Exclusive: China’s chief conductor snags another orchestra

Exclusive: China’s chief conductor snags another orchestra


norman lebrecht

January 14, 2015

Yu Long is music director of the China Philharmonic Orchestra, the Shanghai Symphony and the Guangzhou Symphony, as well as being artistic director of Beijing Music Festival, Music in the Summer Festival and the Shanghai Symphony’s Orchestra Academy.

As of today, he is also principal guest conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic.

You read it here first.

yu long hk

The other guy is Jaap Van Zweden, Hong Kong’s music director.

yu long van zweeden



  • Graeme Hall says:

    A very sad day for the Hong Kong Phil.

  • Nick says:

    Very sad, indeed! A quite extraordinary appointment! This smacks of politics. I wonder if van Zweden knowns what he has agreed to.

  • Rgiarola says:

    Mr. Lebrecht, I think you need to update you book “The Maestro Myth”. There are things happening on 2015, that even God wasn’t able to think about some years ago.

    • sdReader says:

      Such as?

      • Rgiarola says:

        Before Mr. Long, Do you know about a conductor in charge of 4 orchestras, 2 festivals, plus some principal guest conducting at the same time? I’m not even talk about the political issue around it. Does Mr. Long didn’t have time to proper work as MD or even just conductor, or the rest of his colleagues are just lazy?

        • sdReader says:

          But these orchestras are not so important and probably give only 3 or 4 concerts each during the course of a year. One conductor can handle that. I don’t know about the laziness of other Chinese maestros and therefore cannot respond about that thought.

          • Graeme Hall says:

            I think you’ll find they give far more than that, though not necessarily with Yu Long.

            He is, however, very much the Gergiev of China, only without Gergiev’s talents (such as they are). He holds all those positions due to his political connections.

            Ironically, in the past he has been very critical of the HKPO, considering them to be inferior to his mainland bands – which is nonsense to anbody who has followed the HKPO through the Atherton and de Waart years (I haven’t heard them so much recently).

            What saddens me most is the creeping “mainlandisation” (horrible term, but it expresses what I mean) of the HKPO as if it is just another Chinese orchestra and not the independent, international orchestra that it has been.

          • Nick says:

            SDReader is certainly wrong in this case. In the 2013/14 season, the 100-member Shanghai Symphony alone gave 19 different programmes between February 9 and June 28. Its guest conductors in that period included Ashkenazy, Dutoit, Mehta, de Waart, Vänskä, Tan Dun and Penderecki conducting his own works. Earlier, that season had seen Marriner, Paavo Järvi, Bělohlávek and Bychkov on its podium Not many orchestras can boast such impressive line-ups. In its tours it has appeared in Carnegie Hall, the Berlin Philharmonie and the Musikverein amongst others.

            The China Philharmonic based in Beijing has even more full-time members and appeared at the 2014 London Prom concerts.

            So the issue is certainly not the importance or quality of these Chinese orchestras whose standards can be hugely impressive. It is more the fact that one conductor controls the artistic side of the three major orchestras in the three major cities in China, as well as the Shanghai Summer Music Festival and the Beijing Music Festival in the fall. Presumably the reference to the fourth orchestra is the excellent Hong Kong Philharmonic, but he is merely Principal Guest Conductor and so will probably be conducting not more than 5 weeks of concerts a season.

            To be fair, he founded both the Beijing Music Festival and later the China Philharmonic, although there can be little doubt his very impressive familial political connections helped obtain the substantial amount of cash required. On the other hand, there was a near riot amongst the membership of the Shanghai Symphony when his appointment to that orchestra was announced. No doubt their concerns were somewhat eased in the knowledge that funding would be found to engage conductors and artists of the calibre of those I list above – as well as Riccardo Muti who has conducted them at least twice.

            As Peter notes, Long Yu has held no titled position outside China, unlike his older Shanghai contemporary Muhai Tang whom many regard as the better conductor by quite a margin. Tang should have been a shoo-in for the Hong Kong Philharmonic post after David Atherton’s tenure as he was particularly well regarded by the musicians. Instead the local political establishment manoevered the appointment of an Hong Kong born eye surgeon cum conductor whose tenure was a disaster. Edo de Waart rescued the orchestra and he and Jaap van Zweden have raised the orchestra’s standards to extraordinary heights.

            I suppose having Long Yu on the podium for just a few weeks will hardly do much damage. But the orchestra was surely crying out for a far more inspirational conductor in that position who could concentrate on repertoire less favoured by van Zweden. Unfortunately the Hong Kong Philharmonic has always been controlled by the politicians. It certainly seems this is another occasion when political considerations have overtaken musical ones.

          • sdReader says:

            It’s true. I don’t know. My sense is that in East Asia all the top orchestras are Japanese and Korean (I’ve heard 15 to 18 of them, live, in their home halls), with the Hong Kong Philharmonic as an exception. As everyone here knows, it takes years to build and refine the string body. China is just starting, right?

