sang well enough but I missed a Boy's Choir. Best was the Alto, who had great (even regal) poise and sang like an angel. In my opinion she's up there with the best of her western counterparts I have heard. Wunderbar!

I was rather taken aback by the Finale. It was taken at a speed significantly faster than I'd have liked (definitely not Langsam; and I am not even an advocate for ultra slow speed here) and even at the critical beginning it was not hushed enough. It was all symphonically geared towards the brassy climaxes. This was well played but not the Mahler I know; in fact I know of no performance or recording that sounds like this one. But I'd concede that this, one of the greatest Mahler movements, had always upended interpreters.

The orchestra had a hectic schedule for this tour (see the official blog here, in Chinese but with pics). On the 17th, they rehearsed for 10 hours back home. On the 18th, they flew to Guangzhou and rehearsed with the Choirs (the children's choir is local and different from this performance). On the 19th they performed in Guangzhou. On the 20th, they travelled to Shenzhen (less than 3 hours by bus) and gave this concert (surely with rehearsal with the Lily Choir). I am not sure whether they were heading for other nearby cities afterwards. Perhaps the hectic schedule and consecutive night performances took its toll.

In recent concerts, especially those in venues I rarely visit (like here and the Longgang), I wonder how much the hall contributes to the grainy sound (not only of the Ningbo, but also of the China National Opera). To be fair to the Ningbo, I streamed several of their concerts online and tried to determine their sound.

I watched on their official website the 2021 Second Viennese School Concert (Berg Violin Concerto; Schoenberg Five Pieces and Webern Pasagcalia). I also watched the 2020 Beethoven 8th (with excellent introduction of the piece and some players) conducted by the diminutive but very charming Chen Lin 陈琳, former student of Yu Feng and now vice-chair of the Conducting Dept in the Central Conservatory (bio). Both are good performances in virtual concerts, playing to an empty hall. I think I hear some of the deficiencies I heard in this concert. Dry strings and weak horns. I also streamed their excellent pre-pandemic 2019 Shoatakovich 5th under the redoubtable Zhang Gouyong 张国勇 (pupil of the great Gennadi Rozdhestventsky). Now, this was to a full hall and the orchestra sounded just fuller. The concerts I heard were half capacity and perhaps that had affected the sound. Lack of playing time together during the pandemic surely is a factor too. Something to really think about!

Despite their severely challenged production value, the videos manage to show a very young orchestra working hard. All in all, I'd love to hear this orchestra again, under better circumstances. And I sure would like to hear Chen Lin live one day!

I cannot help to air my feeling about mobilizing such big forces during the pandemic. Tours are all about garnishing prestige, especially for second-tier orchestras. Everybody (including the HKPO) does it, and when back home reports are always full of hyperboles lauding the success. I am sure Maestro Yu has a lot of pull in China, but I do feel perhaps he could have done it without such extravagance by selecting a showpiece that does not require soloist and double choirs. One has to use privilege carefully. Shenzhen has a superior orchestra that can deliver all of this without effort. In fact, the SZSO had performed this piece before under its former director Ehwald (my attendance chronicled here; wow, 10 years ago!). It made do with less resources, to even better effect.

Let me not be misunderstood. I am very enthusiastic about the state of the Chinese Orchestra. I follow them closely and root for them. In fact, I am planning on an article on all these interesting regional orchestras and under sung conductors. 

19 September, 2021

Shenzhen Symphony Mahler and Opera Excerpts

Concert Review: Shenzhen Symphony and Mahler

Sept 17, 2021, Shenzhen Concert Hall
Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra - Lin Daye 林大叶 - Shi Yijie 石倚洁
Opera Excerpts and Mahler 5

This was a first in my concert-going. I had never previously experienced a heavy-weight symphony that was preceded by unrelated opera excerpts (music and arias). Sometimes, a Mahler symphony would be preceded by a Mahler song cycle, and that is relevant. But Italian Opera? However, it tuned out just fine - a delight, actually. Better this than a gratuitous Mozart concerto.

