China and classical music: an extraordinary story of growth

Andrew Mellor
Monday, April 29, 2019

We have long been told that China holds the key to the future of classical music. As the West looks increasingly to the East, what impact will this have on the global musical community and the music we listen to? Andrew Mellor investigates


The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra with its conductor Long Yu at Deutsche Grammophon’s historic 120th-anniversary gala concert which took place at Beijing’s Forbidden City in October 2018 (Schoierer/DG)

You don’t have to walk far in Shanghai’s French Concession before encountering a billboard image of an illuminated vintage light bulb set on an elegant wooden plinth. It is a marketing campaign from the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, informing citizens of the world’s second most populous city that electric lamps were first used here in 1879 – the very year the orchestra was established. ‘Illuminating the city since 1879’ is the slogan, drawing attention to the SSO’s 140th season. Neat, even if it feels a little out of step with the audience I join one Sunday night in January and whose appetite for technology probably doesn’t stretch to its history. All around me are millennials hungry to hear pianist Haochen Zhang’s Rachmaninov and then post about it on Snow, the Chinese intranet’s answer to Snapchat.

It is a disorientating fact that the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra is older than the vast majority of its counterparts in Britain and America. China, we are told, is the newcomer to the classical music party – the future, not the past. But so much of what we have come to understand about this country is in need of recalibration, not least as its relationship with the West encounters a new bout of growing pains that could have momentous consequences. While the world’s economists have waited patiently for China to falter, the country’s own brand of Marxist capitalism has delivered growth that not even the apparatchiks themselves expected. And while our sector has continued to dismiss the phenomenon of Chinese musicianship as little more than astoundingly efficient (more interested in aping iconic virtuosos than furthering the central tenets of the so-called ‘tradition’ which create, among other things, a rich and distinctive orchestral culture), China may be about to wrong-foot us once more. It was in Beijing, not Berlin, that Deutsche Grammophon launched its 120th birthday celebration last October, and with its latest signing: the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.

It doesn’t take an economist to fathom that DG’s signing of a long-term deal with the SSO bears some relationship to the size of the Chinese market. Interest in Western classical music has been on a crescendo in China since it was introduced as a new phenomenon following the Cultural Revolution. The country’s determined middle classes set special store by music tuition and now some 40 million children (at least) play the piano alone. That translates into a gargantuan market for the consumption of recorded classical music even if only as a study aid or as a residue of having Mozart and Beethoven sonatas tinkling through the family home. The development of streaming has apparently eased the longstanding headache of hard-copy piracy in the region. ‘China is now among the top ten markets for recorded music in the world – legal, that is,’ DG’s president Dr Clemens Trautmann tells me on the phone from Berlin: ‘Interest from the younger generation and wide access to mobile technology means there is opportunity for growth.’ And growth means growth. It’s widely believed that top 10 will soon become top five – perhaps top three.


Clemens Trautmann and Long Yu prior to a DG press conference in Berlin, June 2018

Surely that market is just as easily served by the Western orchestras DG records and that the Chinese hold in high regard? This is where DG’s thinking apparently combines strategy with integrity. Trautmann cites the cultural significance of having a leading Asian orchestra on his books and recalls the ‘incredibly high standards’ he heard from the SSO a few years ago at the Lucerne Festival (SSO staff report that it was Trautmann who pursued the relationship). Besides, it’s not all about the orchestra: ‘Karajan and Bernstein weren’t just music directors, they were cultural entrepreneurs,’ he says of DG’s linchpin artists of the last century. ‘We see similar potential in the partnership of the SSO and its music director Long Yu – a conductor who is making a difference to the cultural landscape inside China, and outside it too.’

The development of the SSO tracks the shifting sands of Shanghai’s interface with external cultures. The orchestra was built up by the Russian and Jewish musicians who came here at the beginning of the last century, and later absorbed some of the culture of the French, who maintained control of the Xuhui district until 1943. Since 2014 the orchestra has resided in a sleek concert-hall complex designed by the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, with acoustics by his compatriot Yasuhisa Toyota. Ticket touts line the streets in the hours before a concert. This is not the only orchestra in town, and the SSO’s current season does more than pander to Western classical music stereotypes. Before Christmas, there were two semi-staged performances of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin.