          • sdReader says:


            On reading Nick more closely, it is clear that the Shanghai orchestra is well established, and perhaps the “China Philharmonic” too, although its name is poorly chosen (imagine “Germany Symphony Orchestra”).

            If the scale of operations of these orchestras and the mentioned festivals is as Nick describes, then Mr. Yu starts to look like a money-connected charlatan:

            — he lacks the integrity to educate the appointing bureaucrats about the nature of a conductor’s work, specifically the need to build relationships with the musicians;

            — he spreads himself so thin that he cannot possibly do any of the jobs well.

            Not for the first time, a founder turns out to be more of an opportunist than a deep artistic talent. But I do give him credit for coping well with being mugged in New York!

            My guess is he will soon be Long forgotten.

  • Peter says:

    I think what’s most interesting is he hasn’t held any positions outside China. That tells me everything I need to know.

  • Rgiarola says:

    Perhaps on the new edition 2015, Mr. lebrecht can call the new chapter as “The Manchurian Candidate”


  • NYMike says:

    He conducts his first NYPO regular season concert next week, probably a quid-pro-quo arrangement for the Phil’s China residency. Here’s his bio from the NYPO website


  • Graeme Hall says:

    A question for Nick since you have a lot of knowledge:

    Do you know that happened between the HKPO and Wing-sie Yip? Why did she never conduct them again after Atherton left? I have always thought that she is a terrific conductor: Great communicator, committment to developing the Sinfonietta, new music.

    • Parker says:


      That one’s pretty easy….Wing-Sie is not a great conductor. Having played under her many times, I found her rehearsal skills to be quite baffling and very inconsistent. Also, there are many stories of her poor preparation with the HKPO, and most members of the Sinfonietta do not respect her.

      • Nick says:

        I defer to Parker’s knowledge since mine of that period is somewhat sketchy.

        Whilst no guarantee of future excellence, like Ozawa, Mácal and López-Cobos Ms.Yip had won the Besançon Competition before moving back to Hong Kong from her Juilliard studies. I found her baton technique wonderfully fluid but I never played under her. Rumour had it that she did not particularly like working under Atherton who was a controversial choice as MD having never once having conducted the orchestra before his appointment! But she had got married and was starting a family and so was content to stay. When Samuel Wong was inexplicably appointed to succeed Atherton, a conductor with minimal experience compared to Yip’s, I am sure she knew there was no way of their working together and left.

        Somewhat ironically, given the subject of this thread, she was MD of the Guangzhou Symphony from 1997 – 2003. Her successor was – the controversial Long Yu.

  • Nick says:

    Yesterday’s online edition of the South China Morning Post claims the Principal Guest Conductor appointment “received unanimous approval from both the orchestra’s board and the players’ artistic committee.”

    It continued, “Jaap van Zweden, the Philharmonic’s music director since 2012, said he had eyed Yu for two years because he regarded the Shanghai musician as ‘a great conductor'”. Given van Zweden’s own incredibly hectic schedule, one suspects that he spent about as much time eying Long Yu as Long Yu spends with each of his orchestras!

    The report adds that in Hong Kong he will conduct only 3 or 4 programmes per year. Which of course makes one wonder: with so few concerts, why bother with giving him the title unless it is all wrapped up in politics?

  • Nick says:

    Referring to SDReader’s comment about the age of Chinese Orchestras, depending on how you look at history China’s are either relatively old or relatively new! The origins of the Shanghai Symphony go back to 1879 – two years before the founding of the Boston Symphony! However, the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s all but destroyed its symphony orchestras, relegating the old Central Philharmonic, for example, to rehearsing just a tiny number of officially approved Chinese works in a virtual pigsty. So to all intents and purposes, the country’s orchestras really started afresh after the 1970s. Several also adopted new names.

    As the New York Times pointed out when the Shanghai Symphony performed in New York in 2009, in China “politics often matters as much as artistic merit.” Yu Long’s family connections are said to include a former Vice Premier, Wu Yi, the lady who negotiated China’s entry into the World Trade Orchestration and often called “The Iron Lady of China” in China’s media. He got early backing from Deng Xiao-ping’s daughter, Deng Rong. He was also backed by the Poly Group, a state-controlled conglomerate with strong ties to the military and now with increasingly strong ties to the cultural industry.

    As far as quality is concerned, I cannot imagine any orchestra like Shanghai’s being able to line up Muti, Dutoit and the host of other conductors I listed earlier unless the ensemble is very good indeed. The real questions I suppose are – how much do Long Yu’s orchestras owe to his direction, how much to politics, how much to the fact that his orchestras pay better and can attract the top musicians, and how much to the large number of major guest conductors they can attract each season?

  • Stravinsky says:

    The difference between God and a conductor : God knows he’s no conductor.

  • Peter Shi says:

    I found there is no mentioning of this news in HK Phil’s Facebook, Twitter or Sina Weibo feeds, only an entry in the “Press” section of the orchestra’s website – which can be hard to find.