The large orchestra was unusually seated in the European way - divided violins and lower strings distributed around the center. Concert opened with a sonorous Overture to Verdi's La Forza del Destino (this opera is actually one of my favorite Verdi's because, despite the usual absurd plot, there is no drag and things unfold quickly, with the three leads singing non-stop). Then came Che gelida manina from Puccini's La Boheme. It was immediately apparent Tenor Shi Yijie (a bio here) has a secure and well honed voice, with good style and diction. He had won several major competitions and is quite well known for his largely Bel Canto performances. Then came La donna e mobile, from Verdi's Rigoletto, which of course brought down the house (even Chinese audience know this one; in secondary school in HK I actually sang it in its silly English version Over the Summer Sea). then, interestingly, the conductor and singer both exited the stage, and the orchestra launched into a sliver (with harp) of Bizet's L'Arlesienne Suite. All this to introduce the next piece, E la solita storia del pastore, a tenor staple that has survived the oblivion of  Cilea's L'arlesiana. Somewhat incongruently, Dein ist mein ganzes Herz from Lehar's Das Land des Lachelns rounded off the program. The audience was enthusiastic and the appluase won an encore, O sole mio! My, that raised the roof! Good show and even I felt good. As I wrote in the last review of the National Opera, opera has a bright future in China.

However, in this acoustically superior hall, where one can hear everything loud and clear, deploying a Mahlerian orchestra for opera is questionable. The strings are probably twice the size of those usually in the pits. The soloist was no slouch but a somewhat reduced orchestra would have made some of his singing ride more effortlessly. Conductor Lin Daye, winner of the Sir Georg Solti conductor competition, had a fine grip. Stylistically the Italian material were fine but the Lehar needed a little more je ne sais quoi (most Lehar recordings fail too, unless the conductor is really into the idiom; listen to mono Lehar on Lehar and you'll know why).

And then we straddled into the completely alternate reality of Mahler Symphony No. 5. I often wonder why it is played much more often than any other of his purely instrumental symphonies - perhaps it is more easily understandable and its movements are not all unremittingly dark and embrace various moods, with an upbeat conclusion. However, its second and third movements are sprawling and difficult to cohere, and in my experience not many performances are satisfying. This performance was driven with a firm pulse and played dramatically, often rambunctiously, sometimes chaotically, but I call it a success, much better than the many uninspiring, even dispiriting, Mahler 5 I have heard in the past years, many with big names like Andris Nelsons/BSO and Marin Alsop/Baltimore (summarized, with links, here).

The Funeral march is the easiest movement. Here, it unfolded steadily and the trumpeter for once was never flustered. The strings, as throughout, showed their mettle, and their expressiveness was truly gratifying. The second movement was positively wild, stormy and vehement, as Mahler indicated. But it is a long movement, and this conductor's resolute drive did not have much yielding in tempo, so sometimes it seemed a little episodic, especially after successive apocalytic moments. The same holds true of the Scherzo, which had some wonderful playing by the strings, but a little more relaxation here and there would not be amiss. I have to say here I don't agree with the practice to have the horn soloist come up front for the few bits that he does. Our principal here seemed awkwardly poised and distracted, though he played well. The Adagietto was well played, but I'd much prefer it to be more hushed. The Rondo Finale was not the most playful, but it had drive and aimed at the finish, which was a success.

Texture was frequently a little coarse. At lower levels the strings were simply world-class in their expressivity, but at higher levels the tutti violins had some coarseness about them. As for the brass, they played very well but the sound is not that of the VPO or Concertgebouw. Most of this can likely be attributed to the lesser instruments that Chinese players use. China is not a country with a rich western music tradition nor a stash of older and affordable instruments but new luthiers and othe instrumental makers, as in other parts of the western world, are constantly gaining ground. Mind you, the musicians are paid little compared to world standard, and most have to earn more by private means, so it's unlikely they can afford more expensive instruments, which are even more expensive here than in the west.

The best are the woodwind players, which are simply world-class. Most of the principals have studied and played in Germany, and their solidity shows. As I have mentioned before, they play with a coherence and expressiveness that somehow elude the HKPO winds.

But the most impressive thing was that the whole team seemed hungry, and eager to make the most of things. China's crazy-strict covid policies cancelled most performances. Too bad because of a sporadic case in SZ I had to miss the SZSO with Li Xincao in Mahler 7th, a work I'd like to hear more than the 5th! Uh! BUT, this performance revealed to me that the musicians, from conductor down, are an enthusiastic bunch. I actually don't understand many Mahler performances today - the foremost thing is to galvanize and just give! Yes, calculated agogic changes are important but they would be futile if the musicians are not fired up in general (as in the 2 aforementioned performances I cited above). Better over-heated than under-toned. Mahler was not a perfect composer, and he knew it. For the 5th, he revised at a frenzy since its premiere because he was adjusting the sound palette. Conductors have to adjust too, and it's a tough job.

