After an attractive, if somewhat benign, first half, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s Proms debut made for an increasingly raucous Sunday morning in SW7 under Long Yu. The music of Shanghainese composer Qigang Chen opened the concert, with his Wu Xing (The Five Elements) of 1998-99. The ten-minute work consists of five brief representations of water, wood, fire, earth and metal, each gently giving way to the next. Attractive soundscapes were created from richly scored (but softly realised) music for a large percussion section and intricate writing for woodwind and brass. The two marimbas, vibraphone and glockenspiel hummed with translucent textures in Water, and the brass convincingly satisfied their brief in Fire with playing which was “warm but not angry”. In Metal, notes ricocheted around the stage with carefully controlled precision. It was an agreeable concert opener, without challenging the ears too heavily.

Eric Lu and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Eric Lu and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The same approach was applied to Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major in a reading which was all perfectly attractive but not quite the zesty, punchy Mozart which is these days favoured. The flow between solo and orchestral lines was apparent very quickly, though, and soloist Eric Lu proved himself a very ready chamber accomplice. The woodwind solos sang, and the first movement cadenza sparkled elegantly. There was some admirable cross-stage interaction in the slow movement, with lines being passed seamlessly between orchestra principals and piano. The finale found a touch more punch, sparking into life with great joy in wind semiquaver passages, but the overall impression of the concerto was of gentle politeness rather than the high-spirited energy which this concerto can find in the right hands.

Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances are up there with the biggest names in orchestral party pieces for a touring orchestra, so this was a fitting end to the SSO’s 140th anniversary tour. The individual solos were superbly pulled off without exception, though the haunting first movement saxophone solo was especially memorable. So too were the visually and aurally spectacular contributions of timpanist Enrico Calini, whose spirited performance with the Santa Cecilia in 2013 will be remembered by many. In the first movement’s more romantic passages, the string section distinguished themselves in a distinctively glossy, ‘Hollywood’ sound not dissimilar to that of the John Wilson Orchestra. In the second movement waltz they were altogether more sultry and even a tad ghoulish in the ceaselessly rolling nocturnal dance. The finale rollicked towards its heady climax with thrilling vigour, the last pages just about keeping themselves on the rails in a breathless rush to the finish.

Long Yu conducts the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Long Yu conducts the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The encores prompted the kind of disinhibited singalong normally reserved for the Last Night when the pleasantly attractive 18th-century Chinese piece, Jasmine Flower, segued seamlessly into a raucous arrangement of Hey Jude. There was an unmistakeable end-of-term atmosphere as the Rachmaninov saxophonist and principal trumpet made solo contributions of dramatic pizzazz. I can’t remember being so unexpectedly entertained on a Sunday morning.

In addition to the Proms debut, the BBC’s other novelty for this concert was the invitation to the audience to leave their phones switched on (do not adjust your monitor) in order to follow real time, ‘live’ programme notes synchronised to the music. The notes were briefer than a traditional programme note, perhaps amounting to a few lines every couple of minutes, but were well written and struck a healthy balance between academia and entertainment. Contrary to dark pre-concert mutterings from some disapprovers, I didn’t hear a single unsilenced ringtone or alarm, though a few took the invitation to follow the programme notes as an implicit invitation to photograph, film and tweet the concert too. It was an interesting concept, and though it might be better deployed if limited to certain sections of the auditorium (as has happened when the BBC Philharmonic have trialled the same concept), it certainly justified some further trials.

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