Theatro Municipal, Rio de Janeiro
Sunday, August 30, 2015
Shangai Symphony Orchestra
Maxim Vengerov, violin
Long Yu, conductor
Qigang Chen – Symphonic Overture “Instants d’un Opéra de Pékin”
Tchaikowsky – Violin Concerto in D major, op.35
Shostakovich – Symphony no. 5 in D minor, op.47




Rio de Janeiro is not exactly at the center of international classical music activity. In fact, it is quite peripheral, not only because of its distance from the great hubs (although that is no excuse, if one thinks of the ebullience of classical music in Asia), but mainly because Brazil lacks a great classical tradition, the reasons for this stemming directly from the course of its social and cultural history. There are many logical explanations as to why Brazil produced few great classical composers, the most famous of which is, of course, Heitor Villa-Lobos, whereas its popular music has attained worldwide fame and recognition. But I won’t go into this here and now, as what I want to talk about is precisely one of a few  exceptions.

Loosely modeled after the Palais Garnier which houses the Opéra de Paris, the Theatro Municipal was built in the beginning of the 20th century and was recently beautifully refurbished to its original splendor. It is definitely a cultural oasis in the busy and run-down center of Rio.

The program for last Sunday, at the very civilized hour of 6 PM, promised to be grand. The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra conducted by Long Yu, both of which I had never heard or even heard about, with no less than Maxim Vengerov, the splendid Russian violinist, formerly a student, as was Vadim Repin, of the legendary Zakhar Bron.

The afternoon was full of novelty. Not only the performers – with the exception of Vengerov, of course – but also the first piece on the program. A “symphonic overture” , a rather redundant expression, entitled  “Instants d’un Opéra de Pékin” which sounded slightly ominous to my fiercely occidental ears.  Well, my fear turned out to be  totally unfounded. The overture is only minimally Oriental, and even sounds as if composed by a Western musician inspired by the East, as Lalo and Rimsky-Korsakov were inspired by Spain. The overture actually sounded pleasantly Hollywood oriented (no pun intended), a blend of  Korngold, Bernstein and John Williams, and prompted me to turn to Google and Wikipedia to find out more about Qigang Chen. And I must confess that I am proud of my musical instinct. Qigang Cheng is a prolific Chinese born composer who is now a French citizen, who studied with Messiaen and did compose for film, and also the music for the 2008 Beijing Olympics!

Vengerov, his huge fame preceding him,  was enthusiastically applauded even before playing a single note.  He has thrilled me on several occasions, but maybe more because of his polished virtuosity and infectious personality than on account of his musicality. I’m sorry if I sound sacrilegious, but his performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto last Sunday  only confirmed my former impression. It was pretty dull, pretty conventional and not that polished. The phrasing and the dynamics were extremely predictable and not necessarily in the best of taste, again I would say it could have been a Hollywood rendition of a great virtuoso. And even the virtuosity seemed slightly tainted, with sloppy glissandi and an occasional dip in intonation. The slight boredom was contagious, as the orchestra also seemed to play with a complete lack of  interest under a stilted conductor. Was it jet lag? Or worse, was it a premature decline, such as can be brought on by overexposure? Throughout the performance, all I could think of was how I would have preferred to be listening to Kremer or Bell, two very different violinists who bring their great personalities into their music and always keep you on the edge of your seat.

The first part of the program left me a little apprehensive when, after the intermission, I settled back into my seat to hear the Shanghai Symphony and Long Yu perform Shostakovich’s beautiful and complex 5th Symphony.  It seems that the work suited the Chinese musicians to a tee, as it was a very interesting and imaginative rendition, from the somber initial Moderato to the agitated and anguished closing Allegro non troppo, through the quintessentially “shostakovian” witty Allegretto and the meditative Largo. The symphony showcased the excellence of the winds ( the flute and oboe were particularly appealing) and percussion, and Long Yu seemed liberated from the constraint of accompanying a rather tired soloist, guiding his orchestra with renewed vigor.

Thus, having gone to hear Vengerov, I was surprised to leave considerably more pleased with the Shanghai Symphony and Long Yu and totally in awe, once again, of the genius of Shostakovich.