Chicago symphone plays its first concerts in China

BEIJING — The arrival of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in China seemed like an event that should have taken place long ago.

Posters of Bernard Haitink, the Chicago Symphony’s conductor, hung in the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing to promote the orchestra’s concerts there last week.

Among the top orchestras in the United States, it has the most musicians born in China, according to Li-Kuo Chang, the orchestra’s assistant principal violist and a Shanghai native. What’s more, Mr. Chang became the first musician from mainland China to join a world-class orchestra when he became a member of the Chicago Symphony in 1988.

“From the moment I sat down in my position in the C.S.O. and played my first note, the first note of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, I thought: ‘My God, I’m here. I want my countrymen to share this,’ ” Mr. Chang said in an interview after a news conference in Beijing on Friday.

Yet more than 20 years would elapse from the moment Mr. Chang played that note to the night he finally performed with the orchestra in his homeland.

Last week the Chicago Symphony played for the first time in mainland China, giving two performances in Shanghai and two in Beijing. It was also the first time the orchestra’s principal conductor, Bernard Haitink, an Amsterdam native, had set foot in China.

The concerts in Beijing took place on Friday and Saturday nights at the National Center for the Performing Arts, better known as the Egg, the controversial half-oval glass marvel designed by French architect Paul Andreu and built off Tiananmen Square. It was the same building in which the New York Philharmonic played last year before going to North Korea.

Mr. Haitink said on Friday afternoon that the jet lag was severe, but that China had not failed to make an impression.

“I’m just overwhelmed,” he said at a news conference, held inside the Egg. Arriving in Shanghai, he said, “I had a feeling that I was on a different planet.”

Mr. Haitink visited the Shanghai Museum, which holds a trove of ancient artifacts. Here in Beijing he listened on Thursday night to two Chinese musicians perform on the erhu and guzheng, traditional string instruments.

“I got a slight opening of insight into your enormous culture, and I think it’s very precious and very impressive,” he said, addressing Chinese journalists. “When I saw those girls playing with such poise, such cultural security, I thought, ‘Well, we could learn from them.’ ”

The Beijing performances were the final stops on a 10-concert tour of Asia that also included Yokohama and Tokyo in Japan, and Hong Kong. The $3 million cost of the Asia tour was recouped through corporate sponsorships as well as fees and ticket sales. The orchestra left Chicago on Jan. 26 in two airplanes, one carrying 118 musicians and 62 staff members and patrons; the other, 20 tons of cargo.

The tour on mainland China got off to an auspicious start. During a news conference before the first concert in Shanghai, Mr. Haitink and other musicians learned that two recordings on the orchestra’s in-house record label, CSO Resound, had each won a Grammy.

Mr. Chang, the violist, said the Shanghai concerts had been attended by his former teachers, schoolmates and colleagues. His 97-year-old mother had planned to attend, but she was injured in a fall just days earlier. Still, he said, “it was a historic homecoming for me.”

In Beijing the orchestra performed in one of the Egg’s smaller halls, giving the concerts an intimate feel. The tickets, considered very expensive by Chinese standards, sold out days in advance. Chen Zuohuang, the Egg’s artistic director, said important Chinese figures had lobbied for tickets, but there were no extras to give out.

“These two days we can feel the holiday atmosphere among all the music fans in China and Beijing, because finally we have the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Mr. Haitink making their debut in Beijing,” he said. “We’ve been waiting for this moment for too long.”

Hours before the Friday concert Mr. Chang said that performing in the Egg was “an unknown for us.”

“We’re all in awe of the vastness,” he said. “Today was the first time I walked in here.”

The crowd at the final concert, on Saturday, was enthusiastic, but respectfully quiet. Listeners had braved a sudden cold snap in Beijing, an onrush of biting wind from Siberia, to attend the performance. A hush of anticipation settled over the hall as Mr. Haitink strode onto the golden wood panels of the stage at 7:30 p.m. The orchestra ran through the playful notes of Haydn’s Symphony No. 101.

After a 15-minute intermission the orchestra took up the longer, louder, more cinematic piece of the evening, Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7. Some audience members leaned forward in their seats. A few snapped quick photographs with their cellphones, even though cameras were officially banned from the concert.

When the final note faded to silence, one listener immediately yelled, “Bravo!”

Mr. Haitink returned to the stage five times as virtually every member of the audience continued to clap.

“We think this is a beautiful concert,” said Li Xianjin, 45, standing in the lower balcony with his wife and son. “This is our first time hearing music in the Egg.”

His wife, Xu Hongyan, nodded. “The Chicago orchestra is very famous,” she said. “It’s their first time in China. It’s the best orchestra, and this is the best place to hear music in all of China.”

Then they walked out, carrying some of the night’s warmth into the Siberian wind.

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