The Chinese conductor – music director of the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra and artistic director of Beijing Music Festival – on his musical inspirations, from Beethoven to Benjamin, and Karajan to Qigang Chen
What was the first record or cd you bought?
My childhood coincided with the Cultural Revolution. During this period there was a ban on Western music, and I learned music theory through Chinese music. My generation was one of the first to study abroad, and after attending the Shanghai Conservatory, I studied at the Hochschule in Berlin, where a new world of recordings and music opened up to me. I don’t remember the first record I bought, but these times in Berlin were a time of deep exploration for me. I studied great conductors such as Karajan. To this day, I look back on my time in Germany and the recordings I studied with great affection.
... and the most recent?
Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach Trios with Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer.
What’s your musical guilty pleasure?
I am interested in learning more about many genres – pop, rock, and jazz. Exploring outside of classical music sometimes informs my approach to traditional repertoire.
Vinyl or digital?
If you had time learn a new instrument, what would it be?
Before I was a conductor, I was a pianist and percussionist. My grandfather, a gifted composer and pianist, taught me to play the piano from an early age. He also guided me to become a conductor. He said the baton can lead you to a magical world, which is much more interesting because conductors experience different kinds of music including operas, concertos, and symphonic works. Having the faculty of an entire orchestra’s instruments now seems imperative to me.
Did you ever consider a career outside of music? Doing what?
I am lucky to conduct orchestras all over the world, and music offers a common language in which to communicate. This is probably what I enjoy most about my job; if I were not a musician, I would still want to connect people, perhaps through diplomacy.
hat single thing would improve the format of the classical concert?
I want young people to love music. If I could change one thing, I would make the classical concert accessible to as many people as possible.
What or where is the most unusual place/venue you’ve performed?
Last year, I had the great pleasure of touring in China with Yo-Yo Ma. We performed at some incredible places including an outdoor concert at the Old City Wall in Xi’an in Central China, and in Dunhang, at the edge of the Gobi Desert. We worked with young people in these places and encouraged them to continue their musical life. It was a very special experience for both of us.
What’s been your most memorable live music experience as an audience member?
I remember my formative years in Berlin watching Karajanand many of the last generation’s legendary artists. I will carry these concerts with me my entire life. In 1979, I was in the audience as Isaac Stern made his first appearances in China. I was 15 years old and I hadn’t ever heard violin playing like his. Years later, I was honoured to invite Maestro Stern to the Beijing Music Festival. Last year, the Stern family and I started the Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition to honour the importance and the impact of Maestro Stern’s visits to China. He brought many Chinese musicians to the world stage.
We’re giving you a time machine: what period, or moment in musical history, would you travel to and why?
I would love to travel to Vienna 7 May 1824 for the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Can you imagine what it what have been like to be in the audience for that final movement when the chorus comes in? Or, to have seen Beethoven’s face when, not able to hear the audience, he finally turned around at the podium to see their wildly enthusiastic reaction? An incredible moment.
What is the best new piece written in the past 50 years?
Imagine you’re a festival director with unlimited resources. What would you programme - or commission - for your opening event?
This October we’re celebrating 20 years of the Beijing Music Festival where, since founding it two decade ago I have been lucky to realise many of my musical dreams. This celebratory year, we are presenting co-productions with the Salzburg Easter festival and the Aix-en-Provence festival, and a Beethoven symphony cycle with Paavo Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. The festival is such an important part of Chinese cultural life and has planted many classical music seeds in China.
Long Yu conducts the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra in two concerts as part of its first UK tour: 14 May at Cadogan Hall, London and 16 May at Birmingham Symphony Hall.