China’s oldest symphony orchestra played their first ever BBC Prom on Sunday, and brought along a “little gift” for the audience.
After playing pieces by Rachmaninov and Mozart, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra launched into a raucous version of The Beatles’ Hey Jude in a surprise encore.
Conductor Long Yu encouraged Prommers to sing along, which they did, before giving the players a standing ovation.
“We’re very happy,” said Yu. “Please accept our warm wish from Shanghai.”
The concert marked the end of the orchestra’s 140th anniversary tour, which began in the US three weeks ago.
Founded in 1879 as the Shanghai Public Band, it is one of China’s most successful symphony orchestras, touring extensively and appearing on several film soundtracks, including the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
It has been re-energised and re-vitalised since Long Yu’s appointment in 2009.
In his first year, he replaced a quarter of the orchestra after international blind auditions held in New York, saying he intended to impose “international standards” on its players.
Since then, the orchestra’s formerly flagging international profile has been restored, and they recently played at the Switzerland’s Lucerne Festival, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw and the Edinburgh Festival.
“Every year there’s been improvement,” bassoonist Timothy Chen told the BBC. “There’s been more depth in the orchestra until we’ve reached a level where we can be comfortable playing at a venue like BBC Proms. It’s really exciting to be a part of that.”
‘Tragic and lonely music’
Yu’s ambition for the orchestra is to draw on both Eastern and Western musical culture, inspired by Shanghai’s openness to outside influences.
“Shanghai is a very mixed-feeling city, ” he told Radio 3, “somewhere between a Chinese and European-feeling city.”
Last year, the orchestra signed a deal with the renowned Deutsche Grammophon label, and recently released the first in a series of albums featuring works by important Chinese composers.
It included Qigang Chen’s Wu Xing (The Five Elements), with which they opened their Proms performance on Sunday morning; followed by Mozart’s piano concerto 23 in A major.
For the latter, they were joined by 21-year-old pianist Eric Lu, who won the 2018 Leeds International Piano Competition.
“This is a piece I grew up with, listening from a child,” he told BBC Radio 3, “so it’s really meaningful to me to be able to perform it as my first time at the Proms.
“The second movement is… really deeply tragic and lonely music. It’s so beautiful, it can make you cry.”
After a brief interval, the orchestra showcased their virtuosity with an expressive version of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances; illuminated by Liu Zhongping’s incandescent saxophone solos.
The surprise encore exemplified the orchestra’s East-meets-West philosophy, opening with Jasmine Flower, a traditional Chinese song that dates back to 18th Century, before morphing into a rambunctious interpretation of Hey Jude – and the audience laughed in recognition as Liu Zhongping stood to play the opening melody.
Long Yu described the performance as “a little gift, dedicated to the UK.”
The full concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and filmed for broadcast on BBC Four this Friday, 6 September.