Mu­si­cal Des­ti­na­tions

John Evans heads to East Asia for the open­ing of the spec­tac­u­lar Wei­wuy­ing, the world’s largest per­form­ing arts cen­tre un­der one roof

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents -

John Evans heads to Kaoh­si­ung City, Tai­wan

As if there weren’t al­ready enough rea­sons to visit Tai­wan – the Na­tional Palace Mu­seum in

Taipei, the bustling night mar­kets and nine na­tional parks – along comes an­other: the Na­tional Kaoh­si­ung Cen­tre for the Arts, or Wei­wuy­ing as it’s known.

Lo­cated on the site of a for­mer mil­i­tary air­base in Kaoh­si­ung City on the south­ern tip of Tai­wan, it is the world’s largest per­form­ing arts cen­tre un­der one roof and the coun­try’s most sig­nif­i­cant cul­tural in­vest­ment in a gen­er­a­tion, cost­ing £252m and tak­ing 12 years to build.

We’re used to Tai­wan’s ap­petite for in­fra­struc­ture. For years, its cap­i­tal city was home to the world’s tallest build­ing, Taipei 101. Since 2011, itai­wan has been pro­vid­ing free Wi-fi at thou­sands of hotspots na­tion­wide. And the ef­fi­cient rail sys­tem car­ries pas­sen­gers at up to 186mph.

So we shouldn’t be sur­prised by the sight of Wei­wuy­ing, a huge build­ing cov­er­ing 35 acres and whose de­sign is in­spired by the banyan trees in the sur­round­ing 116-acre sub­trop­i­cal park. Un­der their pro­tec­tive canopies, peo­ple med­i­tate, pic­nic or sim­ply seek respite from the warm, damp air.

Like Sym­phony Hall is to Birm­ing­ham, so Wei­wuy­ing is to Kaoh­si­ung City; a sym­bol of tran­si­tion – from a grimy, in­dus­trial cen­tre to a health­ier and more so­phis­ti­cated metropo­lis. The con­nec­tion is closer still, since the Li­brary of Birm­ing­ham and Wei­wuy­ing were both de­signed by Dutch ar­chi­tec­ture firm Me­canoo. For Birm­ing­ham, the 2013 li­brary has be­come a pop­u­lar cul­tural desti­na­tion. It’s hoped Wei­wuy­ing will in­spire the same re­ac­tion in a city best known as the home of the world’s 13th big­gest con­tainer port.

‘Wei­wuy­ing is key to Kaoh­si­ung City’s rein­ven­tion,’ Francine Houben, Me­canoo’s found­ing part­ner tells me dur­ing the cen­tre’s open­ing week­end in Oc­to­ber.

‘It’s the chal­lenge all sec­ond cities like Kaoh­si­ung and Birm­ing­ham face: hav­ing to rein­vent them­selves and stay rel­e­vant. For­tu­nately, judg­ing by the pub­lic re­ac­tion, we know Wei­wuy­ing makes peo­ple proud of their city.’

Noth­ing new there. Since Ro­man times, the pur­pose of great pub­lic build­ings has been to make ci­ti­zens’ chests swell with pride, but it would be a dis­as­ter if Wei­wuy­ing’s five gi­ant per­for­mance spa­ces – a 2,236-seat opera house, 1,981seat con­cert hall, 1,210-seat theatre, 434seat recital hall and an enor­mous out­door theatre – were to echo to the sound of noth­ing but strain­ing shirt but­tons.

For­tu­nately, Tai­wan loves its clas­si­cal mu­sic, an af­fec­tion whose ori­gins can be traced to the end of the Sec­ond World War when US forces oc­cu­pied Tai­wan and the coun­try turned its face west­wards, al­beit briefly. By side-step­ping China’s cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion, an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of mu­sic and the arts, both tra­di­tional and im­ported, took root in Tai­wan so that, to­day, mu­sic teach­ing and per­for­mance are flour­ish­ing.

For proof, I head north to Taichung, Tai­wan’s sec­ond largest city and home to the Na­tional Taichung Theatre, an­other strik­ing arts cen­tre with a 2,000-seat opera theatre. Ac­cord­ing to Toyo Ito, its Ja­panese ar­chi­tect, the build­ing was in­spired by the sun, air and water. What­ever; there’s no deny­ing the build­ing’s in­ge­nious de­sign and splen­did opera theatre, where I ex­pe­ri­ence a spell­bind­ing per­for­mance of Wag­ner’s Siegfried by the Na­tional Sym­phony Orches­tra of Tai­wan with tenor Vin­cent Wolf­steiner and so­prano Su­san Bul­lock.

Back in Kaoh­si­ung, Wei­wuy­ing’s first sea­son is dom­i­nated with con­certs by the Ber­lin Phil­har­monic un­der

Gus­tavo Du­damel, and the Bavar­ian

Ra­dio Sym­phony Orches­tra with Mariss Jan­sons. Set­ting the bar this high may pose fu­ture chal­lenges for this rel­a­tively out-ofthe-way arts cen­tre, but in its favour, it’s just one hour by plane from Hong Kong and 1.5 hours from Taipei by train.

In any case, the new cen­tre is im­pres­sive and sure to at­tract ma­jor artists keen to per­form with Tai­wan’s na­tional or­ches­tras and choirs, chief among them the Tai­wan Sym­phony and Kaoh­si­ung Sym­phony, and Kaoh­si­ung Cham­ber Choir. At the launch they prove their worth with a su­perb Liszt Con­certo No. 1 with pi­anist Meng-chieh Liu and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

Both are per­formed in the con­cert hall, a sump­tu­ous place crowned by a mag­nif­i­cent Klais or­gan that cost £2.7 mil­lion. The smaller recital hall is as no­table with an asym­met­ric seat­ing lay­out de­signed to al­low more of the au­di­ence to see a pi­anist’s fin­gers on the key­board. The vast opera theatre is even larger back­stage and equipped with state-of-theart sys­tems that would make a UK stage man­ager weep.

But what’s re­ally clever is the out­door theatre that de­scends from the build­ing’s in­te­rior to its edge and which is de­signed to host per­for­mances and arts ac­tiv­i­ties. It’s meant to con­nect the vast and slightly in­tim­i­dat­ing build­ing with the park and its peo­ple, and it works. Time will tell if Wei­wuy­ing as a whole con­nects with Tai­wan and the wider world, but on the strength of its launch con­certs and the pub­lic’s whole­hearted sup­port for it, the signs are promis­ing.

Fur­ther in­for­ma­tion:

For up­com­ing con­certs at Wei­wuy­ing, visit www.npac-wei­wuy­ing.org

Like Sym­phony Hall is to Birm­ing­ham, so Wei­wuy­ing is to Kaoh­si­ung City

Land­mark ar­chi­tec­ture: (main) Wei­wuy­ing's dra­matic ex­te­rior; (right) the con­cert hall and the vi­brant open­ing night cel­e­bra­tions

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