Last year marked the 10th anniversary of the death of Li Delun, who, among countless other achievements, founded the Yan'an Central Orchestra, China’s first professional symphony. For two years during the 1940s they travelled the country on foot, bringing classical music to mystified famers. It was Li, who in 1977 conducted Beethoven’s Symphony No 5, the first performance of Western classical music since the beginning of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The event is widely credited as sparking the re-emergence of classical music in China.
This month, the country honoured the father of China’s classical music by holding the first Li Delun National Conducting Competition (June 18-23) in Qingdao. Organised by the Ministry of Culture, China Symphony Development Foundation and Qingdao local government, it was hoped the event will give China a much-needed conducting focus. In 1993, Li Delun served as jury president in China’s first national conducting competition – the National Competition of Orchestra Conductors in China - presenting first prize to then-protégé and now-juror of the new competition Li Xincao, principal conductor of the China National Symphony Orchestra. 'We have many [world-class musicians], such as Lang Lang and Jian Wang,' he says. 'But we don’t have a top conductor.'
Traditionally China’s conducting training has lagged behind violin and piano, partly because few teachers are taught internationally. Even today, only a handful of conservatories have a conducting department; although this year’s competition was limited to 25 to 35-year-old Chinese passport holders, over half the applicants had studied abroad. But with state-of-the-art concert halls blooming around the country and new orchestras forming, it is important that talented conductors emerge – which requires a new competition.
Stage one saw three retired conductors whittling 68 candidates down to 12 via DVD. Jury chairman Gennady Rozhdestvensky and his fellow jurors then chose six semi-finalists to conduct the First Movement of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and Tang Jianping’s Bao Leng Diao.
The three finalists selected conducted a selection of Brahms, Debussy and Shostakovich. Jing Huan of Cincinnati University was awarded third prize and Jiao Yang of Yale University Music College was awarded the silver medal. It was decided the top prize of 100,000 RMB (£10,000) would not be awarded this year.
Shanghai Opera artistic director and juror Zhang Guoyong blamed the initial selection process, explaining that judges had picked semi-skilled technicians but missed those with raw potential and that intangible quality which makes for a maestro. 'We all agreed that a number of talented candidates were not passed through,' Zhang says. 'Next time, no video; we have to do this in person.'
However, with conducting training increasing in China and expanding abroad, the next competition should see significant improvement. After all, the country has made great strides in violin and piano and is gaining in opera – they’re due a world-class conductor. And Li Delun’s mission lives on.