Financial Times: Overtures that Bridge East and West

Financial Times

Photo: Yao Xu

Photo: Yao Xu

Put together a pair of anniversaries as far-reaching as those falling this year — the end of the second world war and the founding of the UN in 1945 — and it is fitting that as many nationalities as possible are involved. On Friday the UN marks the double anniversary with a special invitation-only concert, with soloists from each of the major Allied powers, together with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and Chinese conductor Long Yu.

It is the start of a tour of the Americas by the orchestra, and will be repeated in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires.

One element of the concert may be unexpected: the inclusion of a new work by a Chinese composer, Shanghai 1937 by Zou Ye, part of a project called “Compose 20:20” and a sign of how much the world of classical music has changed since 1945. Look to the future and it is likely to be found in Asia — thanks not only to the hordes of young pianists following in the footsteps of Chinese superstar Lang Lang, but also to new and interesting composers.

There is what Long Yu calls a “cultural bridge” between east and west waiting to be crossed. Any composer who wants to make the journey from the Chinese classical tradition to the concert halls of the west needs an uncommon degree of ingenuity, and nobody understands this better than China’s leading conductor. In recent years he has been successful in bringing a string of new Chinese works to the west (UK music-lovers will recall Qigang Chen’s Joie éternelle when the China Philharmonic made history as the first Chinese orchestra to visit the BBC Proms in 2014).

“Actually, it’s more than a hunger,” says Long Yu. “It is an absolute need, if we are to keep the cultural fires alive. We have seen so far a wonderful fascination in China for western classical music, and the same coming the other way from the west. But this frenzy of energy has too often been somewhat diffuse and without shape. Now is the time that we can start using it to explore and to experience in a curated way.”

That “curated way” is “Compose 20:20”. Between now and 2020, Long Yu will present 20 new works by Chinese composers in the west and 20 contemporary works by western composers in China. “Some of the composers are good friends, like Qigang Chen and [Polish composer Krzysztof] Penderecki,” says Long Yu. “Some, like Philip Glass, I have already commissioned; others not, such as John Adams and Bright Sheng. If ‘Compose 20:20’ can provide the motivation to generate commissions, I will count it a success.”

A nation coming out of the cultural revolution needed its own version of Britain’s inimitable Thomas Beecham, serial founder of orchestras and, in Long Yu, China has found him. Among the exhausting array of positions he holds are artistic director and co-founder of the China Philharmonic Orchestra, music director of the Shanghai and Guangzhou Symphony Orchestras, founder of the Beijing Music Festival and the Shanghai MISA Festival.

It might seem a challenge to introduce a programme of new Chinese music in the west, but Long Yu argues that audiences across the world are equally suspicious of what they do not know.

“In China, the taste in music varies hugely between different areas,” he says. “For example, people in Beijing love Wagner. Our Götterdämmerung there didn’t finish until one in the morning, but the audience stayed for many curtain calls. Contrast that with a concert we did of extracts from Wagner’s operas in the south, where there just wasn’t the same enthusiasm. For a long while China stuck with Tchaikovsky and endless repeats of La traviata and La bohème. But more recently there have been so many premieres — Stravinsky, Ligeti, Britten’s Peter Grimes and War Requiem, even Berg’s Lulu, as far back as 2002, and that was tough. Half the audience left the theatre at the end of the first act. You have to keep fighting to bring forward new works.”

This is part of the picture that Long Yu paints of a country that has moved on from laying the foundations for a new artistic life after the cultural revolution. The previous generation, he says, had to work out what the best system for the arts might be in China, what the professional structures would look like. The present generation, he says, has to build on that.

“I am very committed to moving on to the second-level cities in China and encouraging their development,” he says. “People are critical of China for building new concert halls and theatres, as the buildings are nothing more than symbolic unless there is content. Now we are working on the next part of that. Music is something you can’t see, can’t touch. It comes from creativity, and we have to show the younger generation that music is not just about giving a concert or having a career. It is about freeing the imagination.”

From his unique position of influence Long Yu is able to take the long view. “What matters to me now is that one generation passes on the fire to the next. We have this one-child policy in China and every parent wants his kid to become a star. People talk about 50m Chinese children learning the piano, but do we really think all 50m will find a job as a musician? There isn’t too much space for stars.

“I would be quite happy if those 50m grow up to become music-lovers, the people who buy tickets and support music in the future. That would make me happier than seeing the kids struggling to perfect their harmony every day. If only their parents could see that what is important is how to bring joy through music to their children.”