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December 2, 2021

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Shanghai’s symphony orchestra spans the globe, draws new, younger fans

When Andrea Cavagnini from Italy moved to Shanghai in 2005, the opera lover wasn’t expecting much in the way of classical music concerts. It was a time when watching an opera in its entirety was still rare in China.

“So much has changed in my 16 years here,” Cavagnini told Shanghai Daily at the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra Hall, five minutes away from his residence.

“Now I have been spoiled by the classical music scene here, I miss the quality, acoustics, and convenience when I travel.”

The concert hall, which opened in 2014, has hosted many top musicians and orchestras from around the world. Some, like New York Philharmonic, have returned regularly.

Almost every visiting musician was excited, or even envious for some, to see the large young audience in the city, a scene not so common in Europe or the US for classical music concerts.

The trend has been a steady progression since the 1980s and has really accelerated in the last two decades or so, as classical music has become a big part of Shanghai’s growing cultural scene.

“By some estimates, there were only about 6,000 classical music fans in Shanghai at the beginning of this century. By fans, we count those who watched four or more concerts a year,” said Lin Hongming, director of Arts and Culture Management Institute at Zhejiang Conservatory of Music.

“There is no exact number today, but we can all see the drastic change this century and see an incredible number today. Many new music venues have opened, music festivals have been established, and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, China’s earliest, has re-invented itself and helped nurture more audiences.”

Founded in 1879, the orchestra has operated under different names and structures spanning three centuries. At first, there were no Chinese performers or audience members.

By the end of the 1920s, it was already known as “the best in the Far East.” After the 1950s, the number of concerts shrunk drastically and started to re-emerge in the 1980s, shortly after “reform and opening-up” began in 1978.

“The history and future of Shanghai’s classical music scene can both be seen from our fans,” Zhou Ping, the orchestra’s director, said at a recent celebration of the 10th anniversary of the orchestra’s member’s club.

“After we moved to the current address in 2014, the new concert hall not only offered us more freedom for programming but also the possibility to get closer to the city’s classical music lovers and respond to their demands.”

The history is surely remembered by some of the older fans, such as 63-year-old Cao Wenbing, who has kept many early concert pamphlets, including one for a “phenomenon” concert in 1985, when the orchestra performed all nine Beethoven symphonies in four concerts at Shanghai Concert Hall.

“I was 27, and the concert hall’s ticket office was in a longtang (alley).” We went there really early in the morning, and the queue soon got so long that it encircled the concert hall, as those who live in the longtang came out to buy breakfast and clean chamber pots,” Cao, who has kept that concert’s pamphlet for all these years, recalled.

“I still remember the ticket price, 1.2 yuan (19 US cents) for one concert, and I bought all four of them. That concert series turned Beethoven into a trend in the city, and a lot of older fans, like me, really fell in love with symphony after that.”

It was also at the Shanghai Concert Hall that Cavagnini first discovered the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and became a regular attendee and later a club member. It was a plus and a pleasant surprise when he discovered Zhang Jiemin, the orchestra’s conductor in residence since 2010, was a familiar face from Milan – she was the lead conductor there before Cavagnini moved to Shanghai.

Zhang, who worked as Zubin Mehta’s assistant in Florence, later worked and toured Europe for years. She became the first woman to conduct operas in both the La Fenice and San Carlo opera houses in 2007 and 2008 and was awarded the prestigious Ordine della Stella d”Italia last month for promoting Italian opera in China and inspiring interest in Italian culture.

When in Italy, Cavagnini preferred music from earlier periods, but that also changed in Shanghai.

“It was in Shanghai that I learned to listen to contemporary music. I didn’t like that sound before. Somehow my tastes changed,” he said when recalling an impressive concert from around 10 years ago.

It featured Philip Glass’s music inspired by works of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, with projected images and videos of the writer and his works.

“In such a small room, they could do such a wonderful performing art. I was very impressed,” he said.

At that time, the orchestra was still in a small venue on Hunan Road. The chamber music series that started there remains today and has become a favorite tradition for many.

“Everything changed after 2014 after the orchestra moved,” said Cavagnini. “It was not just a great new concert hall, but it all got more professional, from pamphlets to tickets, and there is also more information in English.”

He added, “For the classical music scene in Shanghai, it was like loosely-connected diamonds before; you could find highlights here and there. Now, especially at the symphony orchestra, the music season is so well-programmed that the diamonds turned into a necklace.”


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