ST. PETERSBURG — Whenever a country takes its place on the world stage, you can be sure that a symphony orchestra will soon follow, even if its national musical tradition is a long way from Beethoven and Brahms.
The China National Symphony Orchestra is the latest international ambassador to visit Florida, performing Wednesday night at Mahaffey Theater for a crowd of 1,054.
This was not the orchestra's first U.S. tour, and China is making its presence felt in classical concert halls around the world, with star piano soloists like Lang Lang, Yuja Wang and Li Yundi, and composers such as Tan Dun and Bright Sheng having their music heard far and wide.
Wednesday's concert, conducted by En Shao, was notable for a pair of Chinese pieces on the first half of the program, opening with the first movement from Requiem for the Earth, composed by Xia Guan in response to the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake that killed almost 70,000 people.
Its dirge-like atmosphere was reminiscent of Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.
Violinist Bin Huang, striking in her fire-engine red gown, was the soloist in Butterfly Lovers, a piece of kitsch on a Romeo and Juliet theme that borrows many a keening melody from Chinese opera, punctuated by bursts of flashy fiddling.
Written in 1959 by Gang Chen and Zhanhao He, it sounded like movie music for a Chinese Gone With the Wind.
Local listeners with long memories may remember that the Florida Orchestra played Butterfly Lovers under music director Jahja Ling, with then principal second violin Xiao-Cao Xia as the soloist, in 1995.
A familiar face was playing in the China National, Lei Liu, second assistant concertmaster of the Florida Orchestra.
"It's an honor," Liu said backstage during intermission, clearly thrilled to be making music with many of his former classmates from a Beijing conservatory.
Fittingly, he was seated in his customary place in the second row of the first violins.
Liu must have had a case of deja vu in the second half of the program because it was taken up by Rachmaninoff's long Second Symphony, which he had played with the Florida Orchestra just a few months ago. With a large string section, the Chinese orchestra gave the old warhorse a sumptuous reading.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.