Stern contestants are made to play Butterfly Lovers concerto

Stern contestants are made to play Butterfly Lovers concerto


norman lebrecht

August 26, 2016

The 18 semi-finalists in the new Shanghai Isaac Stern Competition are being required to play the Butterfly Lovers concerto, a work that obtained vast local popularity in the late 1970s after the end of the Cultural Revolution.

Shanghai Daily reports that ‘It is the first time that a Chinese work has been listed on the designated program of an international competition, according to Yu Long, director of the Competition Committee.’

That’s as may be, but it’s hardly a work to demonstrate fine points of interpretation and technique at senior competition level.

Or is it?

butterfly lovers


  • boringfileclerk says:

    Tonality is dead, and has been for a while. Professional competitions should require all contestants to play Boulez’s Anthèmes 2. It is the only work in the violin repertoire still worth playing these days.

  • Matt says:

    I might direct you to’s blog on this very topic today…

    It’s just one of many works required for this year’s Isaac Stern. Read more about the repertoire at:

    • Milka says:

      Why is it to acquaint us with the absurd banality of the 18 Niles observations and comments. This gets worse and worse .

  • Milka says:

    To be forced to play dreadful Butterfly Lovers concerto shows that the competition
    is a farce .The work is a mish mash of almost every concerto ever written .That it
    was a great favourite for many spoke to the general ignorance of the publics’
    understanding of western music .The way it was written should cause any respectable
    violinist to avoid it like the plague . Yes many name players played it in China ,but again people do many strange things for a buck .If Mr. Long suggested the work he should
    be ashamed of himself .

  • V.Lind says:

    GIl Shaham saw fit to record it? Hmmmm…

  • Dan P. says:

    It’s not something interests me but is it any worse than, say, “The Lark Ascending” or the Meditation from “Thais?” or lots of other crap that violinists play and record all the time. Besides, it’s their competition so isn’t their right to require any piece they want, no? It’s pretty common practice.

    • Milka says:

      It is interesting you mention Lark Ascending, listen learn & fill in the rest ………..
      This Mae Butterfly version with picture accompaniment tells you much about the work
      and audience to whom it is geared who think music is about pictures .One suspects its forced inclusion is about national pride , here we have a competition, and not to have a
      representative work by a native composer of the host nation throwing the party is embarrassing. Mr.Long should know that the work is an inferior pastiche and has for all its local popularity very little chance of ever becoming a standard work on the international concert stage ,he thinks making it mandatory will solve the issue , it will not
      being second rate movie music at best .Yes Mr. Long and company have every right in
      selecting the works to be performed it is deplorable that he picks this second rate
      Butterfly nonsense .It speaks to his limited knowledge of the violin and its history .

      • Nick says:

        Mr. Long is a political animal who happens to have great connections and thus jobs which others should have. I have heard the Butterfly Lovers concerto on several occasions. Quite pleasant easy listening but should be nowhere near a competition. Its various CDs have sold many millions – but I expect almost exclusively in greater China. Mr. Long is playing to his own particular gallery with its inclusion.

    • Olassus says:

      How could you equate Massenet and Vaughan Williams with … well, who exactly?

      • Dan P. says:

        If I recall correctly, when it first appeared on recording in the West in the 60s, it was said to be written by a couple of composers. As for equating or not equating who with whom, that’s for each individual to figure out for themselves.

    • David Osborne says:

      The Lark Ascending and Thaïs Meditation are crap. Thanks for clearing that up for the many millions of unfortunates who adore them. I’m in awe of your intelligence and refined taste.

      • Dan P. says:

        Why do you feel the need to be so nasty just because I’m not a fan of Massenet? Am I not entitled to have and express my own opinion without provoking snarky comments? And why would everyone have to admire the same music anyway? I’ve always liked an exchange of opinion with my friends with whom I disagree on things like this – and we have great fun arguing and laughing about it without feeling defensive and lashing out as you do. I think you need to lighten up or you won’t have any friends.

        • David Osborne says:

          Bizarre to say the least. Can you perhaps comprehend the difference between saying you’re not personally a fan of something, and declaring in a public forum that said something is ‘crap’. Massenet to one side for the moment, The Lark Ascending’ is an absolutely indisputable early 20th century masterpiece. If you think you can make such a declaration and not have someone bite your head for it you need to get real. And perhaps develop a thicker skin.

