SHANGHAI — In Beijing’s National Center for the Performing Arts, anyone talking during the music, rustling a bag, or otherwise straying from the path of concert etiquette can be unnervingly called to task by unseen ushers armed with laser pointers: Little red dots dart through the hall, alighting on any and all offenders.
At the Shanghai Oriental Art Center, where the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed on Sunday, groups of young men in bowties, just before the music begins, appear out of nowhere to troll the aisles carrying bright green neon signs saying: “No Camera.” Small children are often in the audience for full-length symphonic programs. And screens are everywhere, including one some 40 feet wide across the back of the stage trumpeting the names of the orchestra and its conductor. It remained lit during all of Sunday’s performance, making the concert feel a bit like a stadium spectacle.
Over the last few days, it has become clear to me that attending a classical music performance in today’s China might be unlike hearing a concert anywhere else in the world.
The experience begins with the surroundings. All three halls in which the BSO has played on its current Asia tour have an unabashed sci-fi aesthetic, popping out of the urban landscape with curving organic forms of glass and steel, and suggesting that whatever transpires inside must have less to do with the past than with the future.
But once inside you are quickly, and rather dispiritingly, reminded of the litany of taboos, as recorded announcements spell everything out: no talking during the performance, no moving around the hall, no recording of any kind, no leaving before the concert is over, no clapping between movements. (On Sunday in Shanghai, the crowd greeted the warnings with a genial indifference.)
Then the music begins and, in all the concerts I’ve attended here in China, something unexpected happens: A kind of electric silence descends on the crowd. On Sunday the BSO performed Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” and as conductor Charles Dutoit drew out the score’s brilliant iridescent colors, everyone around me seemed uncommonly spellbound. I later asked the program director of the hall to speculate on how many in the audience might have heard the work before. Maybe half, she said. In other words, for at least 1,000 people present that night, it was like Paris in 1830: They were attending a world premiere.
In the United States, classical music is often marketed for its powers of relaxation, so it was refreshing to see the opposite properties at play in China, to watch a symphony jolt a hall awake.
All of this said, Western classical music in China is not as recent an import as it might sometimes seem. While the story of the art form’s boom here — the millions of young piano students, the gleaming new halls — has gotten its share of press attention in recent years, classical music has a far longer history in China, one that a visit to Shanghai helps one to recall.
The city’s Oriental Arts Center is in Pudong, a district developed entirely in the last 20 years and known for an aggressively futuristic skyline in which buildings seem to compete for access to the clouds. But a short cab ride away lies another world, the leafy streets and elegant Art Deco façades of the city’s French Concession, where an itinerant Italian pianist named Mario Paci turned up in 1918 and never left. He promoted Western classical music in China from the helm of what became the Shanghai Symphony.
The country’s oldest music school, the Shanghai Conservatory, was founded not long afterward in 1927. Its vibrant campus today is a cluster of buildings near a block lined with instrument shops and music stores. The city’s music scene always thrived in part on expatriate musicians and audiences, a group whose numbers later swelled as so many Central European exiles fleeing Hitler washed ashore in Shanghai that one neighborhood became known as Little Vienna.
These days, the most visible embodiments of China’s classical boom are its young piano soloists, artists such as Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, and Yundi Li. But China had its own piano heroes long before this current crop of keyboard stars.
Consider, for instance, the story of Liu Shih Kun. Born in Tianjin in 1939, Liu had Russian teachers during his early studies and went to Budapest to compete internationally in 1956. He came away with a third prize and a special trophy from the government: a lock of Franz Liszt’s hair. In 1958 he placed second in the Tchaikovsky competition, won by none other than Van Cliburn. Back in China during the Cultural Revolution, Liu was imprisoned and tortured by members of the Red Guard with the aim of ending his piano career. They were not successful. Liu outlived the revolution, regained his technique, and even appeared as a soloist with the BSO during its landmark 1979 tour of China.
Notably, the year before the BSO arrived, Beijing’s Central Conservatory began accepting students again, and its first class, now known as the famed “Class of 1978,” included just about all of today’s most prominent Chinese composers, a group that has forged new meetings of Eastern traditions and the Western avant-garde. Among them were Tan Dun, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, and Bright Sheng.
The night before the BSO’s performance in Shanghai, I caught an evening devoted to the music of Chen and Zhou, who received the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for his opera “Madame White Snake,” premiered by the now disbanded Opera Boston. A regional orchestra gave piercingly loud performances while a young and curious audience seemed to take it all in with cheerful equanimity. The crowd was of a size that would count as huge by the standards of Boston’s new-music concerts, and once more, it was hard to miss the presence of children in the audience.
The following night, it was the BSO’s turn. Pianist Behzod Abduraimov has been with the BSO on tour, performing Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” in each city, and thrilling Chinese audiences with playing of high velocity and expressive grace.
In the “Symphonie Fantastique,” long one of the BSO’s signature works, Dutoit emphasized the score’s impetuosity and its sheer sonic opulence. The brass playing in particular was full of elegant fire.
And not a moment of it seemed to go unabsorbed. At the opening of the “Scene in the Country,” oboist Keisuke Wakao played from offstage in the duet with English horn player Robert Sheena, and the effect delighted a man seated in my row. The same audience member could be seen vigorously air-conducting during the BSO’s encore (the spirited farandole movement from Bizet’s “L’Arlésienne” Suite No. 2).
At a guess, the neon-toting ushers might have disapproved of this air-conducting, too, but in that moment it seemed a perfectly sincere response to a music that has not lost its capacity to surprise. And besides, by that point, all the cameras had come out, too. How better to document another world premiere?