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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

The rise of an orchestral superpower

By Norman Lebrecht / November 12, 2008

On March 26 1977 I was flicking the four terrestrial channels in my Hong Kong hotel room when, through a blizzard of static, up popped Beijing TV with an unscheduled programme. On screen, to my amazement, sat a symphony orchestra. A conductor walked on, raised his arms and struck up the opening of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. I checked the calendar. It was the 150th anniversary of Beethoven’s death and the regime had chosen that moment to announce the end of the Cultural Revolution.

The symbolism was unmistakable. During the Red Guards’ decade-long rampage, China’s orchestras had been disbanded and their players sent for ‘re-education’ in the rice paddies. Violinists had their fingers broken, oboists their teeth smashed. People caught listening to western music suffered physical abuse and imprisonment.

Yet the severity of these sanctions served only to underline the disproportionate significance that China attached to the orchestra, whether as a potentially subversive non-party organism or as an import channel of foreign culture. In China, the orchestra is more than just a pretty sound.

Chinese musicians brag that Shanghai founded the first orchestra in the eastern hemisphere as far back as 1879 and the first symphonic ensemble in 1908, a centenary that has been celebrated this year across the country as a matter of national pride. It is also eighty years since the first orchestral work by a Chinese composer, Reminiscence by Huang Zi. The orchestra in China was a driver of national culture as much as it was a mirror of European civilisation.

When the music conservatory reopened in Beijing in 1978, the doors were battered down by 18,000 applicants. As musicians and conductors returned from rural or foreign exile, the makers of modern China applied the old Maoist slogan ‘let 1,000 flowers bloom’ to the reborn orchestral sector. With the support of the piano-playing, Mozart-loving party leader Jiang Zemin, China started to grow the busiest concert industry on earth.

The statistics tell it all. A recent survey by the German orchestral association shows that there are presently 561 professional orchestras in the world, working 31 weeks a year with enough players for a Beethoven Fifth. The largest batch is in Germany, which has 133 orchestras (down from 166 since reunification). Next is the USA with 50 ensembles (excluding college and amateur groups), and coming up fast behind is China, already with twice as many orchestras as Britain or France and with new ones being formed practically every other month.

At an Asia-Pacific orchestral conference in Shanghai last week, directors of the China Symphony Development Foundation told me they now have 43 orchestras around the country, with six more in formation. By the end of the decade, China will be second only to Germany in the number of orchestras it maintains, and closing fast.

‘There is healthy competition,’ one official told me. ‘When one city in China gets an orchestra, the next town wants one too.’ Nor is there a shortage of audiences. The concert season consists of varied programmes of western, Chinese and film music, among which works like Ma Hongye's Good News Reaches the Border Villages enjoy unmitigated popularity.

The standard of performance is unapologetically elitist with proficiency improving year by year as young musicians return from European and US conservatories and foreigners being recruited at open auditions. A concert of contemporary Chinese music that I attended, played by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra with four soloists on indigenous instruments, did not fall short from western critical criteria of ensemble and harmony. It was an attractive, polished performance, delivered to an almost-full house.

Chinese orchestras are starting to strut their stuff abroad. The China Philharmonic Orchestra performed this year for the Pope in Rome and Shanghai will soon make a tour of Spain. New concert halls are springing up, not just the Olympic-timed National Centre for Performing Arts in Beijing but an unimaginably ambitious $21.6 billion (sic) arts district in Hong Kong, a project which is attracting managerial interest from, among others, London’s outgoing South Bank chief, Michael Lynch.

By the time London hosts the Olympics in 2012, China will be challenging for pre-eminence in orchestral music. In much the same way as Chinese factories took over Italy’s hegemony in making shoes, shirts and silk ties, the orchestras of China will be offering themselves at cheaper rates to the movie and games industries, undermining London’s grip on the lucrative soundtrack market. Or so the strategy goes.

But beyond the façade of relentless expansion, a more fragile and fascinating picture emerges of red-toothed Darwinian evolution at the heart of a command economy. When officials speak of ‘healthy competition’, what they mean is local rivalry. The Shanghai Philharmonic was absent from last week’s summit after a falling-out with the Shanghai Symphony. Inside the Shanghai Symphony, there are sour mutterings over the appointment of Long Yu, a man with high party connections, as the new music director. Long, 44 and Berlin-trained, is already director of the China Philharmonic and the Beijing Music Festival. Some say he is trying to become China’s first musical emperor, its Herbert von Karajan.

Long is the favoured conductor of China’s biggest musical star, the pianist Lang Lang, whose celebrity since the Olympic opening exploits has soared beyond the abstruse requirements of classical music onto skyscraper-sized hoardings and credit-card endorsements. Lang Lang, in his media ubiquity, is an important role model to the 30-40 million Chinese children who are taking piano lessons, but he is also a contentious and divisive figure within the burgeoning musical infrastructure.

Orchestra managers told me they can no longer afford fee demands of a million RMB (just over £100,000) for a Lang Lang concerto performance, not to mention other other superstar conditions. One manager was told by Lang Lang’s father than his son would not play with his orchestra if his arch-rival Yundi Li was engaged in the same year. Yundi, winner of the 2000 Chopin competition in Warsaw and an artist of significantly quieter attributes, appears to gone into retreat, moving his residence to offshore Hong Kong.

Amid whispers that Lang Lang’s enmity has cost Yundi Li his foreign management and record contract - Deutsche Grammophon confirmed to me that the pianist has indeed been dropped, but did not comment on the cause - Chinese managers relish the cut and thrust of music business, even though all major decisions are party controlled. The secretive interplay of politics and culture makes it difficult to predict the full flowering of China’s musical future, but the symbolic value of the orchestral renaissance should not be underestimated. China is building big orchestras as a symptom of economic power and its business classes are attending concerts in their thousands as a way of renouncing the grim and never-mentioned revolutionary past. The orchestras of China may or may not become world beaters, but to many Chinese they stand out as beacons of hope in increasingly uncertain times.

Six Chinese orchestral works recommended by Shanghai musicologist Dr Yun Sheng:

Chinese style:

Liu Tieshan and Mao Yuan Dance of the Yao People Li Huanzhi Spring Festival Suites Zhenglu and Ma Hongye Good News Reaches the Border Villages

Western style:

Tan Dun Marco Polo Guo Wenjing Bamboo Flute Concerto Zhu Jian Er 9th Symphony

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



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