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Home » Modern Voices » Chinese Musicians Today

Chinese Musicians in the Western Classical Tradition

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Lang Lang discusses the role of young Chinese musicians in music today.

Lang Lang interview © 2009 The Carnegie Hall Corporation. Footage of Lang Lang in China from the film “Dragon Songs” (Dir. Benedict Mirow), used courtesy of NIGHTFROG Productions

“I feel very lucky that I’m able to share my music with other people,” says cellist Wang Jian, whose engaging performance for Isaac Stern in the final segment of the Oscar-winning film From Mao to Mozart at age 10 turned out to be the first step toward his future concert career. “If you look at the generation before me during the Cultural Revolution, we had great artists,” he adds, “but they had no possibilities of doing what I do.”

Likewise, music students in China today have opportunities their parents had never dreamed of, from greater ease in travel to an extraordinary flowering of performances at home. Even before Beijing’s National Center for Performing Arts raised the bar dramatically last year, hardly a week went by without a distinguished musician stopping through Beijing and Shanghai, their tours usually including a visit to the major educational institutions. To a degree unthinkable during Stern’s groundbreaking outreach tour 30 years ago, Chinese music students now have the world coming to them.

Perhaps more relevant to the younger generation has been the number of Chinese musicians trained abroad who have returned to China to teach. “Students today know so much more than I did at their age,” says US–trained violinist Vera Tsu, another participant in Stern’s pioneering master classes in her youth and now a professor at the Central Conservatory of Music. “They see more, and they’re free to go anywhere, unlike in my time.”

Young people everywhere hear how much harder it was for their elders, but China offers a particularly arresting example, with today’s students encouraged to do the very things that often landed their grandparents in prison. But how many times can a youngster hear about having to copy musical scores by hand—often from memory—when they now have the internet at their fingertips? Or about shuttering the windows before playing Mozart, now that Western music studies are high on the country’s educational agenda?

China is often cited as the last remaining growth market for classical music, which is true precisely because the country still has so far to grow. Most of China’s new concert halls and opera houses are still on the prosperous east coast; the US, of all places, realizes how national dynamics can change once regional capitals, newly flush with cash, start claiming their share as well. For all the attention given to the conservatories in Shanghai and Beijing, it is the Chengdu Conservatory in Sichuan province—with nearly 15,000 hungry music students who will soon be looking for new opportunities—that indicates the wave of the future.

Like Japan and Korea in earlier decades, China has already changed classical music’s global demographics. The sheer size of the country, however, is bound to change the game altogether. Inspired by a growing number of international figures like Tan Dun and Yundi Li, China’s 80 million music students have set out to conquer the world, but their biggest revolution will surely be at home. Just as The Economist has dubbed the effects of China’s one-child policy as “one mouth, six pockets” (with each youngster supported by doting parents and two sets of grandparents), the future of classical music in China is “one player, six tickets.”

“The Chinese people have known about this music for some time,” says Wang Jian. “They’ve always liked and appreciated it. But they’ve always thought about it as someone else’s. It wasn’t their music to criticize, or to make their own. This is what Chinese musicians can contribute. If enough people hear us play and say, ‘they look like us,’ we can bring down that wall.”

© 2001–2009 Carnegie Hall Corporation

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