Sunday, 20 July 2014

China Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms

Hearing the China Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall made BBC Prom 2 something unique. Listening as "pure music" is largely irrelevant: its real significance was that it acknowledged where the future of classical music might lie. In the west, audiences may be perceived to be in decline, but in Asia, nearly every middle class family puts faith in what Germans call Bildung: improvement through cultivation. In China, being educated is a principle of faith, honed  and polished through  thousands of years of civilization.  Not everyone could aspire to be a scholar but even the poorest peasants  respected learning. Western classical music is relatively recent in world history terms, but it fits perfectly with the Chinese sensibility

Western classical music has much deeper roots in China  than the clichés  promoted by BBC presenters.  Even in the 19th century, Chinese audiences listened to western music, just as they took on board western literature and art.  By the turn of the last century, there were enough Chinese musicians in China that western-style conservatories could flourish in Shanghai and Beijing. It's bracing to realize that the Juilliard School was founded in the same period.  It's important to recognize the difference between British and French colonialism. Chinese intellectuals of all types flocked to Paris, where orientalisme was respected and where the natives were interested in foreign cultures. Chinese musicians could feel right at home listening to Debussy, Massenet and Ravel. Going abroad was a rite of passage. Even those who couldn't afford travel were active.  The photo left was taken in the 1920's in Shanghai at a famous art school. Notice how the students have included their life model in the picture, a wry  reference to Degas.

It's simply not true that western classical music didn't exist in China until after the Cultural Revolution. On the contrary, the Cultural Revolution happened in part because extremists like Mao and Jiang Qing wanted to destroy class division.  Unlike Zhou Enlai, who studied in Paris, and many of the artists the Red Guards attacked, Mao and Jiang weren't cosmopolitan and resented those who were. The "Russian" influence on Chinese music came after 1917, when Russian musicians fled to China. It stopped abruptly in 1957 with the Sino-Soviet Split. Best, then, to think of western music in China as a continuum, cruelly interrupted by a few aberrant years of turmoil.

For their BBC Proms debut, The China Philharmonic Orchestra and their conductor Long Yu chose a programme balancing reliable warhorses like Elgar, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky with more adventurous fare. Haochen Zhange made his Proms debut, with Lizt's First Piano Concerto. Zhang is only 28, but promising enough for one to hope to hear him play again, and soon. Then, Qigang Chen's Joie Eternelle, a BBC Commission for Alison Balsom, who has played it in Shanghai and Beijing. It's based loosely on a theme from The Peony Pavilion, the exqusite Kunqu opera. (Read more about the opera HERE),  It's interesting because a trumpet is used to  navigate lines which might flow more naturally for flute or even violin. Chen was Messiaen's last student. Perhaps the delicate water-colour aesthetic comes from Messiaen. Certainly the piece reminded me of early George Benjamin. Non-Chinese listeners would probably  enjoy the orientalisme colourings.  Perhaps the pressure of being at the Proms  held the orchestra back somewhat. For their encores, they livened up immeasurably. They let loose with a transcription of a folksong for erhu, and a brilliant set of variations on God Save the Queen. Hilarious, unidiomatic but full of verve. Conductor Long Yu has been described as "China's Gergiev". If that's a compliment, it's barbed.

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