‘This is a cosmopolitan city and our orchestras are operating in the context of that diversity,’ says Sebastian Wang, the SSO’s director of artistic planning. In perfect, softly spoken English, he recalls recent performances of Britten’s War Requiem and Strauss’s Elektra, and a series of Steve Reich evenings that sold out in minutes. ‘I’ve lived in some Western cities and I love how civilised they are. But there is a sense of things stagnating somehow. Top graduates can’t get jobs because society has stabilised. Here, there is opportunity.’

If the creative outlook of the SSO is distinctive, so is its sound. At that Sunday concert it followed an elastic performance of Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto with an arresting Sibelius Symphony No 2 under guest conductor Xincao Li – a performance that had more to say about Sibelius than plenty I have heard the other side of Helsinki. It overrode issues of idiom with structural clarity, a sure understanding of the rhythmic impetus behind the unfolding journey and a sophisticated ability to speak relatively plainly in this stern music but with a strong sense of colour (including handsome peaty brass).

Shanghai SO

Home of the Shanghai SO: Shanghai Symphony Hall, which opened in 2014

The SSO is at the top of a growing orchestral pile in China. There are now around 80 other such ensembles, a consequence of the sprouting of populous new cities and their determination not to be outdone by their neighbours. Many orchestras have been struggling to find players – and their feet. ‘Two things are very much lacking on the Chinese orchestral scene right now: one is personnel and another is a good system to ensure high standards,’ says Doug He, executive director of the Shanghai Orchestra Academy (SOA) – an institution founded by the SSO to improve ensemble-playing culture here, and whose effects are being felt rapidly as China’s nascent orchestral infrastructure increasingly draws on lessons learnt in the country’s recent past.

While DG was celebrating 12 decades selling records last autumn, the Communist Party in China was marking 40 years since the introduction of the ‘reform and opening up’ policies that grafted carefully chosen democratic characteristics on to the country’s otherwise autocratic modus operandi. From the 1970s, businesses were suddenly free to expose elements of their operation to market forces and were actively encouraged to explore what was making their European and American counterparts successful.

Even as President Xi attempts to make his current China more self-reliant, the relatively autonomous orchestral sector has been echoing the thinking that made the Chinese economy what it is: by looking to the West and bettering its ideas. ‘We did a little bit of a study to find out what was happening in Europe and America, in terms of orchestral personnel,’ says He. ‘Europe has plenty of fellowship-style apprenticeship schemes but they have nothing much to do with education at a national level. In America, you have semi-professional orchestras such as the New World Symphony, but rarely do you see apprenticeship schemes because of union rules. The Manhattan School of Music has a successful orchestral-performance programme, but it’s based on conservatoire-level experience. At the SOA you graduate with a master’s degree and get 10 to 12 programmes a year performing with the SSO as mandatory.’ As a partner institution, the New York Philharmonic provides players for tuition.

There are now 17 SOA graduates in the SSO and others scattered throughout orchestras the world over. The prospect of China’s dozens of orchestras maturing quickly is now a very real one, springing from the country’s longstanding developmental philosophy of ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones’.

The implications stretch far beyond China. While we often think of Asian ensembles as being leavened by Western players, the reality is quite the opposite. There were less than half-a-dozen European and American instrumentalists in the SSO concert I was in the audience for, and in terms of orchestral personnel, the traffic is going in only one direction. Orchestras in San Francisco, London and Munich get their musicians from Beijing, Seoul and Taipei, not the other way round.

At the grass roots of instrumental tuition in China, iconic figures such as Lang Lang still loom large. As for the stereotype that Chinese musicians have their sights set on nothing less than solo stardom, He’s words acknowledge that it exists while explaining what is being done about it: ‘The SSO were often excited to welcome new players who did extremely well in audition but only lasted a few months, because orchestral discipline is so different to that of a soloist. We thought, there must be something we can do to bridge that gap.’

Lang Lang

Lang Lang with Xiaogang Ye: the SSO plans to record Ye’s setting of the same Chinese poems Mahler used

His use of the word ‘we’ is surely intended to implicate the conductor Long Yu, whose influence permeates Chinese musical life and fully justifies Trautmann’s ‘cultural entrepreneur’ description. Yu is also spoken of as ‘China’s Karajan’; as founder of the Beijing Music Festival and music director of the SSO, the China Philharmonic Orchestra and the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra, he certainly resembles a Generalmusikdirektor. This Europe-trained Chinese musician is known for his transformative effect on China’s music scene. If he enjoys certain elusive connections to the higher echelons of the Party, there is no doubting he has used them for the greater good. ‘Most of us have filters, but he seems to say what is on his mind, and people listen,’ says Yo-Yo Ma when I ask how Yu has become so effective; ‘he was very clear about what needed to happen in China and he did it. It’s great to see someone work like that.’

