TIANJIN — In this enormous manufacturing capital just southeast of Beijing, a new palace of the arts has opened. Looking like a graceful clam shell at the edge of a pond, the Tianjin Grand Theatre's cantilevered roof encloses an opera house, a small theater and a 1,200-seat jewel of a concert hall.
"At my age it's unusual to be making a debut, as I am here," joked conductor Lorin Maazel, 82, to assembled media before a Monday concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that would include Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony.
Tianjin is the third mainland China stop on the CSO's 2013 Asia tour, after concerts in Shanghai and Beijing, with the game Maazel subbing for an ailing Riccardo Muti. From an acoustic standpoint this space has surely been the most congenial, its interior lined in graduated layers of wood that follow the hall's curves like the purfling on a violin. The sound is intimate, vibrant and responsive.
The German architectural firm that built Tianjin's hall did much the same thing in Qingdao and Chongqing, part of a vast Chinese cultural building boom that has created demand for visits by American orchestras like the CSO.
"There must be hundreds of new halls in China like these," said Wray Armstrong, the Tianjin theater's director of international programing. "The problem is that after building them, most cities still need to acquire the know-how to run them."
Armstrong hired the Philadelphia Orchestra in addition to the CSO for Tianjin's first season.
China's classical music crowds, too, seem new to the audience art. At Shanghai's Oriental Art Center, a small army of ushers paraded through the aisles with green neon signs reading "No Cameras." In Beijing, ushers armed with red laser pointers shamed cellphone offenders from afar and shook the shoulders of the truly recalcitrant to the accompaniment of Mozart and Brahms.
For his part, Maazel seemed unfazed. "The future of classical music rests in Asia," he said in Shanghai. "The most important characteristic of this audience is its youth."
Among the dozen Chinese musicians in the CSO is violist Weijing Wang, 27, who won an audition and joined the orchestra last July.
Although Wang's advance schooling and on-the-job training took place in the U.S., she credits the basic foundation she acquired in Shanghai with instilling her love of music and her solid technical foundation. But even she said she's stunned by the degree to which culture has further bloomed in her hometown.
"I came back to Shanghai last summer for the first time in six or seven years and just walked and walked," she said, citing museums and an aquarium in addition to musical advances.
Debuting in 2004, the Shanghai Oriental Art Center, where the CSO performed, was a flower in the desert when Wang left. A fanciful structure of laminated glass and perforated metal designed by the French architect Paul Andreu to resemble a giant flower with petals, each petal housing a separate performance or exhibition space, it has been the catalyst for change throughout the region.
Maazel, who is well known in China, has had an altogether calming effect on the CSO musicians since joining the tour in Hong Kong on Jan. 28 and providing some stability throughout the orchestra's mainland travels.
The two difficult weeks prior had one conductor subbing for Muti's pre-tour concerts in Chicago (Edo de Waart) and another taking that same music to Taipei for the first two tour concerts (Osmo Vänskä). The Tianjin concert marked the fifth under Maazel, and the only surprises have been the sort that each new city and hall provides.
In Beijing on Sunday, at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (another Paul Andreu structure near the Forbidden City, this one a glass and titanium dome that resembles an egg floating in water), the audience fell into rhythmic clapping and wouldn't stop, even after two encores.
Maazel finessed the moment and managed to get himself and the musicians offstage, which was a good thing, because the only additional encore planned — Beethoven's "Egmont" Overture — had never been rehearsed, a victim of the chaos that ensued after Muti's cancellation.
When time permits, the CSO players give lessons, get together with colleagues in Asia and proselytize. Through their circles of music acquaintances, the players have contacts all over the world, and their teaching skills have been much in demand on the Asia tour.
A student of tuba player Gene Pokorny is now an instructor at a Beijing military academy, where Pokorny spent a recent morning regaling dozens of lower brass recruits with the advantages of expanding one's lung capacity through exercises. It's not all music on tour. Early Monday morning was Super Bowl time in Beijing, which is 14 hours ahead of Chicago. About a dozen CSO musicians with football cravings found ex-pat breakfast bars or a way to stream the video, but even watching with compatriots did not erase the essential weirdness of a kickoff at 7:30 a.m.
The weather had turned quite cold Monday, providing great ice skating on the inland lakes of Shichahai in central Beijing, an area much like New York City's Central Park.
But in Tianjin, the frigid air permeated the corridors and backstage areas of the new concert hall, to the point where some musicians put on extra layers, sought to keep their fingers pliant and fought condensation in the horns.
The next concerts are scheduled for Seoul on Wednesday and Thursday. Departing Tianjin will mean leaving China itself, with approximately 15 tons of musicians' trunks, music and stage equipment to be readied for one last customs check before the team heads for home on Friday.
Nancy Malitz is the publisher of the performing arts web magazine ChicagoOntheAisle.comCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times