Tuesday, March 23, 2010

China National Symphony Orchestra – Michel Plasson, conductor. March 14, 2010.

Concert Hall at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing. Seat Level 1, Row 10, Seat 25 (CNY280).

Symphony in D minor by Cesar Franck.
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, by Ludwig van Beethoven.

We are in China to visit a charitable organization, and found this concert which fit our schedule. David was with us also; he was the one who bought the tickets at the box office the day before. There are several reasons we could find this concert interesting: we have never seen the China National Symphony Orchestra; this is a relatively new concert hall, completed in 2007; my last experience at a Chinese Concert was quite interesting in that the audience felt free to chat during the performance; and the program is interesting. That a reasonably seat could be had for less than US$50 didn’t hurt either.

The Beijing Performing Arts Center (国家大剧院)

The Concert Hall is one of three auditoria in the Beijing Performing Arts Center. The main hall is the Opera House, and there is another auditorium for theater. All three are enclosed in this dome affectionately called “The Egg.” The Concert Hall, seating about 2000, has the orchestra in the “pit” surrounded by the audience, and feels rather intimate. The seats were quite comfortable. For tonight’s concert the hall was about 70% to 80% full by my estimation.

The orchestra members are by and large on the young side. Given the recent history of China, it is not surprising that there are not that many middle age players as it would be considered bourgeois for them to be playing western musical instruments during their teenage formative years. Which is a great pity. Another unexpected thing is the French conductor who is now leading the orchestra. The Program Notes would lead one to conclude he is now the Orchestra’s principal conductor; however, there is no mention of this fact either at the CNSO website, or the Wiki entry for Plasson. In any case, he was quite energetic for someone in his mid 70s (born October 1933).

I am reasonably familiar with Franck’s violin music, but this was the first time I heard the symphony. It sounds similar in that the themes are pleasant, but get repeated quite often. The dynamic range could be broader, though. The three movements are (i) Largo; (ii) Allegretto, ma non troppo; and (iii) Allegro non troppo.

The slow movement in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is made famous, deservedly, by the movie “Immortal Beloved.” The movement sounds very melancholic to me, with the violas playing a prominent role in the beginning. The entire symphony was done very well. The movements are (i) Poco sostenuto – Vivace; (ii) Allegretto; (iii) Presto; and (iv) Allegro con brio.

The acoustics, while okay, is surprisingly bland for such a new concert hall. I don’t know how to describe it except as lack of character: the sounds are clear, but not brilliant; the dynamic range is narrow (perhaps the orchestra?); and one doesn’t come away impressed. The applause from the audience was so tepid that I felt bad for the conductor. At least there was minimal talking during the performance, a great improvement from my last experience.

Someone was trying to use his cell phone to take a picture of the stage during the performance. A laser pointer shining on his device put an end to that rather quickly. A reminder of where we were.

They were also punctual. Started a few minutes after 7:30 pm, and the intermission was reasonably short. Overall I was glad to have attended this concert.

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