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Asian Orchestras Achieve High Standards

Mike Willis reports on the rise in global respect for Asian orchestras.

Back in the bad old days you would occasionally see a recording by some obscure Asian orchestra--and avoid it. For example, during the very early days of Naxos, a few discs were issued by both the Singapore Symphony and the Hong Kong Symphony--to reasonably average reviews I would have to say.

Well times change, and just as the Asian tigers have flexed their muscles economically, musically a lot has happened over the last decade or so, and China/Asia now boasts some very fine orchestras.

Hong Kong has the well respected Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra which has now acquired a very good reputation and is one of the finest in Asia. Performing at the magnificent Arts centre in Kowloon, overlooking the beautiful Hong Kong harbour, the orchestra attracts renowned soloists from around the world and has increased its strength to that of a full sized orchestra. Some may be surprised to know that Chief Conductor is Englishman David Atherton who was much recorded a few years ago (and who has just recorded a disk of popular orchestral classics for world distribution)

The Hong Kong Philharmonic would be of the same standard as the New Zealand Symphony, the Melbourne Symphony and the Sydney Symphony in this listener's opinion. Gone are the days of shaky intonation, lack of real depth in the orchestral sound and poor standards. Here is an orchestra which is very impressive indeed.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic is fortunate in having a strong link to Radio TV Hong Kong which broadcasts many of their performances. In fact the arts in Hong Kong are incredibly exciting: when I was there the Vienna Philharmonic had just been and there was literally a good concert on every night of the week. It is becoming a pivotal centre of Asian culture.

From time to time, another Asian orchestra, called the Pan Asian orchestra can be heard in Hong Kong. It is also very good.

Turning to Singapore, we can report that the Singapore Symphony is today also much improved and like its Hong Kong cousin, is now of international standard. The orchestra was formed in l979 with just 41 musicians. Today it has some 90 musicians, 80% of whom are Singaporeans. The orchestra has been conducted for many years by Choo Hoey who is a fine musician and who has done much to raise standards in Singapore. The orchestra has recorded for Naxos and also for other labels. Its recordings include Chinese orchestral music (about which more in another article), and standard western classical repertoire included a much praised version of the Shostakovich symphony ten.

Turning to China, information remains somewhat harder to get but I can report from many visits to Beijing over the last year that the musical scene is very exciting--for traditional Chinese music, pop music (which is now being recorded right across China and in Hong Kong), and for western classical music. Pop music is endemic in Beijing, Wuhan and just about everywhere else, and it is often very good. Forget the old Mao images of China--Beijing is now an international city.

One of the better known Chinese orchestras is the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra which has been making an impressive series of disks for HNH-- mainly of Chinese (non traditional) classical music--again, more on this at another time. The orchestra was established in l952 when it was known as the East China Music Troupe. The first Director was He Lutiong, who was also a well known composer. The present director, Cao Peng is clearly a musician of discipline and discernment. The Orchestra has performed over 3000 concerts and has made many records for the China Record Company and other companies. It has also made a series of recordings of Chinese film music. There is also a Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, which has made recordings for the China Record Company and Hong Kong-based Hugo. Again, it is a good orchestra. Both of these orchestras sometimes appear in concerts featuring a number of traditional Chinese instruments as well as the usual range of western instruments. But they are essentially "western style orchestras," just like any you will find in Europe or America. (This distinction needs to be made because there are also a wealth of superb "Chinese orchestras" that play traditional and modern music. In fact many composers write pieces for both types of orchestras, and they sometimes combine instruments from the two).

The Beijing Central Philharmonic Orchestra is the best known ensemble in that fascinating city and is primarily a "western" orchestra featuring western instruments. For several years it made a wide range of recordings of Chinese compositions for the HK label, some of which were of extremely high quality. (Just try the Violin Concerto of Du Ming-Xin (l982). In recent times it has not been in the studio quite so much--at least so far as I can ascertain. The recordings which have been issued show the orchestra to be quite professional. Conductors have included Li De Lun, Yao Guan Rong, Han Zhang Jie, and Chen Xie-yang. When I was in Beijing there was also a chamber orchestra giving regular concerts and a number of other ensembles.

In fact, chamber music was particularly strong (also in Shanghai). It has to be said that not all "western" style orchestras in China are of the standard of the ensembles mentioned in this article: I heard transmissions of concerts which seemed to straddle Chinese and western performing styles (of western classical music) quite disturbingly. But many of the orchestras are good, and the days of assuming that orchestras from Chinese--Asia are poor have gone. Of course, in other parts of Asia, such as Japan and Korea, the image has already changed and many Japanese orchestras have been recorded (although probably not enough). My music spies also report that there are good "western" style orchestras in Jakarta and Taipei, but I have not heard these.

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