5 questions with Shanghai Symphony Orchestra's Rush Hour Concerts

Lu Jing, Brand Director of Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, is here to tell us all we need to know about Rush Hour Concerts.

By Amber Zhang

Photographs: courtesy Shanghai Symphony Orchestra

Rush Hour Concerts is a special concert series introduced in 2019 by Shanghai Symphony Orchestra as part of their annual concert season. The series aims at making classical music more accessible to the general public. Since the program’s debut, it has been exceptionally popular among classical music fans as well as those not as familiar with the genre. For many people, this incredible medium not only provides an enriching escape for commuters, but also exposes them to a new source of inspiration.

We invited Lu Jing, Brand Director of Shanghai Symphony Orchestra (SSO), who is also the mastermind behind this series, to tell us a bit more about the project. Here she shares with us all we need to know about SSO’s Rush Hour Concerts.

“Our concert seasons in the past mainly consisted of two types of concerts, orchestral performances and chamber music performances. We performed pieces by classical composers such as Bach and Brahms, which can be a little too serious or abstract for, say, someone who has very limited knowledge about these different composers and just wants to sit in a concert hall to appreciate the melody and the atmosphere. So, when we were seeking ways to re-introduce classical music to the general public, it was clear that we needed to create a medium that served more than just the classical music fans. Making classical music less of an ‘intimidating’ form of art became our main focus to address.

Another obstacle to address was concert schedules. A typical SSO orchestral concert usually starts at 8pm and lasts two hours, which not only makes it an exhausting activity for a general audience, but also disrupts their other plans for the night.

We came up with the idea of organizing a concert during the rush hours. A Rush Hour Concert starts at 6:30pm and lasts an hour. It’s the perfect sanctuary for those who want to simply escape their painful commute. They can come in, sit back, relax, and listen to some great music. After the concert is over, they’ll still have time to hang out with friends and spend time with family. So, that’s how we started this concept.”

“Our goal is of course to make classical music more accessible and comprehensible. All the pieces in our repertoire are therefore carefully selected. We also redesigned our concert titles to make them sound more appealing to a casual audience.

We titled one of our Bach concerts ‘Bach’s Logo’, as opposed to our typical concert titles, which are usually the name of the composer followed by the conductor’s name. The pieces we picked were all essential works by Bach, such as Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor, and Cello Suite No. 3 in C Major but played on a viola. On the stage, we also had Xue Yuan, our pianist as well as the program moderator reading poetry by Shakespeare, Tagore, and Tomas Tranströmer to accompany the music. It was so beautiful and elegant. People liked it a lot.

There were other times where we would introduce comedy bits in our performances. When we designed these programs, the idea was to make them less educational; we’re not trying to educate the audiences on how to appreciate classical music. We want to simply present classical music to a wider audience as an art form that can be entertaining, and that doesn’t have to be too sophisticated and distant from the everyday.”

“We do have a team for that. Xue Yuan, the pianist I mentioned earlier, is a genius when it comes to creating these different programs. SSO’s string quartet members are also in on it. They are violinists Wu Aolie and Huang Yilu, violist Yu Haifeng, and cellist Zhou Runqing. Other core members of the Rush Hour Concerts’ creative team are contrabassist Zhang Kaixuan and members of the marketing team.

Planning these Rush Hour Concerts is unlike designing a regular classical music concert, which is a somewhat standard process. A lot of thought goes into brainstorming a theme, selecting pieces that would match that theme, and rehearsing different ideas until we find how to best convey it. Our creative team members are all very talented and driven young individuals. We’re happy to see them bring their own personality and artistry to the table.”

“Our first ever Rush Hour Concert was titled ‘On Time Rehearsal’. The string quartet concert began at 6:30pm as scheduled. An audience member rushed in, who was apparently late to the show and happened to be seated in the first row. His entry interrupted the ensemble, who then had to re-start the performance from the top. During the performance, this audience member kept leaving his seat and coming back, making a lot of noise, which frustrated the rest of the audience. Towards the end of the show, this guy stood up again. Everyone in the audience was like, ‘Not again! What is he going to do?’ Then, this guy just casually walked up to the stage, picked up a contrabass, and played along with the rest of the ensemble.

It turned out that this annoying member of the audience was actually our contrabassist, Zhang Kaixuan, and that the whole act was scripted. Everyone then realized that they had been trolled. They all started laughing and clapping. It was a hilarious experience.”

“We have two Rush Hour Concerts left this concert season, one in May and one in June. The one in May is titled ‘Swan Song’, featuring Brahms’ works in his final years. The one in June, titled ‘The Four Seasons’, will re-enact Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons in the form of a musical drama. We have more exciting concerts planned in the 2023-24 concert season. So, stay tuned!

In addition, we will bring on a special Rush Hour Concert this May, in collaboration with the ‘Botticelli and the Renaissance’ exhibition at Bund One Art Museum. Our musicians will be performing, in front of Botticelli’s Primavera or ‘Allegory of Spring’, a selection of works celebrating the spring season. A notable one would be Debussy’s symphonic suite, Printemps, which is said to have been inspired by Botticelli’s Primavera.”