You get a different view of Yu’s impact on China’s maturing orchestral infrastructure from the southern city of Guangzhou, a liberal, (relatively) internationalist port in the Pearl River Delta. ‘Ask me what you like – I hope we can speak as friends,’ the conductor says when I meet him in the five-storey office complex of the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble many claim he has made into one of the best in China since his arrival as music director 16 years ago. A lot flows from that conversation, but it’s one of Yu’s staff, Roger Shi, who reveals the scale of what is happening here in an idle moment sitting on the lawn outside. Right now, the GSO’s own youth orchestra is helping to train 200 conductors of other burgeoning youth ensembles from the region. They are helped through the stuff that you don’t learn about at conservatoires: rehearsal structure, publishing and copyright, sectional delegation. The implication is that at least 200 youth orchestras are operating in Guangdong Province alone (which accounts for just shy of eight per cent of China’s mainland population). ‘Well, it might not be that all of them are full symphony orchestras, but yes,’ Shi says. Either way, it’s a startling reflection of the acceleration of the country’s music life.

Scale is one thing. Aptitude another. My time in Guangzhou overlaps with the third annual Youth Music Culture Guangdong (YMCG), an academy convened by Yu with the full weight of the Party behind him. Beneath the bureaucratic title is a training course with a difference. A faculty formed by Yo-Yo Ma includes members of the Silk Road Ensemble and orchestral musicians from around the world, who mentor a cohort of young musicians towards an orchestral concert. But at least as much time is spent on improvised music, collaborative composition and non-musical communication. Most of the participants are Chinese, but not all. There is a Swiss research scientist who plays the violin and a Japanese trumpeter pursuing an MBA.

‘We are doing a few things here, but the main one is asking: what does a 21st-century musician need? What is music’s role in culture, society and humanity?’ says Ma, who is omnipresent over the course of the 11-day event and even takes his place at the back of the YMCG Symphony Orchestra’s cello section. His galvanising public lecture ‘Content, Communication, Reception’ proves a big draw.

Yo-Yo Ma

The omnipresent Yo-Yo Ma takes his place at the back of the cello section of the Youth Music Culture Guangdong Symphony Orchestra, of which he is artistic director

At the start of the week, I joined three groups of musicians who were thrown together and given a few days to prepare a non-notated piece based on a Chinese folk tune. In each case, their progress from hesitant ineptitude to joyous performance was revealing. After they presented the results in a marathon concert on the Saturday night, there was more Sibelius: the Fifth Symphony under conductor Michael Stern in a performance that answered with panache a lot of the work’s more elusive architectural questions.

The premise of YMCG is to open up accomplished Chinese musicians to international currents. On a grander scale, you might describe it as a process of persuading Chinese musicians to discover and nurture their own voice. ‘We are planting seeds which in the future will bring ideas, concepts, connections,’ Yu says. ‘This generation will do better than us.’ When conversation turns to increasingly frosty relations between China and the West, the conductor uses a musical metaphor: ‘People need to learn how to listen to one another, like chamber music players. China is big. Sometimes people from the north don’t even understand people from the south. Then there’s the rest of the world. But so many young people in China today are willing to learn music and to view it as an international language with which they can communicate.’

Ma’s presence here feels like a tacit acknowledgement that Chinese music education’s emphasis on rigour over expression (not to mention overbearing teacher hierarchy, a relic of the Soviet influence) needs loosening. ‘This is a different type of study, a new way of approaching music,’ a young student viola player, Qiyun Zhao, told me. ‘The improvising helps you to become defrozen. It can be overwhelming, to be asked to show something of yourself. But this environment allows you to.’ Many of the YMCG faculty members reported seeing able musicians discover that expression serves technique, not the other way round. ‘There is no learning the notes without thinking about why you’re playing them,’ said Brooklyn Rider cellist Michael Nicolas, one of the string mentors, between coaching sessions. ‘That’s the philosophy here.’

There was a telling guest at the final concert of the YMCG event. An American named Alexander Brose had made the journey down from the north-eastern city of Tianjin, where he is in the process of establishing Tianjin Juilliard School – an outpost of the famous New York conservatoire which is determined to capitalise on the reputation still enjoyed by Western institutions in the East.

