Classical music grows in popularity in NE China

Updated: 2011-11-26 13:53


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QIQIHAR - The sky had already begun to grow dark when Sun Xianggen entered a rehearsal hall in the remote city of Qiqihar on a Wednesday afternoon. However, Sun and his 80 choir students were just getting started for the day, preparing to rehearse songs for their next performance.

Sun, a 50-year-old conductor and dean of Qiqihar's College of Music and Dance in Northeast China's Heilongjiang province, organizes rehearsals four times each week in order to prepare for free performances and concerts for the city's 5 million residents.

As 2011 approaches its end, Sun is busy preparing his chorus and symphony orchestra for the New Year holiday. This year marks Sun's 12th New Year concert, and he and his students have a lot of work ahead of them.

"It's not exactly the Vienna Philharmonic's New Year Concert," said Fan Youcai, a public relations officer at the university. "But it has been a huge success every year. People pull strings and use their connections just to get tickets."

Classical music is not as popular as pop or folk music in China, a trend that Sun has worked hard to try to reverse.

"Years ago, the audience didn't know when to applaud at a symphony," said Sun. The conductor recalled an instance in which the university rented out its music hall - the only one in the city until recently - for a corporate meeting.

Sun was indignant. "It's a place for arts," he said.

Sun and his colleagues and students have endeavored to introduce classical music to a region of China that is largely known for its "errenzhuan," or "two-person act," a genre of local folk music that is typically sprinkled with vulgar jokes and sayings.

Since 2001, Qiqihar University has worked to provide free performances and concerts for local residents. Although university faculty were the only ones to attend at first, local residents from all walks of life can now be found attending the concerts.

The status of classical music in China has changed significantly since 2001, with people in larger cities like Beijing and Shanghai willing to pay good money for symphony and chorus tickets. Renowned musicians from around the world regularly play to large audiences in these cities.

However, Sun has refused to move to other cities in China, despite multiple offers.

"A good part of Qiqihar's cultural identity would be gone if I left. As a locally-born resident, I can't allow that to happen," he said.

Sun has also made forays into ethnic music, drawing on the music and dance of the local Daur ethnic groups for his latest project. Although their songs and choreography are simple, Sun has combined them with modernized elements to create a truly unique blend.

"Their songs and dances are beautiful - crudely beautiful," Sun said. "I wanted to add modern elements to their beauty so that more people will enjoy the performances," he said.

Sun's Daur-infused arrangements, performed by university faculty and students, have won applause from the Daur, as well as from other ethnic groups.

Sun admitted that the atmosphere for classical music in Qiqihar, in comparison to larger cities in the south, is not yet well-developed, due to the city's remote location.

"The good thing is that the Chinese are beginning to put more emphasis on developing arts and culture. That has given me a huge boost in confidence," he said.