Finnish Music Quarterly: Grappling with Sibelius in China

Finnish Music Quarterly
Andrew Mellor

“Could a certain distance from Western symphonic thought have contributed to the surprising qualities of the performances I heard in China?” Andrew Mellor reviews performances of Sibelius’s Symphonies Nos 2 and 5 in Shanghai and Guangzhou.

The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra – 140 years old this season – presented Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 at a concert on 13 January conducted by Li Xincao. Sibelius is not a regular part of the SSO’s diet, I was told by Doug He, the orchestra’s Vice President. Sometimes the Violin Concerto crops up in a season. There might even be, as in this season, a symphony included. But there was zero Sibelius in the season before. Like the Orchestre de Paris, however, this is a flexible modern symphony orchestra with strength in all sections and high levels of discipline.

Li Xincao and the SSO’s Sibelius was exceptional, perhaps because it grasped some of the basic principles mentioned above. It appeared to take rhythm as a starting point, understanding that a focus on the rhythmic devices presented from the very start of the score will allow those devices to take on the kinetic significance they need. Intentionally or otherwise, the orchestra spoke relatively plainly but still with a sure sense of colour (the solo trumpet playing was deliciously peaty). The performance acknowledged the strain in the music, as in the final movement when building disquiet metamorphoses into natural release.

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