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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

China's musical revolution

By Norman Lebrecht / April 18, 2007

The London Symphony Orchestra is in China this week, aiming to build relationships and make a name for itself in a boom market. The Chinese have discovered a hunger for western classical music. Millions of children are paying for piano lessons, millions more are playing the violin. Estimates vary, but 40 or 50 million pupils is the conjectural figure, equivalent to the entire population of England.

Classical music is perceived by many Chinese as a mark of quality. In a nation of 1.3 billion, quality is the opposite of quantity – the assertion of a precarious individuality – and music is a means to express yearnings and emotions which, in a totalitarian Communist society, cannot often be put into words.

Whatever the cause, all it takes is one child in a tower block to start piano lessons and before he or she can play Chopsticks there is an upright on every floor and a clamour of scales at bedtime. The pianos, too, are no longer matchstick quality. America’s prime Baldwin brand recently bought and upgraded a Yingkou City factory that turns out 30,000 uprights and 10,000 grand pianos a year. Steinway and Bechstein have set up joint ventures with Chinese makers. Every middle-class home, it seems, wants a piano.

Playing standards are competitive, to say the least. A music lover in her 20s told me she studied violin in Shanghai for ten years before realising she was not good enough. Arts journalists whom I met in Beijing reeled off opus numbers with flawless insouciance. Two music magazines cater to a growing interest and UK’s Gramophone produces a Beijing off-print. A sea of young faces fills the halls. ‘My fans in the west are all between 60 and 70,’ exclaimed the New York-trained opera tenor Fan Jingma, ‘but here everyone is 20 to 30.’

Two pianists, Lang Lang and Yundi Li, enjoy pop-star status. The flamboyant Lang is playing ten concertos with visiting orchestras this season and has a bestselling DG record of sentimental Chinese favourites in the shops. Yundi Li, winner of Warsaw’s Chopin Competition, recorded the two Chopin concertos in Watford with the Philharmonia and Sir Andrew Davis, both of whom will be looking to make more waves in the new Shangri-la, the land of heavenly musical promise.

But before anyone gets carried away with dreams of quick riches, the warning signs are writ large on the Great Wall. Mention the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s visit with Sir Simon Rattle in November 2005 and the response is scornful. ‘You know what they charged for tickets? Minimum 1,000 yuan (£75), maximum 4,000 (£300). That’s more than people have to pay in Japan! Why do they come here, to exploit us?’

The LSO, whose tickets start at £20 – higher than in London – insist that prices are set by a local, government-controlled promoter and they have no say in the matter. ‘So why don’t they give open rehearsals?’ demand music-lovers.. In a land where 800 million Chinese earn less than a dollar a day, the discrepancy is extreme.

A similar disillusion has set in with record companies, which charge western prices for new CDs. ‘Why should I pay 150 yuan (£12) for Lang Lang on DG or 60 yuan (£5) for a Naxos, when I get exactly the same recording at a pirate shop for six yuan?’ demands an earnest young writer. But surely you know that piracy is theft? I protest. ‘Sure,’ comes the reply, ‘but piracy is the labels’ fault. They should have set their prices at what people here can afford.’

The most insistent demand I heard from young Chinese musicians is that players and conductors from western orchestras should take up residencies with Chinese ensembles which - apart from Hong Kong where the Dutchman Edo de Waart presides – need intensive training to bring them up to world standards. These are musicians, remember, whose predecessors had their fingers broken by Red Guards during Mao Zedong’s 1960s Cultural Revolution when foreign arts were brutally extirpated. They are struggling to regain proficiency and develop a consistent sound.

I put the idea to the LSO’s chief executive Kathryn McDowell and she promised to look into it. In Beijing tomorrow (Apr 19), she points out, the LSO’s young principal conductor Daniel Harding will be giving an open master-class to which accredited music students are invited. Three of them will get a chance at the end of the class to conduct the LSO for a few minutes. The LSO has been to China once before, in 2004, and learned something from the experience. It is looking to engage with the new China, as is the Royal Opera House which has set up a programme of exchanges and training with the eye-catching National Grand Theatre in Beijing.

The new edifice opens this summer with, of all reactionary affairs, a state-organised staging of the Abba musical, Mamma Mia. ‘Money, Money, Money,’ they will soon be singing, on the edge of Tiananmen Square and within sight of Mao’s Great Hall of the People.

China, you soon discover, is a sub-continent of infinite contradictions. The taste for classical music in the big cities is genuine and intense, but the enthusiasts and activists that I met were wary of western exploitation and the gifts of foreign governments, chiefly the French and the Russians. There is a grass-roots musical revolution afoot and the Chinese are cautiously inviting foreign aid and advice. Those artists and organisations who connect directly with the vast talent pool of China’s new generation have an extraordinary chance to generate a musical future. But those parts of the music industry that are trying to colonise China as a market for western cast-offs are tarnishing classical ideals and opening the door to a never-ending onslaught of state-sponsored Abba.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


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