Western classical music, made and loved in China

Updated: 2007-04-03 08:58


BEIJING: Yu Zhenyang, a self-assured 15-year-old violinist with a picture of Jascha Heifetz in his bedroom, glided through the Mendelssohn Concerto from memory. His teacher bounded across the room, flailing his arms, swooning to demonstrate pathos and urging Zhenyang to play with more passion.

"You are the lead," said the teacher, Lin Yaoji. "Be bolder. Stretch the distance between the notes, and then close the distance. I don't want symmetry. Surprise me."

Growing numbers of Chinese children study classical music, like these members of the Beijing Dongzhimen Middle School orchestra.
Zhenyang is one of the brightest young stars at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, which has in recent years become part of China's huge export machine, churning out musical virtuosos.

Using the same energy, drive and sheer human capital that have made it an economic power, China has become a considerable force in Western classical music. Conservatories are bulging. Provincial cities demand orchestras and concert halls. Pianos and violins made in China fill shipping containers leaving its ports.

The Chinese enthusiasm suggests the potential for a growing market for recorded music and live performances just as an aging fan base and declining record sales worry many industry executives in Europe and the United States. Sales for a top-selling classical recording in the West now number merely in the thousands instead of in the tens of thousands, as they did 25 years ago.

More profoundly, classical music executives believe that the art form is being increasingly marginalized in the West by a sea of popular culture and new media.

Fewer young American listeners find their way to classical music, largely because of the lack of music education, which was widespread in public schools two generations ago. As a result, many orchestras and opera houses are struggling.

China, with an estimated 30 million piano students and 10 million violin students, is on an opposite trajectory. Tests to enter the top conservatories now attract nearly 200,000 students a year, compared with a few thousand annually in the 1980s, according to the Chinese Musicians Association.

Music-related manufacturing has also exploded. As of 2003, 87 factories made Western-style musical instruments. By last year, the number had grown to 142 factories producing 370,000 pianos, one million violins and six million guitars. China dominates world production of all three.

The Communist Party, which three decades ago tried to wipe out classical music, now deems it an essential component of the "advanced culture" it vows to create in its effort to make the country a true great power.

At the same time, European classical music has a charge of pop-culture frisson in China.

Young people flock to concerts, or at least to those they can afford. A woman at a Beijing bookstore was seen carrying Mozart's portrait in her wallet. Piano showrooms look like auto dealerships, with coddled youths staging impromptu recitals on Baldwins and Yamahas made in China as anxious parents haggle over prices. Stars like Lang Lang, the piano virtuoso, make television commercials.

"Music is hot in China," said Chen Hung-Kuan, the chairman of the piano department at the Shanghai Conservatory. "It may be fading in Western countries," he added, but in China the talent is "unlimited."

Harnessing that talent has not always gone smoothly. Parents view acceptance to an elite conservatory not only as a passage into the world of art but also as an escape from poverty. Teachers push students to master technical showpieces by rote to impress judges at nationwide competitions that serve as entrance exams for top schools.

China at its best produces virtuosos who can compete worldwide. But it has yet to develop a deep, sustainable culture in Western music. It has no symphony orchestra that ranks with a major U.S. orchestra, most critics say. Fans here flock to hear greats from the West but often shun high prices and local performers.

The government seems nearly obsessed with building concert halls. But some are white elephants, constructed hastily with little attention to programming or economic viability.

Optimists, though, hope these are growing pains for an art form that only a few decades ago, during the Cultural Revolution, was suppressed.

Classical music arouses few of the political and nationalist sensitivities that have made it harder for other kinds of Western culture or media to take root in China.

"Music is the least national of the arts," said Wu Zuqiang, a composer, a former director of the Central Conservatory and a government adviser on the arts. "It crosses cultures more easily than anything else."

One of the clearest signs of official approval for classical music came from Li Lanqing, a retired member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the ruling Communist Party and former minister of education. Li recently wrote a lengthy, loving tribute to 50 Western composers in which he argued that one cannot be a true intellectual unless one understands Western classical music.

In a surprisingly bold statement, he said that Chinese composers should "borrow theory and technique from European classical music to reform Chinese music."

What Li called for was the revival of a longstanding goal. European classical music has long if not deep roots in China, and it has been associated with modernity for centuries.

The Jesuit Matteo Ricci brought a clavichord when he visited China in the late 16th century. An Italian missionary, Teodoricus Pedrini, arrived in Beijing in 1711 and wrote court music for the Kangxi Emperor.

Western music flourished here in the early 20th century. It even enjoyed strong support by Communist leaders until the Cultural Revolution.

When the "reform and opening" policy took hold in the late 1970s, Western music started making a significant comeback. A flow of Chinese musicians to the United States began.

By the 1990s, Politburo members boasted of their love for classical music. President Jiang Zemin said he had consoled himself after the death of the paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, in 1997 by listening to Mozart's Requiem.

But elite support may count for less than the upsurge in popular interest, including millions of parents and youth far outside Beijing, Shanghai and other cosmopolitan cities.

