It’s always exciting to watch shrouded, walled-in construction sites become gleaming edifices, but seeing their dedicated concert hall finally completed is just one reason the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra (SSO) is celebrating this month. Their 135th anniversary marks the ensemble as Asia’s oldest orchestra, their autumn season kicks off a stellar line-up, and their new state-of-the-art residence aims to become the cultural lifeblood of an ever-changing city.
And with Long Yu (Yu Long in China) at the helm, it just might work. SSO music director since 2009, the visionary Yu transformed an anemic orchestra into an international powerhouse – collaborating with a Who’s Who of classical music, co-founding and running the Shanghai Orchestra Academy with the New York Philharmonic and co-commissioning pieces for emerging Chinese composers.
Furthermore, in a culture that considers chamber music – at best – a musical bronze medal, the SSO chamber music series not only presented regular concerts but took on internationally known artists-in-residence, giving the genre much-needed credibility. If that weren’t enough, in just four years, Music in the Summer Air (MISA) has evolved from a string of strong warm weather concerts to a comprehensive festival that showcases Yu’s creative and masterful programming.
Now all the SSO needed was a place to play, creating orchestral identity and in turn improving ticket sales. ‘There are three Shanghai venues for symphony performances, but the irregular times and locations means the audience has no [focus],’ says Zhou Ping, SSO co-vice head. ‘This impacts popular taste.’ Yu agrees: ‘It’s normal for orchestras to want their own hall, but in this case it’s very meaningful,’ he says. ‘Not many people realise that Shanghai became a cultural city long ago.’ Indeed, many in the arts community saw Shanghai as ‘Hong Kong lite’ – staging the best shows they could afford, but generating very little. All that is now changing. ‘I think Shanghai will become a music city,’ says Yu.
To this end, the hall’s organisers view concerts as only part of their cultural mission. For the musicians, their in-house recording studio will probably make the SSO the go-to orchestra for film scores in China. While recording theCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) soundtrack, the orchestra was squeezed into an inferior site, with the sound of dogs barking next door and a rattling heating/air conditioning system inside. ‘We had to wait for quiet moments and turn off the [appliances],’ says co-vice head Zhou Jinghua. ‘The musicians were sweating and out of breath during recordings.’
As for the patrons, the hall is open daily, as is a café, bookstore and interactive music lounge, featuring games such as Little Conductor andInteractive Harp. Organisers also plan to host art exhibitions and lectures on music and literature. Outside, the 100-metre green belt simulates a Chinese classic garden, and the wifi network means arts lovers are never disconnected. ‘People can share their joy of music,’ says Yu. The building’s close proximity to the Shanghai Music Conservatory as well as its ancillary bookstores and instrument shops could create what organisers call, ‘An Emerging Chinese Music Centre’, similar to the Lincoln Centre in New York.
Of course, these are all mere trappings if the venue doesn’t function the way a venue should. Like cathedrals, concert halls are supposed to shock and awe, but all too often designers sacrifice substance for style. ‘If you drive a car, the car has to be able to move, and if you go to a concert, you have to be able to hear,’ says Yu. ‘If the audience can’t hear the music properly, or if the musicians can’t hear each other, what kind of a hall is that?’
One that’s all too common, it seems. That’s why the SSO became China’s first organisation to hire the acoustician before the architect. Best known for his work on Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall, superstar acoustic designer Yasuhisa Toyota approved both the design and the architect, Arata Isozaki. The SSO administrators took research trips to famous international venues, and noted the acoustical difficulties of Shanghai’s existing venues – one of which was proximity to the metro. The exacting Toyota insisted on building models of different sizes (rather than the standard 1/10 size alone), performing hundreds of tests and reworking an imperfection that would be only 10cm at full size. He also took care to preserve the feeling of intimacy in the 400- and 1,200-seat venues.
Acoustics is a delicate balance between art and science, logic and emotion; the wood, fabric and filler material must create an overall aural balance, and correcting design flaws are prohibitively difficult after the fact – the team has one chance to get it right. Even personal feeling enters in; Toyota says that, ‘100 pianists will have 100 different opinions on any given hall.’
Nevertheless, the SSO Hall will no doubt rank as a success. ‘We are so happy, the sound is gorgeous,’ says Yu. ‘It’s very important for the musicians and the audience.’ Toyota agrees. ‘We [weren’t] constructing a common building, but making a great musical instrument.’ Perfect for a music city.
By Nancy Pellegrini