How China is taking over the musical future

How China is taking over the musical future


norman lebrecht

November 24, 2017

From my piece in the Spectator today:

… And this is where the Chinese revolution comes close to home. Shanghai grads have been winning seats in orchestras across the US and Europe. The next wave of Chinese players will be coming from our own colleges, royal and ancient and underused.

Every ranking music conservatory is now marketing in China, peddling its pedigree for dear life…

Read on here.



  • John Borstlap says:

    This development throws-up interesting questions about cultural identity, and why in the West more and more people loose interest in their own family jewels.

    My impression is that it has to do with the mythology around the notion of ‘modernity’, which is dependent upon context and history. For Chinese, being developed and modern may mean: absorbing Western ideas and culture; for Westerners, it seems to be that increasingly, ‘the past’ including all its achievements, is experienced as a burden better to get rid of in the spurt towards Utopia, whatever that may mean. It looks like the West is suffering from a self-inflicted collective dementia: organized forgetfulness, to remove identity and history (closely connected) and to become ‘something new’.

    Ironically, for the Chinese Western classical music appears to be new, while in the West the same repertoire is considered ‘old’ and exhausted and better be forgotten. What would happen in China wheh they catch-up with the idea that classical music is in fact, old? Would they want to forget it too by that time?

    • Sue says:

      I think Europeans can ‘thank’ postmodernism for much antipathy towards western art music. In an ideology which espouses no one thing is better than anything else (pass me the bucket, please) across all the arts. Ergo, it is not surprising that Duchamp’s Urinal is considered equivalent to Rembrandt’s “Night Watch”. Reminiscent of the old soviet project.

      I doooon’t think so!!!!

  • Nick says:

    Just as the developing Japan and much later South Korea embraced western values, values which included a desire to understand and enjoy western classical music, the same was all but bound to happen as China emerged from the devastation of the Cultural Revolution little more than 40 years ago. As pointed out in NL’s Spectator article, the one-child policy helped this process. The new and fast emerging middle class wanted the best education for their kids, for those kids would still have to look after them in their old age. An interest in western music was seen as a desirable part of that education.

    Chinese policy makers had also witnessed the founding of professional symphony orchestras employing many Chinese musicians in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taipei during the 1970s and 80s. Thus individual desires and government policy met in a rather unique marriage. Even before Yundi Li won the Chopin Competition and emerged into superstardom in his native land, the Chinese factories making pianos, violins and other instruments were having difficulty meeting demand. Today around 80% of the world’s pianos are made in China! I believe even Yo-Yo Ma sometimes plays on a Chinese-made cello.

    At the same time, the central and local governments commenced a major programme constructing concert and other performance venues all over the country. Equally importantly, government funding was obtained to establish new orchestras and expand existing ones.

    Perhaps there was another less obvious event which helped encourage the development of western music. When Kissinger made his second secret visit to Beijing to prepare the way for Nixon’s landmark trip in February 1972, Premier Chou En-lai summoned Li De-lun, the Music Director of the Central Philharmonic. Chou wished to arrange a concert for Kissinger. As Li later explained, Chou said to him, “Kissinger is German. You should perform Beethoven for him.” Thus the Pastoral Symphony played a role in the normalising of relations between the two countries!

    Flippancy aside, I don’t agree with John Borstlap’s implication that Chinese orchestras stick to tried and true repertoire. Yes, much of it is, but orchestras also give a lot of premieres of works never before heard in the country. The Beijing Music Festival hosted the country’s first-ever Ring cycle as far back as 2005, the production from the Staatstheater Nurnburg. It is now in the middle of a second cycle, this time a co-production with the Salzburg Easter Festival. The Shanghai Symphony’s upcoming programmes include Boeildieu’s Harp Concerto, Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” Symphony and Serenade for Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion, Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin, Roussel’s 3rd Symphony, Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony and Tan Dun’s Violin Concerto. Hardly standard repertoire!

    As for catching up, it’s not going to happen in our lifetimes or those of our children and grandchildren. The country is too vast and the interest is growing exponentially.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I thought that the Ring was pretty standard. (Jaap van Zweden just finished a highly successful Walküre in Bejing with the Hong Kong Phil: )

      My point was that what in China sounds new, sounds old in the West, and while the Bernstein and Roussel etc. are not much standard in the West, they are old all the same. Tan Dun is different indeed…. hopefully in China there will be more taste for variety and unusual repertoire than the symphonic bunkers in Europe – exceptions not mentioned.

      But recently I spoke with a well-known German conductor, mr X who performs all over the world, and who had toured with orchestras in China, and his impression was that Chinese enthusiasm for Western classical music – especially ‘the classics’ – was skin-deep and consisted of rather liking its sound, than understanding it. I wonder how such thing could ever be researched, and to which extend this would be different from appreciation and understanding in the West. (I found that many staff working at Western symphony orchestras prefer sound over content, and I know there are quite a few players who are of the opinion that music IS merely sound and nothing more.)

