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Canton Festival: musical nationalism

We all know that classical music in Asia is -- burgeoning? Thriving? Rampant? But I was intrigued by the premise of the first Canton Music Festival, which is being held in Guangzhou, China, from November 5th-17th, as a prelude and accompaniment to the 2010 Asian Games (XVI Asiad).

The Asian Games are comparable to the Olympics: held every four years, with participation from throughout the Asian world. The Canton Music Festival appears to be attempting to rival the scope of this international competition in musical terms. Organized by Long Yu, whom I called a Chinese superconductor in an earlier profile, it brings together a heavy-hitting roster of international artists of Asian descent -- Lang Lang and Yo-Yo Ma, Midori and Sarah Chang, Tan Dun and Myung-Whun Chung, Cho-Liang Lin and Ray Chen -- for a panoply of concerts with an array of orchestras from China, Korea, and Taiwan.

I am beguiled by the equation of music with a major sports event. And this equation allows the acceptance of a kind of arbitrary nationalism or regionalism. If Carnegie Hall were to put on a “Celebrate Asia” festival with a comparable assortment of stars from different countries, I would probably be critical (isn’t Ray Chen Australian; Sarah Chang, American? What does it mean to bring together all these Asian artists?). But in the context of a sporting event, waving the flag in this manner seems less objectionable.

Indeed, it gives rise to a tacit spirit of competition. Will the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra, playing Dvorak’s New World Symphony and the Tchaikovsky violin concerto with Midori under Lin Daye on opening night (November 5), hold its own against the Seoul Philharmonic, playing the Mahler 1st and the Mendelssohn violin concerto with Ray Chen under Myung-Whun Chung (November 10)? How will compositions by local composers on traditional instruments (like I-Uen Wang Hwang’s “Diptych of Taiwan” on the Philharmonia Taiwan’s November 16th program) stack up against the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra’s all-Dvorak closing evening with Yo-Yo Ma the following night? It’s actually the contrast between the orchestras that seems to me the most interesting part: the soloists, we know, are all world-class.

We are schooled in the idea that ethnic and national divisions “don’t matter” in art. And the premise of this festival goes, in a way, against the grain of a field that has only become increasingly international in the last few decades. But I wonder if it could be done elsewhere: a two-week festival of major European orchestras and artists? Of North American orchestras and artists? Or, best of all, a two-week festival of international orchestras to accompany the Olympic Games? A girl can dream.

By Anne Midgette  | October 22, 2010; 10:59 AM ET
Categories:  festivals, international , news  
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Now that would be something indeed! Fine article, Anne!!!

Posted by: seaduck2001 | October 22, 2010 2:15 PM | Report abuse

"Or, best of all, a two-week festival of international orchestras to accompany the Olympic Games?"

Wasn't something similar done for the Los Angeles Olympic Games of 1984? I remember Andrei Serban's production of Turandot, also seen in DC recently, was premiered there by the Royal Opera with that occasion and was only seen in London a few month later. And who knows, maybe it was the Olympic fortune that made this production to be the most revived in the modern history of the Royal Opera House.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | October 22, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse

I've read this three times now and am completely confused by your point. Are you applauding the organizers for bringing together this diverse (albeit Asian) collection of arts groups or chastising them for creating a sort of competition, which I don't believe is actually the point of this festival?

The Kennedy Center regularly creates International Festivals (China, Arab, Russian, etc), yet most of us see this as a good thing. It's a chance to hear and see groups and works that would not ordinarily reach our shores. Some sense of nationalism is natural, but is that necessarily bad?

And, yes, cicciofrancolando, you are correct. Robert Fitzpatrick, then the president of CalArts, did organize an extensive Olympic Arts Festival in LA in 1984. It was quite broad and international in scope, and some of the murals and public art created still remains. You can find some details below.

Posted by: newcriticalcritic | October 23, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

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