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China's Karajan comes to Washington

On Saturday, Long Yu and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra are coming to George Mason University on a U.S. tour that started when they played the closing concert at Carnegie Hall’s three-week celebration of China, the “Ancient Paths, Modern Voices” festival, on Tuesday night. Long Yu is one of the leading conductors in China, probably the best-connected (he has close ties to the daughter of Deng Xiaoping, whom he has known since childhood), and certainly one of the busiest: he is the artistic director and principal conductor of the China Philharmonic, which he founded in 2000; music director of the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra; artistic director of the Beijing Music Festival, which he co-founded in 1998; and as of this year, music director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, the oldest orchestra in China.

He spoke on the phone last week from China shortly before leaving on the tour.
(read more after the jump)

ALM: You seem to lead half the orchestras in China.
Yu: Well that’s why I sacrifice a lot of my personal life. I did reduce the international, the guest engagements. ...Especially in the classical music field [in China], it will be very necessary to do something for future generations. ...People of course [pay] most attention to economic development, but a lot of people forget besides economic and business there are very important things in culture and this quality of life development as well.

The China Philharmonic and Guangzhou [are] different cases. The China Philharmonic, I’m very happy that after ten years this March it was already named by Gramophone magazine as one of the best orchestras in the world. [NB: The China Philharmonic was on Gramophone’s list of orchestras that play a significant role in terms of social activism.] ...Guangzhou was a provincial orchestra; we spent a lot of time to build up a professional international system for them. Shanghai is my home town. The Shanghai Symphony is the oldest orchestra in Asia, and in the world maybe; [it was] founded in 1879, and this is their 130th anniversary. From this year I take over the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. I am certainly very happy to be home.
[1879 was the founding date of the orchestra’s antecedent, the Shanghai Municipal Band; it wasn’t until 1919 that the band was officially regrouped as an orchestra, led by the Italian conductor Mario Paci. Chinese players weren’t allowed in the orchestra until 1927.]

ALM: How has classical music in China changed since 2000?
Yu: The Beijing festival changed the audience situation. 12 years ago we had a lot of music lovers, but the professional market was not ready yet. Obviously I don’t think this is only because my job in China changed [things]. But I certainly give a lot of my passion and professional guidance to all this business. The China Philharmonic did a lot of work. We are the first orchestra to have a season system. We started to invite the top artists from the world...

ALM: How are the local audiences?

Yu: That is changing. Certainly we still have some problems. Of course, to be honest, the big cities --Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou -- [have more interest] ...but honestly also the small cities are starting to get very excited to develop their culture... I’m very happy to see a lot of cities build up a concert hall and a symphony orchestra.

ALM: How is the musical level? [Long Yu was allegedly brought to the Shanghai Symphony to build up an orchestra that has long been underperforming.]
Yu: ...It’s hard for me to compare; it’s like comparing all your children….
If you talk about professional [level]... the China Philharmonic and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra can really be discussed on international stages... It’s not compatible with -- I don’t want to say the China National Symphony Orchestra, but if you see the season programs you will find out what is the level. I’m not supposed to say that.
… The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra I just took over half a year ago. I made huge international auditions. The opening concert in September was a huge success. ...

ALM: What did the orchestra most need?
Yu: A professional system.

ALM: How are your sources of funding?
Yu: Obviously it’s complicated. In the past, China was very much like the European system, completely sponsored by the government. Today we find besides the support of the government we definitely [need] the best marketing as well. I think it is a step forward. Today if any orchestra organization in the world wants to survive and continue their work, it should not only stay with old fashioned [ways]; we would like to find an active way to face the market. Face the audience. Face the sponsors. ...We should be very careful not go in the wrong directions. We should be very careful to keep the quality professional. ...The marketing you can do, but you have to keep your principles…. you have to know very clearly in your mind that money is not everything. The most important thing for us is professional quality. [NB: A lucrative source of money for classical musicians in China are televised variety shows and pageants.]
I worry. Why not. We all need money, of course. I cannot only ask for money from the government. [He spoke of exploring on-line concerts and various educational initiatives.] I certainly have a plan, working with management and with the board of orchestra to see if we can find a better way to move forward.

ALM: You’re bringing work by Chinese composers on tour as well as Western ones. How do you try to balance the two in your programming? [Thursday’s program includes the piece “China Air Suite,” by Boa Yuankai, as well as the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet.”]
Yu: Personally I don’t feel this is a big difference. Music is a universal language. Everybody has their own elements. Russian has its own element, Chinese has its own element. I only chose the best quality to introduce to audience.
I just rehearsed today [Chen Qigang’s “Iris Dévoilée,” which was on the Carnegie Hall program.] I told some of my friends everything is beautiful like a watercolor picture; it’s a very beautiful imagination about how Chinese look at beauty in different ways…. People see love in an indirect way… [It takes] different sorts of taste to see the beautiful way from the West. This is good. People should learn from each other….

ALM: What are your hopes for this tour, and for your new orchestra?
Yu: I would like people to see that the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra is really a very interesting team…. The orchestra had its beginnings with Western and Chinese [people] together; 130 years ago, [we had] this problem already in China. ...Also, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra [is a] window [to let people] see how today’s China is developing…. I had both experience in the US and China. I understand both cultures very well.

By Anne Midgette  |  November 12, 2009; 11:35 AM ET
Categories:  interviews  
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