Shanghai Symphony's Ode to China's Melting Pot

Jul 23, 2019

Conductor Long Yu and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra celebrate Shanghai's rich history and diverse cultures with their new album, "Gateways."

This is part of a series of WCRB blog posts that bring you a personal perspective on richly rewarding CD releases you may not encounter otherwise.

On the eve of its 140th Anniversary, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra makes its all-orchestral album debut. It’s a big win for an ensemble that has spent the last ten years growing into a world-class orchestra under the musical direction of Shanghai native Long Yu, and the SSO has risen to the occasion. "Gateways," a cosmopolitan album that highlights Shanghai’s cultural history as China’s melting pot, features two works from Shanghai-born composer Qigang Chen, as well as music by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Fritz Kreisler.

The decision to feature two pieces by Qigang Chen seems particularly significant. Chen spent his teenage years at Conservatory in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution, when the choice to pursue musical composition had dangerous political and social implications. Kept in confinement for three years, Chen experienced the “ideological re-education" of Maoist rule firsthand. When the Conservatory was reopened in 1977, Chen returned to continue his studies, and later went on to study under French composer Olivier Messiaen, whose own experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II shaped his compositions significantly.

Under Messiaen, Chen developed a unique and cosmopolitan style that reaches far beyond China, but still stretches back to his roots in Shanghai. In the hands of Long Yu and the SSO, Chen’s “The Five Elements” carries undeniable Chinese influences in its sharp percussion. In contrast, his violin concerto, Joie de la souffrance, played here by Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov, carries the distinct sounds of France, the country Chen now calls home. Still, his “total assimilation of Chinese thinking” bleeds through in full color.

For Long Yu, the choice to feature soloist Maxim Vengerov is also significant in celebrating Shanghai’s musical history. According to him, following the collapse of Tsarist Russia in 1917, Russian immigration to China contributed heavily to Shanghai’s thriving music scene. This cultural exchange may be the reason Long Yu chose to close the album with Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. 

“We have a great Russian violinist playing a Chinese piece,” explains Long Yu, “and a Chinese orchestra playing a Russian work.”

However, the choice in repertoire is not only socially and politically important. The combination of Rachmaninoff’s longing score, paired with the introspective musings of Qigang Chen in the liner notes, creates a thoughtful, and, on occasion, existentially angsty debut album, turning "Gateways" into a living, breathing ode to Shanghai and the people who call it home.

Listen to the album on Spotify: