Yo Yo Ma with the robot Asimo
Chen Qigang is a Chinese composer known for “elegantly fusing” Western-modernist and traditional Chinese elements.” He lived in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, moved to Paris in 1984 and returned to China in 2007. He wrote and arranged the music for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

The composer Guo Wenjing spent his career in China and for a time chaired the composition department at the Central Conservatory, a job he didn’t like. Influenced by Bela Bartok, who immersed himself in Eastern European folk music, he spent part of his career collecting folks songs in the mountains around the Yangtze River. His works include tributes to Genghis Khan and the poet Li Bai, theater pieces such as “Wolf Cub Village” and the symphonic pieces “Sorrowful, Desolate Mountain” and “Suspended Coffins on the Cliffs of Sichuan”.

Chou Wen-chung, a retired Columbia University professor, is widely considered the dean of Chinese composers.


Tan Dun

Tan Dun is China’s best known Western classic music composer. Like Chen he was one of 100 students chosen from 18,000 applicants to attend the Central Conservatory when it reopened in 1978 after Mao’s death. In the 1980s he moved to New York and immersed himself in the various scenes there, particularly the one surrounding John Cage, and created an accessible avant guard music himself that combined romantic melodies with chance processes and natural noises in pieces like “Organic Music” and “Water Concerto.”

Tan won an Oscar for his score for the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. In the spring of 2008, the New York Philharmonic presented the premier of Tan Dun’s Piano Concerto with Lang Lang as a soloist and the Metropolitan Opera performed Tan’s 2006 “First Emperor” with Placido Domingo singing the title role.

Tan Dun is known incorporating natural sounds like wooden blocks and flags snapping in the wind into his pieces. He developed a kung-fu piano concerto which Lang Lang described in Time as “lots of extreme finger movements and using elbows and palms to play. It was like watching Jackie Chan fight.”

Chinese Western Classical Music Musicians

The take on Asian musicians was that could play with technical great skill but could not play with same heart and soul and depth of European and American musicians. There was a hint of racism with these statements. The same used to be said about the Jews. Yo Yo Ma is largely credited with putting such views in the dustbin.

Famous Chinese Western classical musicians include female pianist Wu Qian and soprano Liping Zhang. Vanesa Mae, Thai-Chinese-British violinist, made a name for herself in the 1990s as a teenager when she appeared on MTV playing Bach in a wet teashirt. Her full name of is Vanessa-Mae Vanakorn Nicholson.

Xi Chen of China and .Tamaki Kawakuno of Japan shared the top award in the violin category at the 12th Tchaikovsky Contest in June 2002. In June 2009, a blind Japanese named Noboyuli Tsujii and a Chinese teenager named Zhang Haochen shared the top prize at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Ft. Worth Texas.

Long Yu is China’s most prominent conductor. He told The New Yorker, “I do my best to serve the people who really need fine arts and classical music. I do not have the duty to make everyone like it.”

From “Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China”, directed by Murray Lerner, won an Oscar for best documentary

Yo Yo Ma

20080303-yoyo_ma Nobel Peace Prize com.jpg
Yo Yo Ma at Nobel Prize ceremony

The cellist Yo Yo Ma is one of the world’s most recognized classical musicians. A child prodigy, along with his violin-playing sister, Yo Yo Ma s widely regarded as the world’s best cellist and is perhaps the richest classical musician.

Ma has recorded more than 70 albums and won 15 Grammys. He has worked with Brazilian guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves and film composer Enrico Morricone and recorded pop, jazz and folk tracks and appeared in film scores, including “Memoirs of a Geisha”, “Seven Years in Tibet” and “Crouching Tier, Hidden Dragon” and performed at the White House for five U.S. presidents. Ma performed at the inauguration of U.S. President Obama but a recording of his music was broadcast due the frigid temperatures that day.

Ma’s main performance instrument is a Domenico Mantagnana cello, made in 1733 in Venice. In 1999, he left the priceless instrument in a taxi and managed to recover it later undamaged,. He also owns a 1712 Davidoff Stradivarius left him by Jacqueline Dure on her death in 1987.

One his greatest accomplishments is being able to play what is mostly chamber music — music that is just that, meant to be played in a room rather than concert hall — in front of an audience made up of thousands. Daniel Ginsberg wrote in the Washington Post, Ma “projects his sound as well as any vocalist...At its heart is focused tone, shimmering and golden. He revels at the center of a phrase, never playing catch up or rushing. He attacks the long phrase or dense harmonics accurately and departs cleanly.”

Yo Yo Ma’s Life

Yo Yo Ma he was born in Paris in 1955 to ethnic Chinese parents and came to New York in 1962. He took up cello at 4, played publically at 5, and performed before U.S. President John F. Kennedy when he was eight. He was spotted as an infant prodigy by the violinist Isaac Stern. He attended Julliard and studied under Leonard Rose and Janos Scholze.

Yo Yo Ma attended Columbia, dropped out without telling his parents, and finally graduated from Harvard with a degree in anthropology in 1976. He made his first recording at age 22. In 1978 he received the Avery Fischer prize for outstanding achievement in classical music. He now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with his foe Jill Hornor.

Yo Yo Ma’s mother was a singer. His father was a music professor who left China in 1945 and lived in France for 27 tears before coming to the United States in 1961. Ma said the most frequently asked he question he received for many years was: “How can an Asian play Western music?”

Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project

In recent years has been very involved in his Silk Road Project,” which intends to introduce music from countries along the Silk Road to the world (See Silk Road) in China and elsewhere he has set up workshops in which children make “slengs”, traditional Chinese instruments, from plastic bottles and straws.

The Silk Road Project was founded in 1998. It is a collection of 60 or so people that not only includes musicians and singers but also embraces composers, storytellers and visual artists. As of 2008, 64 pieces had been written for the Silk Road Project by composers from 17 countries, including Mongolia, Tajikistan , Uzbekistan and Iran.

With the Silk Road Ensemble Yo Yo Ma not only plays the cello but also plays the Mongolian horsehead fiddle. He told the Times of London, “The project was a quest for personal renewal after decades of working within the comparatively narrow parameters of classical music. It was crossing the line into the unknown.”

Lang Lang

right Lang Lang has been billed at the ‘superstar Chinese pianist.’ The first Chinese pianist to play with the world’s top orchestras, he commands among the world highest fees for solo performances. His recordings top classical music harts and have also placed on some pop music charts. His hands are insured for seven figures which he says is a “fair price.” The English translation of his name is “Brilliant Brilliant.” [Source: Emma Pomfret, Times of London, April 2009]

Regarded as a playboy and a showman in the tradition of Chopin, Lang Lang made his Carnegie Hall debut when he was 18. He has played for Placido Domingo and at the opening ceremony for the 2006 World Cup and played a duet with five-year-old Li Muzi before a television audience of five billion people at the Opening Ceremonies for the Olympics in Beijing in 2008. He has served as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and has been selected to help promote the Shanghai World Expo in 2010. By one estimate the “Lang Lang” affect has prodded 36 million Chinese children to take up the piano.

Lang Lang was selected by Time magazine in 2009 as one of the world’s most influential people. In the profile jazz pianist Herbie Hancock wrote, “He’s so warm and funny. It took me by surprise, because I think of classical music as being so serious...When he just messing around — which he does alot — he’ll play comic riffs that sound like they’re from cartoon music...But his playing is also so sensitive and so deeply human...You hear him play, and he never ceases to touch your heart. And he’s fearless. He’s not afraid to burst the bubble of false elitism. He’s wear a new kind of tux, with tennis shoes, That’s cool.” Lang performed with Hancock at the Grammys and the two toured together in 2009.

Lang Lang lucrative endorsement deals with Audi and Rolex. He has his own line of Adidas sports shoes, Steinway kids pianos, Montblac watches and scarves by the Chinese designer Shanghai Tang. Not everyone is enamored with him. The conductor Andre Previn dismissed the way he raises his eyes upward and rocks on the piano stool as a “circus act.”