          • Dan P. says:

            If someone states a position on something it’s obvious that it’s their opinion no matter how they frame it, unless it’s a matter of fact. Just like when you just said “The Lark Ascending’ is an absolutely indisputable early 20th century masterpiece.” I would dispute that, but that’s perfectly fine – it’s your opinion. You’re entitled to it. I see no reason to attack you, question your intelligence or motives. One can disagree without being disagreeable.

            I bring this up not because I have a thin skin (I’ve been around for seven decades plus and my skin is VERY thick at this point, believe me) but to ask why a number of people on this blog feel the need to be so nasty when they disagree? What exactly do they get out of it?

  • Cyril Blair says:

    Embarrassing. No more appropriate for a competition than ‘Signal Before War.’

  • Ppellay says:

    To redress the balance, this should be played after every performance of that syrupy confection:

    • David Osborne says:

      Because it’s so clever and original.

      • Ppellay says:

        No, because the instrument needs to be put out of its misery.

        • David Osborne says:

          When Pete Townsend and Jimi Hendrix did it 40 years ago at least they had the integrity to destroy an instrument of some value, making it perhaps a statement about materialism (I still think it’s bloody silly). The instrument you see in this clip is the cheapest and nastiest of student models demonstrating well, really nothing much apart from the sheer affectation of the… What do we call this guy anyway? Certainly not composer or performer. Let’s call him attention seeker…

  • Milka says:

    If you can get past the Stern violin jury list without laughing you come down to the
    Human Spirit Award which will really set one going…….
    The award is to be given out by the founder of this
    contrived competition seemingly with the presence of the Stern family and the ever
    available publicity hound Yo Yo Ma .It is indeed a clever move this Human Spirit Award
    to attract well known names . Might one suggest that the Isaac Stern competition “Human Spirit Award be given to the gentleman holding the shopping bag standing in front of an army tank and stopping the mighty Chinese Army in its tracks in a place named Tiananem Sq. .It might very well be a posthumous award ,but never the less it lives .Might the Stern family and the ever present Ma stear the award in that direction .
    It would truly honor Isaac Stern as well as the event itself .

  • esfir ross says:

    I perform piano transcription of J.Massenet “Meditation” made skillful by composer all over the world. Public love it and I’m in trans performing it. Divine piece.

  • Eric says:

    Never mind if it’s derivative or not. There is no mention of the two composers of this piece anywhere at all, nor on the CD cover. Seems a bit unfair. Presumably they are happy to be acknowledged as the writers?

    • Dan P. says:

      According to the “all knowing” Wlikipedia, the Butterfly Lovers Concerto was composed by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang, but it also notes that “He Zhanhao is more widely credited for the composition of the concerto. However, his main contribution was the famous opening theme while most of the development was in fact written by Chen Gang. This was revealed in an exclusive interview with the latter.”

      I didn’t realize that the opening theme was “famous.”

      I seem to remember in the late 60s that when the first pirated recording from China surfaced in the US on the Everest Label there was also another group composition on the disc (I think a piano concerto) that was claimed to have been written by four composers. I have no idea how they pooled their efforts on that one.

      • Eric says:

        That would have been the Yellow River Piano Concerto, I think.

        • Dan P. says:

          That’s it! I remember wondering at the time just how more than one person would compose a single piece of music. Does one person write the first phrase, and the second person continues it and so forth? Or does each composer write a phrase and then they vote on the best? The possibilities of writing derivative music are endless, of course. In the end, it all sounds like movie music of a certain kind. Perhaps they had a few drinks in them – that would have made it fun at least.

      • Milka says:

        It’s still crap no matter how many had their hand in the work .

        • Milu says:

          Bartok, arguably the greatest 20th century composer ( and this is according to Sibelius and Menuhin) used folk tunes in his violin compositions. Even Milka’s favourite Kreisler and his stellar contemporaries weren’t averse to a bit of schmaltz. The Butterfly was written by two music students, and as such wasn’t that much worse than the early works by some of the famous composers. The two recordings shown of the ‘Butterfly’ aren’t the best. Lu Siqing’s rendition ( several on youtube) raises it to a different level. (Lu btw won the Paganini competition in 1987.) Here’s at 21.00, , Lu is accompanied by one of the composers, Chen Gang, who considered Lu the best interpreter of the Butterfly. Perhaps the challenge for the contestants was to see whom among them was able to make a ‘chinese’ silk purse out of sow’s ear.

  • Liang Zhu says:

    How dare people on this thread speak of Butterfly Lovers like that. This is anti-siniticism at its core. Liang Zhu is the GREATEST violin concerto of all times, greater than all the European war horses and it is deeply rooted in the Chinese people. Insulting this concerto is insulting the Chinese people.