That trend began, paradoxically, just as Mao Zedong was trying to wipe out remnants of Western bourgeois influence starting in the late 1960s. Musical talent was one of the few things that could offer an escape from harsh labor in the countryside, where tens of millions of urban youth were sent to commune with peasants.

"Every kid - you have 10 fingers, you were playing something at that time," said Li-Kuo Chang, the Chinese-born assistant principal violist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. "Whether you have talent or not, that was a way of saving you to be sent to the factory or farm."

The Cultural Revolution gave rise to a hunger for music. When it ended, people were "so thirsty to suck everything in," said Yu Long, one of China's most energetic conductors and musical entrepreneurs.

More recently, China's family-planning policy, which limits most urban parents to a single child, prompted many parents to treat their offspring like prodigies.

Children are being pushed to study an instrument, both as a possible means of advancement in the country's hypercompetitive school system and as a way of creating respectable, well-rounded adults. Increased prosperity means that more families can pay for lessons, which has turned private teaching into a lucrative profession.

"We have the chance to give the best to our kids," Yu said. "Not like our parents."

The story of Yu Zhenyang, the Mendelssohn-playing student, is not unusual.

He started playing violin at 7 in a mandatory arts class in Jingzhou, Hubei Province, in central China. His teacher recognized his talent and persuaded his parents to allow him to specialize in music. At 9, he won a national youth violin competition, and two years later his test scores were high enough for entry to the prestigious middle school attached to the Central Conservatory.

His mother, Yu Ya, gave up her job and moved with him to Beijing. "Our feeling was that he was not only the pride of our family, but actually of the whole town," said his mother.

The family, with little savings of its own, borrows from friends to pay the steep tuition and the rent for part of a small apartment near the school.

Zhenyang sleeps and practices in the only bedroom. "He has to have a room that's big enough to practice, or it doesn't sound right," Yu Ya said. She sleeps on a cot in the hallway.

Zhenyang said his goal is to play so well that musical experts around the world will not be able to tell his nationality unless they see his face.

"Much of what people talk about as being identifiable as the Chinese accent in music is really just not measuring up to the international standard," he said. "It's subtle, but you can hear the same flaws in the performances of people trained in China. That's what I want to overcome."

The insight hints at one of the obstacles Chinese musical experts say the country still faces. Classical music, Chinese critics say, is still treated too often like a technology that can be mastered with the right combination of capital, labor and quality control. But a combination of technique, culture and creativity are needed to create music that sounds spontaneous, sensitive and rich in emotion - not wooden and shaped by a cookie cutter.

Yu Long, the conductor, said the major obstacle to spreading musical culture is not money but the state-run education system, which focuses on prizes and status. Though awards are seen to bring credit to society, they do little to enhance people's appetite for music.

"It cannot be like a race," he said. "It is about beauty and feeling." And music must be seen as part of a larger culture, he added, as in the West. "Here, people lock themselves up in a practice room and think they can make great music," he said. "But you will never conceive great music that way."

There are other concerns. While government support for classical music is clearly strong, critics say China has misallocated hundreds of millions of dollars on elaborate concert halls. That money might have been better spent, they suggest, on music education and affordable performances.

The trend began in Shanghai in the 1990s, when city leaders decided they needed a great opera house to compete with other international cities. The city set aside a prime plot of land next to the new government headquarters. The striking French-designed glass-and-steel structure cost $160 million.

Critics say city officials have spent far less time and money on managing the house. Its administrators, under pressure to recoup the investment in the facility, have set New York-level prices for many shows despite Shanghai's much lower average standard of living. The city pressures state-owned companies to purchase seats to fill the house.

Communist Party leaders have dreamed of an even grander performance center in Beijing since the 1950s. Jiang Zemin revived the idea in the 1990s and selected the block just west of Tiananmen Square. The government again chose a French architect, Paul Andreu.

The National Theater, as it is called, is already widely considered a white elephant, even before it has opened. The project is four years late and, according to estimates by local media, at least $100 million over its $400 million budget. Beijing's dust and pollution cling to its rounded glass and metal surface, creating a light-gray sheen that critics say makes it look like a duck egg.

Communist Party leaders argued for years over who should run the National Theater. No agency wanted to take responsibility if it had to assume the cost of operating its four performance halls. Finally, late last year, the Beijing municipal government was named the operator. But no formal opening has been announced.

Beijing does need a space for music that is bigger and more sophisticated acoustically, but the government mishandled the project, said Wu Zuqiang, the government arts adviser, who consulted on the theater during its design in the 1990s.

"Is it a public space or a commercial space?" Mr. Wu asked. "Run by the government or by the market? These questions were never answered. Until you resolve that, no one will dare to stage a performance."

Classical music in China faces other obstacles. The quality of instruments in conservatory orchestras, particularly woodwinds and brasses, is poor. Not enough time is given to chamber music, which is vital to building the skills of listening and playing together with sensitivity.

Some wonder how much Western traditions can be assimilated.

"There's no question the talent is there," said Joseph Polisi, president of the Juilliard School in New York. "The commitment to Western art music is definitely there. But is that talent prepared to absorb what we have here?"

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