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February 12, 2010

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False notes from Vienna

THE golden word "Vienna" lures Chinese audiences to holiday orchestral performances, but many are not the real deal and music lovers should be wary of false notes. Nie Xin reports.

The Christmas, New Year and Chinese Lunar New Year holidays are peak periods for classical music, and audiences look forward to hearing big-name international orchestras.

For years, quite a few have been promoted as world-class orchestras from Vienna, billed as the "Vienna Symphony Orchestra."

There's quite a bit of confusion as there are quite a few ways to translate German orchestra names into Vienna Symphony Orchestra and lure Chinese audiences over the holidays.

Music critics say that many music lovers are not very sophisticated and may be taken in by European orchestras (which still may be quite good) charging high prices for classical music.

Many excellent but out-of-work musicians in Eastern Europe may put together ensembles and tour China.

The same situation arises with ballet companies from Russia presenting "The Nutcracker" and "Swan Lake."

Some examples:

On December 29, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra ("Sinfonia Wien") gave a New Year's concert at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center. Tickets ranged from 180-880 yuan (US$26-129).

Another Vienna Symphony Orchestra ("Symphonia Vienna") held a concert on January 5 at the same venue.

Neither is the 110-year-old world-class Vienna Symphony Orchestra ("Wiener Symphoniker") established in 1900.

Just a few months earlier in September, the illustrious Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, established in 1842, performed at the same venue under the baton of Zubin Mehta.

This is the orchestra that gives the famous New Year's Eve concerts at Musikverein in Vienna and it performed just once in Shanghai.

But media reports promoted varied "world-class" groups from Vienna and audiences spent hundreds of yuan.

In fact, the real Vienna Symphony Orchestra staged three New Year's concerts all in Austria, featuring Beethoven.

The term "sinfonia" refers to a small-scale orchestra, not a substitute for "symphoniker."

"Even after the orchestra concluded with Strauss' works, which I knew, I still thought I had listened to the world-class Vienna Symphony Orchestra," says Ye Ming, who spent 880 yuan for the show on December 29. "I felt cheated."

In fact, Ye had listened to the Sinfonia Wien (also translated as Vienna Symphony) that toured China during the 2010 New Year's period, performing in Shanghai, Beijing, Dalian (Liaoning Province), Qinhuangdao (Shandong Province), and three other cities.


The Website of the Oriental Art Center describes this group, in Chinese, as "an officially registered group established in Austria in the middle of the 20th century, consisting of over 100 performers."

This confusing multitude of Vienna Symphony Orchestras is the result of high profits to be had by entertainment promoters, or performance management companies.

In China, performances must be licensed by the Ministry of Culture.

While applying for licenses and visas, the performance management companies must use the original name of the musical groups.

Venues such as the Oriental Art Center have no reason not to rent, as they are in business.

But promotions use clever translations.

"Performance management companies play word tricks as a couple of groups can be translated as 'Vienna Symphony Orchestra' in Chinese," says Tang Ruopu, a noted music critic in Beijing who has investigated the issue of various orchestras using one big-draw name in China.

For many Chinese music lovers, Vienna means classical music of the highest quality.

Critic Tang gives more examples in an e-mail interview with Shanghai Daily.

"The Vienna Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Classic Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Feast Philharmonic Orchestra ... Are you confused? Actually they are the same group, a student orchestra from Austria's University of Graz."

It has performed three times in China over three years under three different names, Tang says.

Ballet companies from Russia (some with titles including "royal" or "imperial") have a similar allure in China, especially if they performing favorites such as "The Nutcracker" and "Swan Lake." But not all are legendary.

Many ballet lovers rely on descriptions provided by theaters. Among the most famous ballets are the Bolshoi Ballet (1776), Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet (1740s) and Ballet Russe (1909).

Others are excellent, but ballet lovers should do their research. Many ballets advertise themselves as the "Moscow Ballet."

Ha Mu Ti, president of Shanghai Ballet, says he was invited to watch a performance of "The Nutcracker" last December at Shanghai Grand Theater.

"I didn't go," says Ha. "There are too many unrenowned ensembles now with the titles including the words 'royal' and 'Russian' giving performances in Shanghai. I prefer the big names like the Moscow Grand Theater of Russia and St Petersburg Ballet Theater."

Some ballet companies even arrive in Shanghai without stage properties, notes the president of Shanghai Ballet.

"They rented costumes and properties here. How could they bring well-prepared shows to a Shanghai audience?"


Critics advise lovers of classical music and ballet to do their homework before investing in expensive tickets.

1. Read the advertisements carefully. The group's legal name (needed to get a performing license in China) should be posted online. Don't be confused by advertising slogans in Chinese that might fudge the group's identity and mislead audiences.

2. Search the name on the Internet, using the original name in English, to make sure the group is scheduled to perform in China.

3. Search the names of the conductor and principal performers to determine if they are well known. Lesser-known performers can also be excellent, but often command lower ticket prices.

4. Check the performing license on the Ministry of Culture's Website ( English version available.

5. Performances are more likely to be high quality if they are "organized" by famous formal venues such as the Shanghai Oriental Art Center or the Shanghai Grand Theater. However, if the venues are rented, then the stages are sponsors, not official organizers.


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