As western music is only a portion of the usual agenda of a Chinese symphonic orchestra, it cannot be an easy life. They have to play many roles, as functionaries for popular programs and state events beside their playing western music. Given that understanding, I am doubly impressed by their performances. In this concert, the musicians played their hearts out, and it was obvious.

Kudos! Mahler has a bright future in China

09 September, 2021

China National Opera Marriage of Figaro

Click pics to enlarge.

Opera Review: China National Opera - Mozart Le Nozze di Figaro

Sep 7, 2021, Shenzhen, Longgang Cultural Center Grand Theater 深圳龙岗文化中心大剧院
China National Opera 中央歌剧院 - Yang Yang, 杨洋 conductor
Figaro: Wang Yi Qing 王艺清; Susanna: Li Jing Jing 李晶晶
Count: Jin Chuan 金川; Countess: Zhang Jin Ge 张金鸽
Cherubino: Niu Sha Sha 牛莎莎
Bartolo: Chen Ye 陈野; Marzellina: Jin Jiu Jie 金久湝; Basilio: Li Xiang 李想


Unlike the Turandot last Friday, this is is billed as a Concert Version. I was surprised when I entered and found a reshaped, simply yet boldly adorned stage that collapsed the stage rear corners towards the center. The floor and back were laden with blown up scores, and the down-sized orchestra was fanned out on the right (see pic below). The Props, mostly a chair and 2 screens that were moved around, were a model of economy (much like Peking Opera) but proved well deployed. The pit was covered and the actions were further up front. Singers were dressed in mostly black and white (and off-white) and blended in with the stage.

From the first downbeat, I was pleasantly surprised by the nice sound of the orchestra. Strings were sweet and articulate and the woodwinds and horns played with excellent ensemble and verve, clearly energized. Conductor Yang Yang was proficient and perhaps a little more yielding than Yuan Ding on Friday. It was not quite the most idiomatic Mozart playing around - transitional passages occasionally sounded like sight-reading, but it was on a high and enjoyable level even for this veteran (I have watched this opera many times, including in English at the much lamented New York City Opera). Compared with Friday, one can conclude that the pit was highly detrimental to the sound. 
Of course it usually is, but an experienced conductor can counter this to some extent. It is also possible the reshaped stage basically constituted a horn that was beneficial to the transmission of sound. The orchestra actually played every night between Friday and Tuesday. In between were a concert of opera excerpts and some celebratory concerts for the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. Perhaps they were finally warmed up too.

Suffice to say, the semi-staging was more than satisfactory (better than a poor full staging). Kudos to the people who worked on the set and direction. The limited color palette and blown up pages reminded me of productions that ranged from a Queen of Spades (with blown-up poker cards) and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's cinematic masterpiece, Parsifal (scores blowing around).

TWO big twists! The recitatives were delivered in Chinese (Mandarin vernacular)! And well done they were, as good as native drama actors. As you may not know, Chinese singers are severely disadvantaged by their mother tongue that is not a western language (same for Koreans and Japanese and whatever). With little foreign language in the usual curriculum, Asians have to work crazy hard to sing opera. Second, Mozart, in the form of an actor (see pics), appeared occasionally, sometimes during a lull, and gave brief synopsis of the highly confused proceedings. The audience lapped it up, and that is important. More, there were some arguably "cheap tricks", like the Count carrying an LV bag to woo Susanna, and Marzellina gifted Figaro the deed for an apartment 房产证!when she found out he was her son. My opinion is, this is an implausible comedy that can accommodate elements iconic (for the wrong reasons) in our current lives. The audience was certainly tickled.

Now to the singing. Just like the orchestral playing, it was not the ultimate, but it was on a high level. Diction was fair, no easy thing. The male singers of whatever register sounded more alike than different, which means that Figaro and the Count were not so far apart (it happens to even the legendary Fischer-Diskeau, who being very light for a baritone excelled nonetheless because of his non-pareil diction and characterization). Susanna and Countess were competent and more differentiated, and Marzellina was downright husky (not that I like that). My greatest disappointment had to be the trouser-role, Cherubino, who must stand out in this opera, just as Octavian must in Rosenkavalier. The singer was like a glob of vowels and I could not make out syllables - I value enunciation (which is why I am emphatically neither a fan of Joan Sutherland nor Kiri Te-Kanawa). My Italian may be rudimentary (basta!), but I know what the cadence should sound like.

