Classical: New stars rising in the East

Sight Readings: In China, proscribed classical music was nurtured in secret. Now a new generation is openly embracing it
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IS CLASSICAL music taking off in China? The Beijing Turandot, the new Shanghai opera house, the queues to hear Carreras and Pavarotti suggest that opera certainly is. More significantly, a piano is now the status-symbol for every pampered Chinese child.

For a land where Western music was not long ago calibrated in purely negative terms - Debussy being "useless", Schumann "unhealthily introspective", and Beethoven at best "harmless" - this marks a dramatic change.

According to Maestro Chen Zuohuang, due to conduct the China National Symphony Orchestra at the South Bank on Tuesday, this middle-class fad betokens a big audience for the future. He says: "What strikes me when we tour the Chinese provinces is how hungry people are for classical music.

"Recently we gave a concert in Nanchung - the first classical concert in that city's history - and by the time we arrived every pump attendant knew about us. And it didn't feel like a normal concert: it was from the heart, to the heart."

But his orchestra is a rarity, for China has just 20 to serve a population comprising 20 per cent of the human race. And China's classical musicians are still grappling with the burden of the past, as I recently found in Peking. Officially denied access to the conservatoire - no reason was given - I got in by the back door thanks to an obliging musical mafia.

The students were eager and hopeful as students always are, but their teachers had the wariness of battle-scarred survivors. They had acquired their art in secret, and often in silence, through superhuman tenacity. When I asked Yang Hongnian, the professor of choral studies, how he coped with 10 years' labour in the fields, he triumphantly thrust a book into my hands: The Art of Choral Training, which he had written during the long nights of exile.

His son Li, interpreting for him, explained that those years made him feel he must now work twice as hard, to make up for lost time. Moreover, Li himself was an omen: having just finished his conducting studies in Germany, he was now planning a career back home. He said: "I have returned as have many of my friends, because we all believe in the future of classical music in China."

In the warren of practice-rooms at the conservatoire I met one of the standard-bearers of that future: Jiang Guang, the ebullient young mezzo who two years ago was voted Cardiff Singer of the World. The way things are going, Chinese virtuosi may soon be ousting their Japanese counterparts from the big competitions. But here Chen Zuohuang sounds a warning note: "China is very efficient at producing soloists who are technically good, but it is not yet producing many real masters. For that you need plenty of opportunity to hear and to be heard, to read a lot, and think a lot. The necessary culture takes time to develop."

This question of culture runs deep, as professor Ning Liu of Tsinghua University explained to me. "While we have spent centuries under different forms of feudalism, you Westerners have been taught to regard yourselves - all of you, rich or poor - as emperors. And though that is a political idea, it also holds for music. When we imitate Western musicians in Beethoven and Mozart, we can feel our self-esteem rising." No wonder Mao proscribed such seditious stuff.

One should not underestimate the vertiginousness of this leap across the cultures. One who has managed it is the violinist Xue Wei, who after winning a string of competitions became the youngest-ever violin professor at the Royal Academy of Music. Xue Wei began playing professionally at nine - in Hunan's Peking Opera, but his adolescence exactly mirrors that of his colleagues in Peking, practising in secret, devouring the Romantics like forbidden fruit. Now, however, he regularly plays in China.

He chooses his repertoire with care, having found that his audiences connect most readily with Baroque and Romantic music, but he is struck by their increasing knowledgeability. "Playing in Russia has become a terrible experience, but every time I go back to China I feel energised and full of hope."

And also flattered. He hands me a couple of photographs of himself, looming from hoardings by Chinese motorways: yes, the full pop-star treatment.

As we talk, his father walks in. He is here on holiday from teaching the flute in Hunan. Xue pere seems a genial man, not haunted as my Peking informants were. How, I ask, did he come through the Cultural Revolution so unscathed? He laughs, and his son translates. "`I never make trouble.' No, my father is a careful man. He keeps his mouth shut, and thinks. The older generation all have this habit, because they have seen what happens to those who speak their minds."

But the force is clearly with the younger generation. Those who despair of classical music in the West should turn their gaze to the East, where hope, like the sun, is rising.