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Thoughts on China's Audience

This weekend in the Washington Post: my final report from the NSO's Asia tour.

* * *

The National Symphony Orchestra’s Asia tour ended as it began – with a cancellation. Having had to cast around for a last-minute replacement for the violinist Leonidas Kavakos the week before the orchestra left (Nikolaj Znaider jumped in), Nigel Boon, the NSO’s director of artistic planning, learned in the wee hours before the orchestra departed from Seoul that the conductor Mikko Franck would be unavailable for the final subscription concert at the Kennedy Center this Thursday. A long night’s work yielded Andreas Delfs and a program change: the Rautavaara piece is out, and the soprano Karita Mattila will sing Strauss’s “Four Last Songs” rather than “Three Hymns” for her NSO debut – something more likely to delight listeners than upset them, though the conducting switch is disappointing.

* * *

One thing I expected to find in China but didn’t seem to encounter were huge audiences eager to hear Western music. The public was warm enough, but no more schooled, or numerous, than American audiences; Shanghai was the only sold-out venue. And many of the people I saw in the audience seemed rather new to music. There were young people on dates at every concert (I kept wondering where they got the money for these very expensive tickets), and many of them didn’t seem to know the drill. Then there were the pre-concert announcements; thanks to a Chinese speaker who attended the first Beijing concert with me, I learned that these included not only the familiar exhortation to turn off cell phones, but instructions about how many movements each piece had, and how the audience should uphold the country’s good image (or something along those lines) by not clapping in the wrong places.
(read more after the jump)

Yet the NSO musicians said the audiences were considerably more attentive (with fewer cell-phone interruptions) than they were 10 years ago. This made me wonder about how accurately the Chinese “hunger” for Western music has been represented in the Western press. Certainly Western classical music is a status symbol in China (hence all those shiny new theaters and opera houses, which demonstrate that a city is modern and cosmopolitan), and certainly it’s a way to get ahead (hence all those millions of kids learning piano and violin). But audience development appears to be a work in progress – something Beijing’s National Center for the Performing Arts is currently addressing with an exhibition about opera and outreach programs accompanying their opera festival.

Familiarity may also breed some contempt; Western classical music is no longer a rare event in Beijing. Michelle Yip, the pianist for the Beijing New Music Ensemble, described playing a concert in rural China in a freezing hall to an audience who sat raptly listening, bundled in coats, with an attention she hadn’t encountered in Beijing.

That said, there are certainly plenty of discriminating listeners in China. (I didn’t get to check out CD stores, but piracy flourishes to such a degree that I hear some recording labels have simply stopped distributing in China. I saw people making recordings at most of the NSO concerts, and I'm sure they will turn up somewhere like the huge store in Shanghai entirely devoted to pirated classical CDs and DVDs.) Indeed, I wondered how far the quality of the NSO's performances was reflected in the audience’s reaction. The most enthusiastic audience was in Korea, but the orchestra also played better in Korea. I wonder how the Pittsburgh Symphony's reception on its China tour in May compared with the NSO's in June.

* * *

Personally, one of the pleasures of the trip for me was getting to know the NSO musicians. It cannot be easy for people who are regularly subjected in print to the tender mercies of the local critic to be thrust into close proximity to her for two weeks. And it did become a running joke that anything that was said in conversation might end up as fodder for this blog (NSO Players Fail to Clean Their Plates of Mystery Viands at Xi’an’s Airport Buffet). Nonetheless, the musicians were gracious and generous and open, bearing out their reputation as generally a nice group of people (which is not by any means a given in the orchestra world). I truly appreciate the warmth of the many individuals who helped make the tour, for me, such a delight.

By Anne Midgette  |  June 22, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Washington , random musings  
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Anne: I thoroughly enjoyed your excellent first rate reporting from the NSO tour of China and Korea. Even though you had to report a rather depressing tour, you managed to make it interesting and provided substance. Now let me see if I’ve got this straight. The NSO played for an increasingly sophisticated audience of rich Chinese, who probably are also discriminating enough to know whether they want to go hear second rate music by second rate composers, played by a second rate orchestra with second rate soloists, and apparently stayed away in droves. Let’s say the total number of people who heard the NSO in China is 13,000 (give or take a few thousand). This is about one in a million Chinese. This is equivalent to having played for about 3000 people in the US, for 10 concerts, or about an average US audience of 300 people per concert. Not much of an impact, I’d say. Whoever came up with the plan for this tour? What was the point of it, other than a bit of tourism for the musicians? If this was supposed to be American outreach, the NSO should have given at least one free concert in the Olympic stadium, they should have featured some of the Chinese performers who are obviously as good as whoever came from the US, and who are not likely to engage in primadonna antics. And the NSO should have provided free recordings to distribute to the Chinese so they would not need to make pirated recordings. Instead, we sent a mediocre ensemble to kowtow to the Chinese nomenklatura and embarrass us with the fans who are knowledgeable in their music audience. Great! Just think of what they could have done for classical music in the US with the money spent on this tour.

Posted by: gauthier310 | June 22, 2009 7:37 PM | Report abuse

No offense to Mr. Delfs, but why hasn't the concert been handed to Emil de Cou? I thought that the associate (and assistant) conductor positions exist for this exact scenario. And one can't help realizing how the entire program of the concert has been changed since the initial announcement. First the Alpine Symphony was changed to the shorter Also Sprach Zarathustra. Then the changes mentioned in your article.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | June 23, 2009 2:30 PM | Report abuse

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