For Brose, it was business; his visit was pressing enough to curtail my interview with Yu. But there is more to Western conservatoires’ interest in the East than the commercial benefits of education provision. German conservatoires offer places to Asian students free of fees, knowing that they enrich the learning environment and breathe oxygen into the country’s sprawling music life. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, Gramophone contributor and principal of the Royal Academy of Music in London, concurs: ‘My colleagues and I are always impressed at how quickly Chinese students respond to the styles and fashions thrown at them when they come to a sophisticated European city, and how quickly their personalities emerge. You open the windows, and they fly through them.’

While the number of Chinese students at the RAM has increased steadily over the last 15 years, it’s not always easy getting them to London; contact through a known teacher or masterclass visitor is a prerequisite. But it’s clear they travel westwards for the eclecticism of the opportunities they are offered – precisely the gaps in the local educational provision that the SOA and YMCG are beginning to fill back home, albeit on a small scale. Until their activities become more significant, the RAM and other similar conservatoires stand to benefit.

Those asking how quickly the rest of China’s orchestras might attain the same level of nuanced musicianship achieved by the SSO might well find the answers in these new approaches – an idea that holds particular interest for Freeman-Attwood. ‘In one sense, the Chinese don’t know how close they are to having a different dimension in their playing,’ he says of some of the Chinese ensembles he has heard. ‘However good they are, there are certain things they haven’t clocked – even if it’s incredibly exciting to hear an orchestra playing well but in the context of another tradition.’ With that in mind, is there room for an exchange of ideas in the other direction? ‘Yes. I yearn for the days when the UK doesn’t rest on its laurels but looks at China and recognises that they haven’t been doing this for very long, but by God they do it well – and we ask ourselves, “What can we learn?”’

We can learn a great deal. Certain facets of the SOA and YMCG programmes have not been fully explored by institutions in the West (improvisation, free performance, dialogue with ethnic music), and it’s not difficult to argue that as societies we are losing sight of the very idea of music as a noble discipline rather than an exploitable commodity. And while there are doubtless more long-term lessons to be learnt, we can soon afford the Chinese the dignity of simply hearing them at it. The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s first studio recording for DG is released later this year, and in the summer the orchestra embarks upon a tour of high-profile European and American festivals.

The repertoire on the recording, echoed on certain legs of the tour, reflects China’s historic links and border with Russia (Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances) as well as the flourishing of new Chinese music for symphony orchestra in the form of a new violin concerto by Qigang Chen, La joie de la souffrance (2016-17), played by none other than Maxim Vengerov.

The subject of Chinese music and Chinese orchestras is complicated by both migration and appropriation. Trautmann asserts that ‘eminent Chinese and Chinese-born composers are present in the concert hall and being represented by the large publishing houses’, but the most high profile of them are performed and commissioned mostly in the West and live there. It is the Western phenomenon of the orchestra, along with its associated composers, that has thus far captured the imagination of the Chinese. Yu is dismissive of traditional Chinese music poorly arranged for orchestra, and it’s clear that a home-grown, sophisticated composition scene is tied to the progress of those 80 orchestras.

But that might prove a useful political tool for the Chinese orchestral sector, internally as well as externally. Away from cosmopolitan Guangzhou and buzzing Shanghai, some music practitioners on the ground report a distinct shift in the attitude of Party officials towards Western culture since the prospect of a trade war with the US became more real, and even as audiences for orchestral music swell. In a parallel conversation, Wang at the SSO draws attention to the tokenism demonstrated by Western composers trying to ‘do’ China, from Puccini to Damon Albarn. ‘There is a lot more sophistication in our musical language than this stereotyped view would suggest,’ he says. Trautmann, who attended Juilliard with the composer Ruo Huang, reinforces the point and outlines plans for the SSO to record Xiaogang Ye’s setting of the same Chinese poems that form the basis of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

If the last two decades have proved anything, it’s that China’s arts bosses are nothing if not politically savvy. As the country’s orchestras go from strength to strength, might one solution to the regime’s growing hostility towards Western cultural imports be the deeper exploration of China’s own voices? With so much talent around, that process could bear rich fruits. When you consider the outward-looking nationalism that delivered some of the great European masterpieces of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – just as those countries found their feet economically – the prospect of history repeating itself might mean it’s not just musicians trained in China who will be filling the world’s concert halls a century from now, but also music written there.

This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Gramophone. To explore our latest subscription offers, please visit:

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