Conductor's love for music started with the erhu

By Chen Jie ( China Daily ) Updated: 2012-09-19 09:13:11

It was love at first sound. Tan Lihua fell into love with music after he heard his neighbor playing the erhu.

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Like most Chinese musicians of his generation who joined a local or army ensemble so as not be sent to work in the countryside during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), the 57-year-old decided to pick up the two-stringed vertical fiddle. He later also mastered the violin.

In 1970, he joined an air force's song and dance company in Jinan, Shandong province, and also learned to be a music conductor under the company's head.

In 1978, when Tan Dun, Guo Wenjing, Zhou Long, Chen Yi, Chen Qigang, Ye Xiaogang and Liu Suola entered Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music and became the first generation of budding Chinese composers to systematically study Western music, Tan Lihua went to Shanghai Conservatory of Music to study conducting.

After graduation, he became a faculty member at Tianjin Conservatory.

Also like most musicians of his generation, Tan applied to further his studies abroad and got an offer from University of Wales in 1983.

Before he left the country, Tan went to Beijing to bid goodbye to his mentor Li Delun (1917-2001). Former chief conductor of China Central Symphony Orchestra, Li has been considered the father of China's symphonic music, whose pupils include most of today's famous Chinese conductors such as Tang Muhai and Yu Long.

Li, who was a guest professor during Tan's senior year at Shanghai Conservatory of Music, was impressed by Tan's talent. When Tan taught in Tianjin, Li recommended him to conduct the newly established Tianjin Symphony Orchestra and asked him to work as his assistant.

Tan remembered Li saying, "I'm 66 but still sweating on the podium. If you all go abroad, who will take over my baton when I pass away?"

"Maestro Li told me he needed 'fuel in the snow'," Tan says.

After that conversation with Li, Tan went home and put away his university admission letter deep inside his cabinet. He continued assisting Li at the Central Symphony Orchestra till 1992, when he was appointed chief conductor of Beijing Symphony Orchestra.

Three decades have passed, but Tan has never once regretted his decision to remain in China.

"I always remember maestro Li's words, 'A conductor is like a doctor'. A doctor gains experience through treating more patients. A conductor needs to lead more orchestras of different levels to improve himself," Tan says. "China has too many orchestras that need a conductor."

Under his baton, Beijing Symphony Orchestra has developed to be one of the top five orchestras in China, together with China Philharmonic, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra, and National Symphony Orchestra.

Since 2006, it has recorded six EMI albums and is scheduled to record two more this year.

"Beijing Symphony Orchestra is a very impressive orchestra. It has a lot of young members and a very grown-up sound. I've worked with many great orchestras such as Berlin Philharmonic and many opera houses. They are almost the same quality," says Jakob Haendel, the recording engineer of the orchestra's first EMI album.

But Tan admits that there is room for improvement.

"We need to spend two weeks rehearsing to give a so-called world-class performance, but a real world-class orchestra only needs one day to achieve the same effect," he says.

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