Cultural revolution

Western classical music is a symbol of the new, open China, where a host of stars is being groomed. Michael Church reports

Tuesday 19 July 2005 10:17

I'm watching two student athletes go through their paces in Beijing, and I've spotted gold. We're not talking 2008, though the activity is as demanding as anything in the Olympics.

These are vocal athletes. They're rehearsing in a little studio, bare apart from a concert grand, a water cooler and an ornate mirror from imperial times. In command is a frowning lady whose face occasionally breaks into a sweet smile. This is Guo Shuzhen, China's top voice professor, and once its top soprano.

First up is a girl from Shanghai, who delivers stylish Donizetti but spoils her performance with ferocious amounts of vibrato. Then comes a 22-year-old from a remote hill-town, and as she ripples through the same arias, I find myself underlining her name again and again: Kong Jing Jing. Her coloratura flights aren't perfect, but her expressive timbre has irresistible charm.

Even with an interpreter she's too shy to say much about herself. She loved singing ever since she was a toddler. And her path from Jiaozou to the bright lights of Beijing has been eased by a succession of scholarships and prizes.

"Is there anything you can do to help these girls study in the West?" asks Professor Guo. "They need to be stretched, and there's a limit to what we can do for them." I promise to spread the word about Kong Jing Jing, a born Despina. So remember that name: you read it here first.

Professor Guo was one of the élite musicians sent by Mao to study at the Moscow Conservatory in the Fifties. Each young ambassador was armed with a leather jacket, a winter coat, a Sun Yat Sen suit and a history of the Bolshevik revolution. Their job was to capture the sacred flame and bring it to China.

So was that the real beginning of China's love affair with Western classical music? No, says, Professor Guo: it started back in 1601, when an Italian Jesuit named Matteo Ricci sailed into Beijing with a clavichord for the emperor. It was designed to win hearts and minds for Jesus, but the emperor found the music it embodied intriguing. When other Jesuits installed church organs and set up string ensembles, Western music took root.

A century later, Emperor Kangxi learnt to play the harpsichord, and oversaw the creation of a musical manual presenting the Eastern and Western traditions side by side. A century after that, Emperor Qianlong had his eunuchs sing the castrati roles in an Italian opera.

What gave Western music its lift-off was the influx of Russian refugees - Jews and Tsarists - after the Bolshevik revolution. In the Thirties, the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra was one of the smartest bands in the world.

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The Communists at first smiled on their home-grown "Western" musicians, then persecuted them for championing the music of capitalism. Debussy and Beethoven were decadent, so those who played them were too. Only when Western music was deemed to symbolise "modernity" did Chinese communism smile on it once more.

Now it is in the full glare of the political spotlight, with China becoming its prime Oriental champion - as a maker of instruments, purveyor of audiences and forcing-ground for talent. China's classical musicians are everywhere on the Western classical scene: leading orchestras, starring on platforms and winning competitions.

An estimated 38 million children study the piano in China - it's the smart acquisition for every successful family. As the ebullient young virtuoso Lang Lang puts it: "People in the West should know that after the Russians, the Chinese are coming. Just as the violin was the Korean and Japanese thing, the piano is the Chinese instrument. And it is the king of instruments."

But how will it be used? "Chinese people must do their own thing with it," says Lang Lang, who leavens his Rachmaninov with traditional Chinese music. The composer Tan Dun has found one way of melding the traditions of East and West, but he is now so internationalised that he hardly counts as Chinese.

In a lift at the Beijing conservatory, I bump into one of China's new experimental composers, a graceful 23-year-old named Wang Lu, who's just off to study in the United States. What does she hope to find there? "My own way forward, which is not pop, and neither purely American nor purely Chinese."

Liping Zhang is the Beijing conservatory's prize soprano. She divides her time between home (New York) and London, where she alternates with Angela Gheorghiu as a meltingly effective Mimi at Covent Garden.

"I'd spent my childhood singing in the Beijing opera style," she says, "but one day I happened to see a movie of La Traviata with Placido Domingo and Teresa Stratas, and I was bowled over by the sound. It was the colour, the freshness - it just touched in my heart. I decided on the spot that that was the music I wanted to sing."

Back in London, I eavesdrop on a rehearsal for a revival of the Royal Opera Bohème, where Rodolfo is warming up by practising some very un-French karate kicks. This is Yu Qiang Dai, from Beijing. The rehearsal begins, with Rodolfo shivering at the window, but in no time he has established himself as the life and soul of the party. This man is fun, and his voice is neat and sweet.

Qiang Dai sees his mission as being not only to blaze the Chinese trail abroad, but also to introduce Western music to the Chinese masses. His debut CD, just released on EMI, is doing well, but what's his long-term dream? "To see a home-grown Chinese opera take the West by storm." Yes, the Chinese are coming.

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