Book: “Journey of a Thousand Miles” by Lang Lang

Lang Lang’s Life

Lang Lang at the 2008 Olympics
Lang Lang was born in 1982 in the northeast industrial town of Shenyang into a one-child-policy family. He said he was inspired to play the piano at age two by a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

His parents bought him his first piano when he was two with half their annual salary and focused their own ambition on him. His father, whose own musical dreams were dashed by the Cultural Revolution, pushed him to become a pianist. His mother stayed in Shenyang and supported the family working as telephone operator when nine-year-old Lang Lang and his father studied at the Central Music Conservatory in Beijing while living in an apartment without heat,

Lang Lang and his family’s ambitions were dealt a severe blow when a professor, acting on false denunciation of Lang Lang’s family, claimed that young Lang Lang had no talent. Lang Lang’s father freaked out and insisted his son work harder One afternoon when Lang Lang returned home from school late his father went bezerk: “You’ve missed nearly two hours of practicing and you’ll never get them back! Everything is ruined! You can’t go back to Shenyang...Dying is the only way out!” He then gave Lang Lang the choice of jumping off the balcony or overdosing on antibiotics.

Lang Lang responded by viciously beating his hand on the wall, ‘stop!’ his father shouted. “You’ll ruin your hands.” His son replied, “I hate may hands, I hate you. I hate the piano.” Recalling that period, Lang Lang told the Times of London, Beijing was “a really dark time. We got destroyed — not only my father but myself. I lost confidence and I thought of giving up. I stopped playing for a while.”

On developing his talent at an early Lang told Time, “Once you are a pianist, you need to give up part of your childhood. I was always jealous of other people when they would go to the park and I would be practicing like I was in a zoo.”

Lang Lang Today

Lang Lang has a chubby, smooth-skinned face and stiff, spiked hair that almost look like a mohawk,, Offstage he sports jeans, sweaters and silk scarves and sometimes wears the same style of clothes on stage.

Lang Lang’s mother and father often travel with him. His mother serves as his photographer. His father often comes on stage to do accompany him on the erhu (a Chinese violin) for an encore.

Lang Lang said that in his entire life he has only enjoyed one month of “normality.” That was in 2004 when he injured his right hand and had to rest it. “That was the best month without hesitation. I had a date, I saw a Broadway show, saw Britney Spears in concert.”

Lang Lang played at the black tie dinner Chinese President Hu Jintao at the White House in January 2011. He was criticized for playing “My Motherland” because the song happened to come from a 1956 anti-U.S. film, set in the Korean war, called “Battle on Shangganling Mountain”. On his website Lang answered his critics by saying: “I selected thing song becuase it has been a favorite of mine since I was a child. It was selected for no other reason but the beauty of its melody.”

In October 2013 Lang Lang was selected as a United Nations Messenger of Peace, a role he called more important than his music because it can help improve the lives of children around the world through education.

Lang Lang and Music

Lang Lang at the 2008 Olympics
To stay in top form Lang Lang spends five days every two months in Berlin, studying with conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim. He told the Times, “It’s without interruption, no interviews, no telephone calls, no other things, we think that’s the only way to study.”

Lang Lang has said he loves opera, jazz and hip hop. On his favorite pianist he told Time, “I call Vladimir Horowitz “the Magician.” He made everything so simple, it was like magic. When Arthur Rubenstein plays, he brings his heart out to you. It’s so personal and so warm. And Glenn Gould is a unique genius. You’ve probably heard many pianists playing the same work, but when you hear Gould, it’s like it’s brand new.”

Lang Lang doesn’t shy away from Chinese music . He recorded an album of traditional Chinese classics called “Dragon Songs” that included titles like “Spring Flowers in the Moonlight Night on the River”. In addition, he gave a premier of a concerto by Tan Du.

A great deal has been written about the rivalry between Lang Lang and Yundi Li. Li was dropped in the late 2000s by Deutsche Grammophone, the label that Lang Lang records on. Although he has barred orchestras from playing with Yundi in the same season, Lang Lang said the “he or me” rumors are untrue. “No! This is a very bad thing to do and totally not true,” he told the Times. “This is not allowed in the real world: I have no right to say anything about other artists. It’s his career.”

