China captures music world's ear

Once banned, Western classical music explodes in popularity among Chinese

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SHANGHAI, China -- The jaw of one of the best horn players in the world drops as he listens to a student exhale a rich tone from his French horn.

"I can't believe you are 17," William Caballero, principal horn player of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, says to Guan Yue.

Caballero, who also teaches at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Music, is giving master classes at Shanghai Conservatory during the PSO's Asian tour last month.

The next French horn player, Ma Chu Chen, is even younger. Her mom, Chu Hai Lun, hovers nearby with a camcorder as the 15-year-old performs to the admiration of Caballero.

"I have taught at a lot of places, and this is the best class I have seen," he tells the horn teacher there, Xiao-Ming Han, also principal at Radio Symphony Orchestra Saarbrucken. "They are a lot further along in terms of technique and facility."

In another building, PSO principals Michael Rusinek, clarinet, and Nancy Goeres, bassoon, have a similar experience.

"You have very beautiful tone," Rusinek tells a clarinetist in her early 20s, "but you need to work to create special moments in music, so people sit up and listen."

Sitting up and listening to China is exactly what the music world has been doing lately. Western classical music, banned in Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, has exploded in popularity. Just as its government is opening economically to the West, China is emerging as an international power in classical music.

Millions study the piano and string instruments, and many of the world's most popular classical soloists are Chinese, including pianist Lang Lang. Symphonic concerts abound in the bigger cities, and in Beijing you are just as likely to find a performance of Western opera as traditional Peking opera.

"Before I left China, I didn't see opera," said Hao Jiang Tian, the Metropolitan Opera bass who came to New York in the 1980s. "Today, there are three opera houses in Beijing."

"China is the sole remaining growth market for classical music," said music journalist Ken Smith, who is based in Hong Kong. "You see new concert halls being built and hundreds of thousands of young musicians who want to make a living."

They can now audition for spots in more than 40 professional orchestras throughout the country, and the best orchestras worldwide are dotted with Chinese-born musicians, including four in the PSO.

Chinese students today are being trained by more and more musicians who cut their teeth in America and Europe in the 1980s and '90s. While the best players used to come to America, Japan or Europe, they now can stay to study at top conservatories such as Shanghai's and the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. It may not be long before the bad rap on Chinese players as all technique and no style will be a thing of the past.

American schools such as CMU have been actively recruiting students in China for several years. Over the past five years, CMU has enrolled 46 Chinese musicians; Duquesne and the University of Pittsburgh also have Chinese students.

"We are seeing more students ... and the quality is definitely rising," said Noel Zahler, head of CMU's School of Music, which sponsored the master classes in Shanghai. "Some are our best students."

But how did it happen? How did Western classical music make such headway in a culture with its own long tradition of music and in a society that only a few decades ago was staunchly anti-West?

"When you want to have a dialogue, you have to learn the other language," Smith said. "It is a sign of how China is facing the Western world, and it helps China to be understood."

Classical music's status as a sign of culture plays a role, too. In the 2004 book "Rhapsody in Red," authors Sheila Melvin and Jindong Cai note that "former Chinese president Jiang Zemin let it be widely known that he listened to Mozart's 'Requiem' to mourn his predecessor Deng Xiaoping" in 1997.

"For the past 20 years, Chinese people thought that if you wanted to study in the West, you had to know classical music," said Cathy Barbash, a blogger on Chinese musical culture for Musical America. Classical music is seen as a tool for personal or business advancement for many in China.

"The Chinese are perhaps the most pragmatic people on Earth," she said. "Countless stories abound of parents who move to big cities to support their child who has enrolled there."

Rudolph Tang, a music critic based in Hong Kong, went even further: "The recent outburst of classical music frenzy in China is fueled by the one-child policy," he said. "Parents expect too much from their sole child, squeezing the last drop of their imagination by bulldozing them [to pick] up a musical instrument."

Music helps students at home, too. They can score extra points on the standardized exams for Chinese high schools and colleges if they play an instrument, and Western instruments count just as much as Chinese. Considering Lang Lang's stratospheric success worldwide, it's little wonder most students these days favor Western instruments.

The push for modernization has been at the heart of every major Chinese cultural movement in the 20th and 21st centuries -- the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the recent economic openness. Although classical music is viewed as old in Europe and old-fashioned in America, it's seen as modern in China. In a country with thousands of years of history, a few hundred can seem new.

Western music has even influenced traditional Chinese music, which is being performed with Western harmonization and in large groups resembling symphony orchestras. Composers also are writing new music for ancient instruments.

"The whole revamped approach to traditional Chinese music is based on Western sonic ideals," said Frederick Lau, author of "Music in China." All the professors are teaching the modified, bigger techniques.

"Something needed to develop in different ways after we learned Western music," said Karen Han, whose playing on the erhu, the two-string "Chinese fiddle," has been heard on soundtracks from "Memoirs of a Geisha" to "Star Trek."

"Before, we only had five keys. But now I have to play any key that the composer wants me to," she said.

But the story of classical music in China is certainly not all utilitarian; nor does it stop at being influential. Western music's intrinsic beauty and value draws concert-goers in the country of 1.3 billion with "nothing on the ground but passion," Smith said.

Classical music actually had an early foothold in China. A Jesuit priest brought clavichords to the emperor Wanli's court in the early 1600s. In the 1920s, Italian pianist Mario Paci gave recitals and orchestra concerts in the Westernized sectors of Shanghai.

"Before 1949, the music professional training followed models of Europe and after 1949 followed Soviet models," said Xin (Sheila) Guo a pianist on the faculty of the Central Conservatory who studied at CMU. The Russians helped establish many of China's conservatories."

That early interest would've flowered earlier and fuller had it not been for Mao's Cultural Revolution, which banned Western music. Since that thaw, China's renewed passion for classical music has made an impact globally -- something that Caballero, Rusinek, Goeres and other PSO musicians heard first-hand in May. Surely, China's musicians and audiences will alter the world's scene in the years to come in their own way.

"The one thing we can be assured of is that, however the Western classical tradition builds there, it will not be something we recognize," Smith said.

Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at . He blogs at Classical Musings at First Published June 28, 2009 4:00 AM


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