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The Future Lies In Our Orchestras


Mr Chen Guangxian, giving his inaugural speech as the newly-elected Chair of the China Symphony Development Foundation in March, 2015

At a time when the Western media regularly foretell classical music’s imminent demise, the Chinese interest in Western classical music sounds like a good news story. But is this exactly the true situation?

To most English-speaking communities, China remains a mysterious country. Its population is 66 times that of Australia. The dominant Han people plus members of 56 ethnic minorities live on a broad stretch of land across four time zones, contributing to a once miraculous double-digits GDP growth. It looks like fertile ground. Might the future of classical music lie in Asia where China is increasingly a dominant player?

The world is constantly amazed by the sheer size of the concert halls built here in the past decade. Among the architects, designers and acousticians who have changed the skylines of our cities forever are:

  • Zaha Hadid (Guangzhou Opera House);
  • Isozaki Arata and Yasushisa Toyota (Shanghai Symphony Hall and New Harbin Concert Hall);
  • Tadao Ando (Poly Grand Theatre, Shanghai);
  • Carlos Ott (Hangzhou Grand Theatre);
  • Meinhard von Gerkan and Stephan Schütz (Tianjin Grand Theatre); and
  • Paul Andreu (Shanghai Oriental Arts Centre and NCPA).

To western eyes, the halls are a promise, their packed audiences of young enthusiasts the future. Is it really so?

Bear in mind that the urban modernisation sweeping through every corner of the country is the incubator of a flourishing real estate business. Developers get cheaper land in urbanisation projects should a public institute be included in the construction plan: a library, a theatre, a concert hall, clinic or school.

In January 2015, I was commissioned by the British Council to find out the connection between the touring destinations of visiting orchestras in 2014 and the three top-tier cities in China, as well as Hong Kong. The discovery was revealed at the Association of the British Orchestras’ annual conference in Gateshead.

A total of 26 overseas orchestras toured China in 2014 giving 130 concerts in 20 cities. 65% of the concerts were presented in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou while in 11 cities only one concert was heard. But other statistics showed that among 2,132 concert venues surveyed, 1,117 staged only one performance in 2014 – 48% of the halls stood idle without any performance. Further study revealed that a mid-price ticket costs as much as 17.24% of GDP per capita while it is 1.86% for Australia, 1.81% for USA, 2.87% for UK and 3.81% for Japan. In plain words, half of the nation’s halls went unoccupied, and the Chinese people are paying more to get into the rest.

But halls are just part of a bigger picture. The future of classical music does not lie in infrastructure construction or hall management, but in the hands of musicians – composers, conductors and orchestras.

A more important need might be the building up of an indigenous Chinese Classical Music culture. There are great prospects. The middle school level of music education has produced fine string and woodwind players, who can be seen playing in leading orchestras such as the San Francisco Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, BBC Symphony Orchestra, and Seoul Philharmonic. We have superstar icons like Lang Lang, Yuja Wang and Tan Dun and a small but elite league of conductors taking permanent jobs in Europe, Asia and the US.

Then where does the future lie? I think part of the future lies in the orchestras. It has always been the orchestra that takes centre stage and constitutes the driving force behind a nation’s classical music landscape, as it does in Germany, America, Britain, Venezuela, Israel, Turkey, Korea and Japan. There are currently 69 orchestras in China. And a new one: the Ningbo Symphony Orchestra.

It is heartening to see the amount of exchange going on between Chinese and western orchestras. It has been known for some time that western music will not be inculcated simply by touring orchestras putting on concerts. In the final concert of its historic first visit to China in 1979, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra performed Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony with 33 members from the-then Central Philharmonic Society (now China National Symphony Orchestra) under the baton of Herbert von Karajan. It was a generous offer still much talked about and fondly remembered by our people.

There are now exchanges of musicians and administrative staff, and performance of the music of Chinese composers. The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra recently signed a deal with the Sydney Symphony for a mentoring program, and the Sydney Symphony provided guest teachers to the faculty at Xinghai Conservatory in Guangzhou. The China Philharmonic has forged a similar agreement with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO). A second group of CPO musicians and staff have recently visited Perth, and more WASO musicians head to Beijing in December.

From other parts of the world, members from the North German Radio Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio Symphony, Royal Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra have all played an important role in offering guidance to either our musicians or the administration. Those exchanges forge wonderful ties.

An equal part of the future lies in audience development. I am always in awe of the vast and ingenious audience outreach program of foreign orchestras that I read about in their season brochures and annual reports. And there are, already, outstanding examples of carefully curated residencies by orchestras such as the Philadelphia Orchestra, Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Saito Kinen Orchestra of the Seiji Ozawa Festival (Matsumoto), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, New York Philharmonic in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou.


Teodorici Pedrini, co-author of the first treatise on Western music in China

There is a Chinese saying quite close to ‘common fame is seldom to blame’. Literally translated, it reads ‘shoot the bird who takes the lead’. In a country where mediocrity is tolerated and not pointed out, I have often struggled to foresee a future for classical music as described by the foreign press. However, I recently made a trip to Zhengzhou, the provincial capital of Henan province for a concert of the local orchestra. Geographically, Zhengzhou lies in the heartland of China as Chicago does to the US. The Henan Symphony Orchestra, formed in 2011 on the basis of a former band affiliated to the dance company, is one of the least experienced orchestras. But after three days’ rehearsal by Muhai Tang who had just returned to China after his La Scala debut in Rossini’s Otello (and is the first Chinese to conduct an opera there) the orchestra delivered Tchaikovsky’s Sixth symphony with a power that convinced me of the value of classical music in this land alien to her.

The storm of applause that burst from the 1,000-seat auditorium as Tang’s hands dropped at the end struck me like lightning. The overwhelming power, the shades, the contrast and the imagination of classical music could hardly be found in other genres of music. The classical concert experience offers reward to a day’s hard work, a more in-depth engagement with music than can be experienced in three-minute hits, a haven for higher revelations.

Western Classical music has been appreciated in China for over 400 years since Italian and German missionaries introduced baroque music to the Qing court, the last feudal dynasty in China. These days we have 11 conservatories, 69 orchestras, 211 key colleges, 30,000 career musicians, hundreds and thousands of music teachers, the parents of 100 million music students and a fine collection of halls.

With the help of Mr Chen Guangxian, the newly elected President of the China Symphony Development Foundation – the national orchestras’ service organisation dedicated to the benefit of our orchestras – and Mr Ye Xiaogang, a renowned composer and the new President of the Chinese Musicians Association representing 30,000 members, we are determined to create a future of classical music of our own.

Tang-protrait-250Rudolph Tang

Born in Shanghai, Rudolph Tang was Editor of Gramophone magazine Chinese edition from 2005-2008 and the Head of Communications of the China Symphony Development Foundation from 2008-2013. Now a contributor to Musical America, FT Chinese and Das Orchester, he lives in Shanghai, Beijing and spends the rest of the year in Europe.