The Lang Lang International Music Foundation introduces classical music to kids and provides scholarship for gifted pianists. It is sponsored by UNICEF and Montblanc. Lang Lang has appeared on “Sesame Street” and visited kids in Africa. “I know I have responsibility,” he told The Times, “because the world needs to open more markets for classical music. I hope I can deliver that.”

Lang Lang’s Playing

Spengler wrote in the Asia Times,”But whatever makes Lang Lang so beloved among audiences, in a field where thousands of other pianists evince perfect technique, surely includes his own enjoyment of what he does. He is not the greatest interpreter of Mozart, surely no Murray Perahia or Radu Lupu. But he is an engaging personality whose connection to the music is manifest.” [Source: Spengler, Asia Times, December 2, 2008]

“A case in point is Lang's reading of Mozart's C Minor Concerto K 491, with Long Yu conducting the China Philharmonic, available on Youtube). This work presents a famously enigmatic theme that immediately chases itself into a chromatic sequence, only to be interrupted by yet another chromatic sequence in a different voice, before it stumbles into a concluding cadence. Underneath this, the informed listener senses, there must lurk the familiar four-bar phrase of popular music, but Mozart never once spells this out. He leaves us off-balance at every point. It is a romping-ground for musical surprise, an enchanted forest of tricks and track-backs in which the true path always is obscure.”

“When the Mozart C Minor Concerto is performed properly, there shouldn't be a dry seat in the house. In the version available at Youtube, Lang Lang smiles and sometimes grimaces in appreciation of Mozart's jokes. One may fault him for losing the comedian's dead-pan, but surely that is preferable to not getting the jokes at all. The pianist is beset by a sense of wonder at Mozart. That is a very good thing, because the Chinese nation that looks to Lang Lang as one of its heroes is learning the high culture of the West with a collective sense of wonder.”

Lang Lang and Performing

Before a concert in Hamburg he had three pianos to choose form: a new model from Steinway’s Hamburg factory, “the house piano” which he has recorded with twice, and another Steinway brought in from Leipzig. He chose the second one. After his performance was over he received a ten-minute standing ovation.

Lang said,, “the bigger the venue is the better. Every time I go back to China, I play in stadiums that fit 10,000 to 12,000 people, They cheer like it’s a pop concert. After the show, I need to wait two hours before I can get out of the stadium.”

New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini wrote Lang Lang “has a penchant for interpretive exaggeration. His playing can be so intensely expressive that he contorts phrases, distorts musical structure and fills his music-making with distracting affectations.” Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker: “Lang Lang feels the music at you. He advertises his love of performing simply by the way he charges on stage...and he creates a giddy atmosphere as he negotiates hairpin turns at a high speed...At times you wish he were a little more impersonal. He tends to impose his ebullience to the music whether or not the music demands it.”

New York Times music critic Allan Kozinn wrote: “You never quite know what you’re going to get at a Lang Lang performance...Passages infused with sublime beauty sit beside sheer display, some virtuosic and brilliant, some veering headlong into vulgarity.” On his encore, Chopin’s Etude in E,, “he played its outer sections with a refined tone, letting the plaintive supple theme sing over a gauzy accompaniment. But in the short bravura middle section Mr Lang pummeled the keyboard with all his might.”

Yundi Li


Yundi Li is considered one of the world's best pianist. A native of Sichuan, he is the youngest pianist ever to win the prestigious Chopin Piano Competition, which is held every five years in Warsaw. He won the award at the age of 18 in 2000 and received the first gold medal since 1985 (in 1990 and 1995 no musicians was regarded as worthy of winning the award). Li’s compatriot Chen Sa came in forth.

On Yundi Li, Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker,”His playing is refined, almost severe. He has an intelligent way of shaping phrases, controlling dynamics, varying articulation...He’s a more naturally poetic soul than Lang Lang.” His performances he said, are “the kind that you remember, as much for its quiet stretchs as for its “wow factor.”

Image Sources: 1) Yo Yo Ma, Honda and Nobel prize com; 2) Lang Lang and Yundi Li albums, Amazon; 3) Olympics, Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2014

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