      • Robert Holmén says:

        In college theory classes we were loftily informed that “music is organized sound.”

        I think that widely misses the mark but if academics are preaching that that’s all music is they shouldn’t be rueful that the non-academic listeners’ definition may be even less precise.

      • Frederick West says:

        JB – sometime, a few posts back, I let you know that I was going to try out some of the contemporary musics of today from a festival currently coming to a close in the north of England.
        I went earlier this week as there was a day of mostly free events which were all reasonably succinct. Out of five there were two which were really quite interesting, one of them I’d say was overwhelming.
        I’ll be positive first and deal with the better ones. ‘Harmonic Canon 1’ (world premiere) based around a specially made double-ended bell and performed by two very able and athletic percussionists. Granted, there was a gamelan influence at work here but the overall effect was satisfying and the 21’ length felt right. The one that caught my ear the most was ‘The Flagellation of Christ-after Caravaggio’ by a Moroccan composer, Languallat, for solo piano. A quite devastating assault on both ear and instrument demanding a fearsome technique. It was a real experience, minimalist in some ways and producing some stunning resonances and chordal patterns (I’ll get to whether it comes under sonic art later!).
        The rest was inconsequential, derivative or feebly theatrical twaddle quite honestly. A German group reviving pieces by Nemstov and Kampe from the late 70s, that just sounded like old school noise, followed by a ridiculous ensemble ‘performing’ on ‘children’s toys and homemade instruments (5 minutes of that was plenty. Things were looking up with a new work from Christopher Fox but I’m afraid that 16’ of a semi-gestural percussionist playing 6 gongs, half of which was electronically processed single overtones, just didn’t achieve anything remotely musical, it was certainly a waste of a trained percussionist and reduced the idea of minimalism to risible proportions.Finally, three piano works, usual serial stuff but the coup de grace was being invited outside to experience (sic) ‘the opening out of activity beyond the simply musical’. This masterpiece of fraud consisted of ‘any number of people walking in a large open place’, aimlessly wandering (despite there being apparent coordination required) – for 10 minutes. Thank heavens they missed out the exposition repeat…..
        Now, did I consider any of it musical? Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed the bells and the piano work and feel no shame that I did so. It was well-written for the forces required and had been prepared and performed with real dedication and utter conviction. At no point did I feel I was being hectored or lectured or dictated to, it was genuine and powerful and I’d definitely say it was Music. As for the rest, it made up over 60% of the days proceedings and made no impression whatsoever, believe me I tried! (I should now admit that I gave up after the ‘walk’ episode and retired to a very decent ale house).
        An interesting day, I’d certainly do it again, probably in the vain hope that there might be at least one treasurable nugget in there, it really was like panning for the tiniest fleet of gold dust.

        • John Borstlap says:

          A lively description of an interesting event. I think you were lucky to find some gold dust there, and of course everything depends upon what the programmer(s) are able to find. There is no ‘rule of thumb’ but often there seems to be only a ‘rule of dumb’, but on the other hand – with all aesthetic frameworks splintered and the field utterly diversified, a contemporary music festival is very hard to put on. This event sounds as having been much more interesting than the usual fare at, for instance, the central European hub:

          But one will never find works that courageously revive real music on such festivals:


          Why not? Because programmers think that for a ‘modern music festival’, EVERYTHING is allowed, it cannot be too crazy or outrageous, but over progressive music revival hangs the taboo of being ‘not of this time’, while they should be happy that part of contemporary production is true music again. In fact, the average sound of ‘contemporary music’ as presented at modern music festivals is hopelessly outdated sixties stuff, as the crank at Donaueschingen clearly demonstrates, as if John Cage has been fixed as ‘new music’ for ever and eternity.

        • Graeme Hall says:

          Obviously you were at Huddersfield where I have also been most of the last week or so. An excellent Festival – even if Huddersfield will never be European Capital of Culture….

          But to your post, I would have thought that 2 out of 5 was a pretty good hit ratio for such an event, I never understand why people expect/hope every piece of new music to be wonderful. The odds of that happening are slim. In any era the vast majority of music is mediocre, it’s just that with contemporary music time hasn’t had the opportunity yet to filter the wheat from the chaff.

          I bet there was lots of derivative rubbish written in Mozart’s day, we just thankfully never get to hear it. (I shall now ait for JB to correct me)

          • John Borstlap says:

            You don’t have to ait for ‘corrections’ since what you say is already correct. I would add, that what counts as ‘derivative’ gives that impression because the music is lacking personality, fantasy, invention, expression (of whatever kind), and that has nothing to do with the musical idiom. There has never been a composer who was as derivative as Mozart but he did incredible things with the material. A performance culture almost exclusively consisting of works which have stood the test of time creates entirely unrealistic expectations indeed….. but at new music festivals, certain expectations are wholeheartedly fulfilled:


          • Frederick West says:

            I’m rather pleased that my free day came up with a decent quota, I wasn’t expecting anything remotely interesting and might even claim some disappointment that I didn’t have more pseudo-theatrical pieces to be baffled by. In some ways I came away feeling short changed, maybe they don’t have that radical edge these days (I’m sure this last point can be easily disproved).
            Having studied there during the very first festival in 1978 it was a little nostalgic but I really can’t take offence at your point about it’s culture. I still rather like the grimness if the place and, true to form, it drizzled most of the day, enveloping the town in a comforting gloom.

