Classical Music in China
John Robert Brown

China is hot news. We read repeatedly that China's population is 1.3 billion, ten times that of Japan, five times that of the USA. We know that the 2008 Olympics will be held in Beijing, that a Shanghai World Expo takes place in 2010, that a worried EU has placed a tariff on leather shoes ("EU Tells China Not to Step on its Toes") and that China is building an internationally competitive automotive industry ("China's Car Industry Shifts into High Gear"). We learn that China's economic growth still stands at more than nine per cent per year, that in 2002 China's car production exceeded that of the UK, France and Italy, and that in 2003 it overtook Germany. Today, the output of Chinese cars will surpass that of Japan, while pollution stands at a worrying level. So it goes; a quarter of the world's population experiences an industrial revolution while we watch. But do we really understand the size of China? Can we predict how classical music will affected? Visit Zhang Jiemin's web site.

Appreciating the magnitude of China is difficult. Almost 100 Chinese cities contain more than one million people. Most westerners enter China through Shanghai (20 million) or Beijing (15 million). Other cities, whose names are barely known to the average Westerner, are also massive: Chengdu has 9.9 million people, Wuhan 7.18 million, Qingdao 7.5 million, Xi'an 6 million. All are changing. Last summer I stayed in the Beijing Hilton, on the city's third ring road (the seventh is being planned). In June, the Hilton stood adjacent to open land. Returning this March for my seventh visit in recent years, a new building rises next door, beyond twelfth floor level. Prowling my room at three, a victim of jetlag, I watch the night shift at work. Meanwhile, an enormous new concert hall, visible on satellite pictures, nears completion to the south-west of Tiananmen Square.

Similarly, the Pudong area of Shanghai by the Huangpu river, opposite the famous Bund, is covered by new building. Here, occupying floors 53 to 87 of the spectacular Jin Mao Tower, is the Grand Hyatt, the world's highest hotel. Nearby is the Shanghai Oriental Arts Centre, a complex which encompasses three venues: a 1,979-seat philharmonic orchestra hall, a 1,054-seat lyric theatre, and a 330-seat chamber music hall. And within living memory the Pudong was an agricultural flood plain.

Western performers now appear in China. Last November the Berlin Philharmonic played two concerts at each of its stops in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. A very different concert - of 1,000 saxophones - is planned to take place on the Great Wall in 2007. The considerable Chinese interest in Western classical music is due to more than size and economic expansion. To understand the changes one needs to know recent Chinese history. Paradoxically, the main motivation is the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from the spring of 1966 until the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976. Attacks were made on so-called intellectuals to eradicate 'bourgeois influences'. Not surprisingly, Western classical music was targeted.

But the result was the opposite to that intended. In the film From Mao to Mozart, which documents visits to China by Isaac Stern in 1979 and 1999, Professor Tan Shuzhen, Deputy Director of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, explains that after the liberation in 1949, when Mao Zedong proclaimed the People's Republic of China, there were two opinions: "One is 'We don't need western music,' he says. " 'What we need is Chinese traditional music, we have to develop that.' The other opinion is: 'We have to develop Chinese music, but we must also study Western music.' The party, and the government, has the intention to modernise our country in every aspect. Music is no exception. We have to study, and know, about music in Western countries. To know it, we have to play it. If you want to know the taste of a pear, you have to eat it! There was not much chance to hear famous musicians during the cultural revolution. The older musicians don't understand the music, they just play the notes," says Tan Shuzhen. "Such shortcomings were directly due to the cultural revolution, when all foreign influences were rejected. Nothing was taught in the conservatory. To listen to a record of classical music was a crime. Violins were instruments belonging to Imperialists, the Foreign Devils, the Westerners. "It was like a nightmare," he says. Tan Shuzhen was confined to a closet in the basement, without a window or light, with a septic tank under the floor. "I had to stay there for fourteen months," he says. "For lack of air, my legs were swollen. They did that to all of the professors to get rid of us, to get power." Ten of the teachers committed suicide. Those terrible events recede quickly into history. Clarinettist Julian Bliss, fresh from a concerto performance in Beijing, speaks about seeing Tiananmen Square, and learning about the massacre there, "the day after I was born in 1989". Thus, today a generation already exists whose members are a lifetime away from the horrors that Tan Shuzhen experienced. Julian Bliss sees China with fresh young eyes, with knowledge but no personal experience of why things are the way they are.

"The audiences in China have little idea of how to listen," says Bliss. "This is not through bad manners. The expectation for audiences is not like in Western concert halls. Before each of the concerts I played, there was a short lecture played over a PA system; in both Chinese and English. The message was: they were all expected to sit still, not move around in their seats or come and go, not to eat or drink, and not to chatter. Despite the request, there were still many who did exactly what they were told not to. And they were not just teenagers in the audience."

Bliss shares his experiences of Chinese orchestral standards: "Sometimes the standard of playing, and particularly intonation, was not as one would expect on the London concert platform. Those musicians that had been imported from the west were working more to the standards we are used to. In the second concert I played the Neilsen concerto. The percussion player was a Chinese gentleman who had completed his musical training in the USA. He was superb - which was lucky for me."

However, inappropriate behaviour does not necessarily betoken a lack of deeply felt appreciation. Double bass player Feng Yan, from the north eastern city of Harbin, recalls performances in 2000 by Mstislav Rostropovich, who played the Haydn and the Dvorak Cello Concertos with the China Youth Symphony Orchestra at the Central Conservatory of Music, Beijing. Tickets for rehearsal and performance were oversold. The conductor was Seiji Ozawa. "Their performances were fantastic," she says. "When we heard Rostropovich's music, a lot of people were inspired." Many tears were shed that day, says Feng Yan.

The increasing ease with which we can communicate with Chinese colleagues is exciting. Although the continuing need to apply for travel visas is tedious (it seems to be more difficult for those wishing to come out of China), now we can obtain Chinese currency in the UK. We can communicate via the internet and telephone. Air travel to China is, for the moment, inexpensive.

One result of this is that we now have the privilege of seeing some of the best Chinese performers touring (and sometimes living) in the west, such as the Chinese pianists Lang Lang and Yundi Li - the latter just 18 when he won first prize at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. The Shanghai-based young conductor Zhang Jiemin, better known in Italy than in Britain, is another rising star. Formerly an assistant to Zubin Mehta, with a beautifully clear stick technique, Jiemin commutes between the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and La Fenice in Venice, where she recently directed the multimedia performance-concert From Venice to the Forbidden City, an original programme dedicated to the history and tradition of China.

Speaking to virtuoso pianist Di Xiao, from Guangzhou, I asked what was the biggest surprise for her when she arrived in Britain.

"When I went to concerts in big cities like London and Birmingham, I found most of the audiences are the old generation. The situation happens again when I visited an art gallery or museum. You meet most people with grey hair. I do get a surprise about that! Where have the young gone? It seems the young generation show less and less interest in classical art and music. What interests them is the pub life or pop music. I keep wondering how could the classical arts live if young people show no interest in them? How do you think about this problem?"

It's a good question.

First published in Classical Music magazine, 24 June 2006. Used by kind permission.

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