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An architectural symphony in Shanghai
Updated: 2004-12-30 09:21

Shanghai's music lovers have something to crow about as the Year of the Rooster approaches - for the first time ever the city has a world-class concert hall in a 1-billion yuan (US$120 million) entertainment complex built in Pudong, writes Michelle Qiao.

The new Shanghai Oriental Arts Center in the shape of a butterfly is a new year gift to Shanghai music lovers. [sohu]

Among the city's galaxy of New Year concerts, tomorrow night's concert in the new Shanghai Oriental Arts Center is the most eagerly awaited.

It will be the first performance to be held in a purpose-built concert hall in Shanghai's history and the best New Year's gift for local musicians and music lovers.

The concert, featuring mainly Chinese musicians, marks the soft launch of the gigantic cultural epicenter built in the Pudong New Area.

With a new look, stunning architecture, advanced facilities and modern management, the center will be the crowning jewel of Shanghai's many performing venues.

"We are so excited - we finally feel we have a home," says Chen Guangxian, general manager of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. "When our orchestra celebrated its 120th anniversary in 1999, Tan Shuzhen, (deputy president of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music from 1949 to 1984) said she regretted that Shanghai had no authentic concert halls."

It's true. Shanghai has a population of more than 16 million but not one professional symphonic music concert hall. The Shanghai Concert Hall was built in the 1930s as a cinema and was later converted into a concert hall because it had relatively good acoustics. The Shanghai Grand Theater is a multi-functional theater.

So, the 1,953-seat concert hall in the Shanghai Oriental Arts Center will be city's first fully professional performance venue for concerts with the most advanced digital sound console, first-class seating for audiences and a state-of-the-art organ.

"Our orchestra rehearsed a performance on the stage on December 12 and the effect was great," says Chen. "The sound is clear, full-bodied, clean for every vocal part and the mix is perfect. Even without microphones, every one of the nearly 2,000 members in the audience could hear the speech given by our conductor Chen Xieyang clearly. It will be one of the very few top concert halls in China."

Ni Shaolu, vice-chairman of the Shanghai Symphonic Music Lovers' Association, says the design of the new art center even creates a better effect during the applause of the audience. "The sound is so good that one day the center may become a venue for recording those great religious classics," Ni says, who watched and listened to two concert rehearsals on December 9 and 12. "With the new organ, some of the great organ concertos by Bach can be played. It will be a whole new field."

Covering an area of 40,000 square meters close to Century Square, the center was designed by leading French architect Paul Andreu. He also designed the Grande Arche de la Defense in Paris and the Beijing Opera House next to the Forbidden City.

The center's five main halls are like the five petals of a beautiful butterfly orchid in full bloom. They are the entrance to the main hall, the concert hall, the performance hall, the exhibition hall, and the opera house.

At night the "orchid" will turn into a sparkling gem with a rainbow of lights changing colors according to the melodies being played. The center cost 1 billion yuan (US$120 million) to build and apart from the concert hall comprises a 1,020-seat opera house and a 333-seat performance hall. The interior is decorated with a dazzling display of porcelain accessories.

To back up the center's chic and modern look a new management team is ready to shake up and bring a new look to the local performing arts market.

Traditionally, a Chinese art venue is run by the government institutions who provide the investment to build it. In the end this means an unprofessional and top-heavy bureaucratic management structure.

For the new art center the investors, the Shanghai Municipal Government and the Pudong District Government, invited tenders and finally selected the competitive bid made by the Beijing-based Poly Group which will run the venue with the Shanghai-based Wenhui-Xinmin United Press Group, the owner of the Shanghai Daily.

"It's the first time in China that a theater will be run this way," says Lin Hongming, general manager of the center, who previously has successfully run the Shanghai Peking Opera House and the Shanghai Opera House. "This joint management combines each other's rich resources. Poly has a background of theater management and designing original programming. The press group has a background in expertise in the media and a ticketing network."

Some worries have accompanied the construction of the huge center. Will the relatively inconvenient location affect the box office? Is such a gigantic theater necessary for Shanghai's not-yet-hot performance market?

"The number of Shanghai's theaters is poor, compared with other metropolises such as Tokyo, New York and Moscow where every night sees dozens of shows of going on," says Lin. "The city offers limited choices for world-renowned artists. For instance, Zubin Mehta had to perform in the Shanghai Exhibition Center last night and it's impossible to turn the Exhibition Center into Vienna's Golden Hall. He had to perform there because the Grand Theater is hosting 'The Phantom of the Opera'."

"Every year the city puts on 12,000 performances attended by a total audience of 8 million," says Lin. "On average every Shanghainese attends only 0.6 performance. If we increase the number so every single Shanghainese can attend one performance a year, Shanghai's present theaters cannot meet the demand."

In another first for China, the new center has established an artistic committee composed of musicians and artists, who will control the quality of programming and bring first-class world artists to Shanghai to improve the branding of the center.

As well, the center wants to attract and keep a loyal audience by reducing ticket prices. "According to a large-scale survey we did in September, most music lovers want ticket prices ranging from 100 yuan to 300 yuan," says Lin "Therefore we have set most ticket prices at 100 yuan, 200 yuan and 300 yuan. For some local performance, we offer special low prices of 60 yuan and 80 yuan. We don't want admission costs to prevent real lovers of fine music from attending concerts. I hope one day white-collar workers who spend their leisure time in cafes and bars will turn more to going to the theater."

The Pudong government is adjusting public transport arrangement and even offering a shuttle bus service to make it more convenient for audience members to get to and from the new venue. The center will adjust show times according to transportation timetables. Another innovations is a superb cloak room with an extraordinarily long counter, another first in the city.

The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra is satisfied with the new cooperative style of the center.

"Traditionally, we have to pay a rental fee for the theater who care more about the box office than the performance," says Chen, the orchestra's manager. "But now the center and the orchestra share the budget and benefit from the performance. It reduces the cost, hence reduces the ticket prices but increases the work of the venue to promote the shows. In addition, the center tries to set the style of the performance season and signs contracts with us one year ahead, which makes it easier for us to get those overseas stars whose schedule is booked one or two years ahead."

As a result of this new policy, the center has engaged the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for two concerts next November. The orchestra visited Beijing 26 years ago but has never come to Shanghai. Lin considers the concerts as the best advertising in the world for the center. "I have an ambition to make it a venue where both Chinese and international masterpieces will have their premiere," says Lin. "Moreover, it will also become a center where original programming is produced and exported. Within five years, I will make this arts center a shining brand on the international concert stage."

Lin also admits that the within-five-year goal is essential. "I know the government plans to construct two middle-size theaters in the Cultural Square on Shaanxi Road and a grand theater on the site of the 2010 World Exposition along the Huangpu River," says Lin. "If I cannot succeed within five years, I will definitely have lost the game. Those new theaters with more advanced facilities and operating on a larger scale will all open by then. I've heard that the concert hall at the World Expo theater will have 3,000 seats. Every day the pressure of the coming competition weighs me down."

Chen says the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra will book most Saturdays for their concert performances. "We will make Saturday, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and the Oriental Arts Center become a musical habit for theatergoers, just like the New York Philharmonic Orchestra with the Lincoln Center and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra with Berlin's Philharmonic Hall at Kemperplatz," says Chen happily. "In the past, we have had to move around Shanghai's unsuitable halls, both big and small, to perform. Now we finally have a home."

CCTV-1 will broadcast the opening concert live at 8pm, Friday.

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