There is another observation. The ensembles, and this is a meticulously composed ensemble opera, were tight, and highly enjoyable, not that much different from a night in the better of the West. When it came to the individual moments, be it the (what should be) time-arresting moments, like Porgi Amor, things fell a little short. Not expressive enough, but still moving. And so the ensemble effort eclipsed the individual, but that is not a bad thing. Again, I am positive the Chinese western opera scene has a very bright future ahead. In terms of offering western opera in foreign tongues to the Chinese population, I think this is a very good effort. In fact, I think it is a sterling effort. I'd be happy to see and hear more of this kind in the coming years. Kudos.

Onto my feelings now towards this opera. Masterpiece though it is, it is a set piece designed to a formula. After years of listening, it has become too predictable. For me, there is less excitement in it now than before. I have never been a comedy fan, and imho opera moves too slowly to be a good vehicle. Better the heavier operas with their more cosmic pretensions and heaven-storming angst. As always, I listen to the music (singers and, even more importantly, the orchestra) more than follow the plot.

There are numerous very good recordings of this opera. On LP I have the classic set conducted by Erich Kleiber, (Decca) perfect singing and playing, and sonically excellent to boot. Still one of the best.




05 September, 2021

Puccini Turandot Chinese National Opera

Opera Review: Turandot

Shenzhen, Longgang Cultural Center Grand Theater 深圳龙岗文化中心大剧院
China National Opera 中央歌剧院 - Yuan Ding, 袁丁 conductor
Turandot: Liu Yan Hong 刘艳红
Calaf: Li Shuang 李爽

Liu: Yao Hong 幺红
Timur: Tian Hao 田浩
Ping, Pang, Pong: Geng Zhe, Liu Yi Ran, Li Xiang 耿哲,刘怡然,李想


Where I live in Shenzhen, Longgang, is peripheral to the heavy-weight CBD districts of Futian and Nanshan. As a result, cultural events, at least those of more substantial (or foreign) import, are few and far in between (not that there are many to start with in this city without much of a past). This is not unlike anywhere else in the world, be it NYC or HK. Where I am would be Queens in NYC and Yuen Long in HK. There is no denying, the best arts come to the wealthiest. It may not be equitable, but arts increasingly need private funding. I am not even mentioning the issue of "high arts", as they are likely massively imperiled by an age where inequity and populist sentiments are high on the agenda. If one judges by popular votes, hip hop and K-Pop will enter the halls of fame, and Shakespeare and Beethoven will be nearly completely dismissed. Fortunately, the niche always exists, but aficionados will have to be content with a very small pocket.

So it was, and is, a rare event that the premiere Opera Company of China, the National Opera, visits our local venue. Originally scheduled for July, it was postponed due to a smattering of covid cases here. Scouring the net, I found out this is a tried-and-true production that had toured China extensively. It had also been scheduled in Italy this year but I don't think it had happened due to the pandemic.

When I learned that they were finally to come, tickets were sold out. Fewer tickets were available due to anti-covid practices (some seats blocked out). On the evening of performance, I went early to the entrance gate, where patrons were screened for their QR Health Codes. I had with me a sign: "Just 1 ticket wanted". No response. I pestered every person entering the gate for whether he or she had an unused ticket. After maybe 10 attempts, one lady said she had one. I was ecstatic and entered with her (and paid her) and the rest is history. Mind you , were this at the city center's Concert Hall, where I heard all of my favorite SZSO concerts, where tickets during covid times are registered with one's name; any transference of ticket will be hazardous, if not impossible (I had understood this in advance).

This marked the first time I had entered this venue. It is an old-styled "statement building", which is conjoined with the district's main library (which I frequent) and museum (which I occasionally visit; currently, it has an African Art exhibit). The linking elements used to house the Book City, which had been relocated to the newer cultural center, Mecanoo (designed by the Dutch firm), a stone-throw's away, and is now used as a covid-testing site.

Despite its highly absurd story (which, honestly, is a problem that plagues most operas), musically, Turandot is one of my favorite operas, certainly my favorite Puccini, even if the ending was completed by Alfano. Its portrayal of so-called "ancient China" caused it to be banned for decades in China. But now its fortunes is reversed. There is even a Peking Opera version of it; how's that for cultural re-appropriation! For myself, the depiction of "China", even the trio of Ping Pang Pong (who offer some humanistic counterpoint to Turandot's ruthlessness), is not the problem; it's the precipitous softening of the Princess in the third act that defies credulity. I am not the only one. The respectable Spectator even published an article calling it out: Turandot is a disgusting opera that is beyond redemption. I agree with most of the points except that, I do think, despite the problematic ending, musically it is the best of the composer. Also, as an Asian, I personally find Madama Butterfly even more disagreeable, and never listen to it (ditto the despicable musical Miss Saigon, which basically appropriated the Puccini opera. Perhaps one day someone will write "Miss Kabul" - I am serious, and betting on it).

theopera101 (you should read the link to know all about the opera) also takes side swipes at the opera:

"...Calaf: A prince, anonymous to everyone in the opera. Supposedly a great guy but does little to justify this reputation...Liu: A slave girl. Loves Calaf beyond all measure -- the feeling’s not mutual..."