        • Graeme Hall says:

          Oh I wasn’t having a go at Huddersfield and culture, just intending a little joke with respect to the EU’s recent statements.

      • Nick says:

        JvZ’s Ring comes to its conclusion in January with Gotterdammerung. I assume it will be out on Naxos pretty soon thereafter. But I suggest it’s not quite fair to compare repertoire in Hong Kong with China, even though I believe the Hong Kong Phil has never before programmed any Wagner opera apart from Tristan Act 2 a very long time ago.

        From my observation, within years of its becoming professional the Hong Kong audience was made up partly of knowledgeable (musically) expatriates and many Chinese, at east some of whom I think would have been educated in the west. So from its relatively early days it had an audience generally better versed in the classical repertoire than the vast numbers now attending concerts in China. On one of my early visits I recall Thea Musgrave conducting her Horn Concerto with Barry Tuckwell as soloist and the audience was entranced.

        I suspect your German conductor is correct in saying that in China there is presently no deep understanding of western classical music beyond its overall sound. Frankly, I think the same is virtually true of Japanese audiences – generally speaking. Of course, there will always be enthusiasts for whom concerts are much more than pleasant diversions but not nearly as many as in a western audience. Still, the fact that ever increasing audiences are attending ever increasing concerts is surely to be applauded and encouraged.

      • Fan says:

        Mr. Borstlap, to think the entire Chinese population has a unified and unchanging response to music, Western or non-Western, is ridiculous. Such “they versus we” group mentality can easily lead to silly conclusions – see Mr. or Mrs. Pianofortissimo’s comment below for instance.

        • Nelson Curtis says:

          “They” indeed. Generalizations will never do. And what’s so great about “our” (whether it be UK, US, Russia or Europe) understanding and absorption of history, musical or otherwise? Until the ME ME ME era of clutching on to the dying embers of what careers can be made in classical music via cheap marketing ploys and hysterical attempts to pander to whatever is considered the tastes of the next generation of audiences, I don’t think any of us can cast aspersions toward any country, demographic or ethnic group, either as performers or audiences!

          • John Borstlap says:

            No, but there often is something like a cultural climate. A forest is a collection of individual trees, but somehow they form a forest together.

  • sue says:

    I can only feel this is a positive development. Art music in perpetuity in the hands of the teeming millions of Asia while Europeans don’t respect or want it any more in significant numbers.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      I remember well that in 1970 (I was very young), the year of the Beethoven bicentenary commemorations, I read in a newspaper that the number of people “consuming regularly” Beethoven’s music during his lifetime, that is buying regularly his scores, playing regularly his music and going to concerts of his music in preference to other entertainment or cultural activities, was about 200, most of them living in Vienna. That number, 200, comes back to my mind every time I hear about how few people listen to Classical Music. The only other reference I know about the 200 Beethoven fans was by Karlheinz Stockhausen, who compared Beethoven’s 200 fans with hans 20,000 fans that would buy any recording or go to ant concert of his music at an affordable distance.

  • Sue says:

    The Chinese wouldn’t be idiotic enough to buy into this cultural garbage:

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      They have produced their own garbage, aka “cultural” revolution (by the way much valued by Foucault & Co.).

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    The Chinese, Japanese, and other Asians studying Western Classical Music have a great advantage over Europeans who would try to play Gagaku or other “Classical” Asian Music: Western Classical Music is written down in scores. Their disadvantage is that they still cannot express what is not written in the score the way Westerners do, and probably they do not listen to the music the way we do – just listen to Lang Lang playing Chopin and you see (hear) the point.

    The next generation? Chi vive vedrà.

  • TG Wilson says:

    I doubt music in China would appeal to the Western ear. I should know being an ENT consultant.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Very interesting. Can you please develop further your comment, or provide a reference or link?

    • Nick says:

      Does TG Wilson refer to the various forms of Chinese opera or western classical opera? Certainly the vocal technique required for Chinese opera sounds very different. But the growing number of Chinese singers taking part in productions in western opera houses illustrates how there can be little difference between Chinese, Japanese, Korean and western singing techniquea as far as western opera is concerned.

      A long time ago – around 1985 – a friend gave me a tape of a mezzo singing, amongst others, “Non piu mesta”. He asked me to identify her nationality. The nature of the singer’s voice production, the excellence of the coloratura and the Italian persuaded me to say “Italian”. She was Chinese, had trained in China and had just won a vocal competition in Europe.