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Hot tickets for the new year
By Li Anlan

To celebrate the holiday season, many people choose concerts and ballet as a fulfilling and fashionable way to relax and lift their spirits.

The end-of-the-year market is booming, demand is high and many foreign companies come to Asia to expand their profits during Christmas holiday when they take a break in their regular performing schedule.

Shanghai has a big performance market, especially for New Year's concerts and classical music. Many tickets are sold to the companies that organize events for their employees and clients.

"For the new year, people are happy and relaxed, and they go to concerts looking for a delightful experience," says Huang Yunjin, dean of the arts administration department at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

In recent years critics have questioned the quality of some performance companies coming to China to cash in on relatively unsophisticated audiences. Some are assembled ad hoc, adopting names similar to those of renowned orchestras, ensembles and ballet companies and calling themselves stars. Strauss companies are not uncommon.

Of course many visiting performance groups are first rate.

Huang advises culture lovers to be careful and educate themselves. The most expensive tickets are not necessarily the best.

"Don't buy tickets because a group is famous. A lot of times you can't tell whether the orchestras are good or bad. Instead, pick the ones you like personally and spend only what you can afford," she says.

Those who are not frequent concert goers should choose the music, composers and conductors that interest them, since they may not easily be able to discern among quality orchestras, she says of those who are new to classical music.

Many promoters and orchestras do not put on high-end tours at this time.

"The real top orchestras and companies in the world are on vacation as well and the best artists are at home resting. If they do perform, it's often in their home cities," Huang says. "Those touring during the end of the year and beginning of the new year are probably not the very best."

The most notable forthcoming musical event will be a concert by the distinguished Chicago Symphony Orchestra on January 31, after the "New Year's concert craziness ends," Huang observes. Richard Muti will conduct at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center. The program features Beethoven, Verdi and Mendelssohn.

Muti has conducted some of the world's most important orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic. He has been music director of the Teatro alla Scala in Italy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Tickets have sold out.

The Shanghai Oriental Art Center will stage a series of New Year's concert starting next week.

Deutsche Radio Orchestra will perform on Tuesday, January 1. The Wiener Johann Strauss Walger Orchestra will perform on Wednesday and Thursday.

'State' ballets

As with orchestras, it's important to know in advance about ballet companies. Ballet troupes from Russia with words like "state" or "star" in their names aren't usually as good as they sound, but that doesn't mean they are not worth seeing, Huang says.

For example, there are four "Swan Lakes." The ballet of Kiev staged on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Russian State Ballet will perform from Saturday through Monday. The Russia Star Ballet Theater will perform on January 11-12. The Shanghai Ballet will perform on January 18-19.

While the two troupes from Russia are not elite level, the other two are excellent. The National Ballet of Ukraine is the leading ballet company in Kiev, led by Denis Matvienko, the former principal dancer of Mariinsky Theater. The Shanghai Ballet's new production of "Swan Lake" choreographed by Derek Deane invites two principal dancers for the premiere, Friedemann Vogel of the Stuttgart Ballet and Maria Yakovleva of the Vienna State Ballet.

Shanghai Ballet's "Swan Lake" will be staged just one week after the Russia Star Ballet Theater stages, both at Shanghai Cultural Square.

But Xin Lili, director of the Shanghai Ballet, doesn't think the timing will make a big difference at the box office.

"A ballet troupe with certain qualities has a loyal audience. What we should do is get more publicity as well as improving ourselves," Xin says.

When audiences cannot judge the quality of overseas ballet companies, then theaters, promoters and agents have a responsibility to inform and not hype productions, she says.

Huang recommends the local orchestras and companies at this time of the year.

The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and Shanghai Ballet, which have an international reputation and often tour overseas, return to Shanghai to perform over the holidays, she says. "If you are new to symphonies or ballet, choose a company that is local."

The New Year's Concert at the Shanghai Grand Theater features the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Alan Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic. Tchaikovsky, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein are on the very American program.

Because of the holiday season, local companies often stage some of their most important programs of the year and they are worth seeing.

Sometimes during summer or winter breaks, local companies have time to go on tour while foreign companies come to China, "so it's also a seasonal thing," says Huang from the Shanghai Conservatory.

"Educated audiences don't need advice, but for those without much experience, there aren't too many top performances right now," she says. "Pick a free night, a program you enjoy, and go to a concert with someone you like being with."

For those who are not interested in classical music, "A Night in Hollywood" will be staged on Saturday night at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center. The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra will perform memorable film sound tracks composed by John Williams, Hans Zimmer, John Barry, Howard Shore and others. The orchestra is famous for its film music and has recorded many sound tracks for award-winning films and series such as "Star Wars," "Harry Potter," "007" and "Gladiator."

"Our market is in the stage of growth. Let newcomers attend more concerts and they will be better at distinguishing among performers," Huang says.

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