"...As Liu falls dead Timur must be informed since he is blind, and he cries out in sadness. The crowd and he leave with the body of Liu. Calaf chastises Turandot for effectively slaughtering the heart and soul of the opera and then pulls her in and kisses her. (At this point Puccini finishes and Alfano takes over)..."

"...After the kiss Turandot is horrified but gradually she softens. She reveals that she has always (since Act I at least) both hated and loved the Prince. She tells him to leave, but he bravely reveals his name: “I am Calaf, son of Timur.” His life sits in her hands...Predictably but rather unbelievably - not to mention mawkishly - the couple approach the emperor and Turandot announces that she knows the Prince’s name and it is love. Everyone is happy and the opera ends to the tune of "Nessun Dorma"..."

Cannot agree more. And so, the third and final act is rather difficult to watch, despite the magnificence of the music. It cannot be easy on the cast either. Most singers are basically "statuesque" and terrible actors, but the soprano singing Turandot is further burdened by the impossible task of acting out a radical change of personality in a very short time. Hence, in every production, the soprano singing Liu would steal applause.

Musically, things were on a high level. Hong Kong Opera cannot begin to compare. The singing was fine across the board, and that includes the very important chorus (though they are too few in number on this small stage, and so less impactful than usual). Liu Yan Hong (Turandot), a young singer on the ascent, possesses a voice capable of literally beaming out on demand. The veteran Yao Hong (Liu), also administratively second-in-command at the CNO, sang expressively, though her voice was at times unsteady, even decidedly floppy at first entry. Veteran bass Tian Hao (Timur) had been at this a long time and his timber was lovely. The ensemble act of Ping, Pang and Pong was solidly dependable.

Li Shuang (Calaf) had the lion's share of the limelight. His singing was not quite helden, but of good tonal allure, dependable and fairly idiomatic. However, the Nessun Dorma should have had a little more lingering to bring out the drama. This may partly be due to the conductor, Yuan Ding, who, though proficient, throughout showed not much elasticity.

The orchestra played very well. The woodwinds were the standouts. Strings seemed not full enough. The brass were overly powerful, often somewhat coarse, even grating. The conductor may be partly to blame but I think he was not the real culprit. It's the hall. The size is on the small side but that is not the problem. Rather, it is the acoustics - a very dry sound, and that is definitely not friendly to the orchestra or singers. The walls are pretty bare, with almost no adornment, and seem to be plastered. The lack of Hall Sound diminishes the grandeur of the music, especially the resplendent scoring of the final pages. It certainly didn't help with the Nessun Dorma. Acoustically, wood-laden Shenzhen Concert Hall is markedly superior.

Production values were good. The sets were impressive, though squeezed on the smallish stage. Lighting was fine. Stage direction was alright, and in my opinion no direction can be successful for the final act.

This was an all-Chinese production of one of the more difficult operas to mount. Judged by the performance in all respects China has a very bright future in Opera.

As for this opera, despite the lure of stage opulence, it makes as much sense to just listen to it than watch it. The orchestral scoring is full of riches. I recommend the glorious Decca version conducted by Mehta (resplendent sonics characteristic of Decca opera productions). It has a galaxy of stars that one cannot hope to encounter in the opera house today (and I am not even usually a fan of Pavarotti and Sutherland). My LP set (London) is one of the very few in my modest opera collection that I still pull out and play from time to time (others are Magic Flute, Tristan, Ring and, surprise! Flying Dutchman). In fact, just last year, before I departed for HK, I played the last side. On a good audio setup, it always gives great pleasure. For those who can tolerate old sonics, the legendary 1937 Covent Garden live excerpts conducted by Barbirolli, with Eva Turner and Giovanni Martinelli (EMI), is a MUST. A hair raising performance that has never been surpassed and English Eva Turner, more than the formidable Birgit Nilsson and others, has always been regarded as the greatest Turandot ever.