rightWestern classical music is very much alive in China. Chinese Western classical musicians are in high demand in China and around the world. Concerts are full and millions of children play western instruments with the best and brightest matriculating to first rate music schools.

In 1973, a year after U.S. President Nixon’s trip to China, the Philadelphia Orchestra became the first United States ensemble to play there since the Communist take over of China in 1949. The musicians were the first U.S. citizens that most Chinese had laid eyes on in 35 years. The orchestra performed the Yellow River Concerto, a piece composed by a communist committee. [Source: Washington Post]

Li Delun is a composer widely known for popularizing Western classical music in China. A member of the Hui Muslim minority, he studied the cello at the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1940s and conducted major orchestras in China and the Soviet Union. Beijing-born composer and conductor Tan Dun is regarded as one of the world's leading avante-garde composer. He is known for imaginative blending of Western and Chinese instruments His Symphony 1997 premiered at handover of Hong Kong to China. He won an Academy Award for best soundtrack for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, which he composed "The First Emperor" is an opera written by Tan Dun that has been staged under the direction of Zhang Yimou. The Metropolitan Opera in New York had hoped to stage it with Placido Domingo,

Chinese music has had some impact on Western music. Professor Derk Bodde wrote: “Chinese poetry inspired the Austrian musical composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), to create his greatest choral work, "The Song of the Earth" (1908). The words of this composition are taken from six poems in Hans Bethge's "Chinese Flute "(1907), a collection of verses in German based upon Chinese originals. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, Asia for Educators, Columbia University, July 1948 afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

History of Western Classical Music in China

Western classical music formally arrived in China when the missionary Matteo Ricci presented a clavichord to Wanli, the longest-ruling Ming emperor, in 1601 in return for allowing the Jesuits to open a mission. Four eunuchs were ordered to learn to play the instrument and perform for the Emperor. The eunuchs experimented with it for a while and then the instrument was placed in a box until it was rediscovered by Chongzen, the last of the Ming emperors, who asked a German Jesuit to explain how it worked.

Emperors Kangxi and Qianling showed the most interest in Western classical music among the Qing emperors. Kangxi adapted some Taoist prayers to harpsichord music and the Emperor Qianlong formed an ensemble with 18 eunuchs who performed in Western-style suits and wigs. The Empress Dowager Cixi once pulled up a turnip, accompanied by Western symphony music played by German-trained Chinese musicians.

In the 19th Western classical music made its first inroads outside the Imperial court in form of military and municipal bands. The first true orchestra was formed in Shanghai in 1919. Initially it was comprised almost exclusively of foreigners but later began welcoming Chinese. The first Western-style music school, the Shanghai Conservatory, was founded in 1927. The lively cosmopolitan atmosphere of Shanghai helped the Western classical music scene grow there.

“The New Culture Movement of the 1910s and 1920s evoked a great deal of lasting interest in Western music as a number of Chinese musicians who had studied abroad returned to perform Western classical music and to compose works of their own based on the Western musical notation system. Symphony orchestras were formed in most major cities and performed to a wide audience in the concert halls and on radio. Popular music--greatly influenced by Western music, especially that of the United States--also gained a wide audience in the 1940s. After the 1942 Yan'an Forum on Literature and Art, a large-scale campaign was launched in the Communist controlled areas to adapt folk music to create revolutionary songs to educate the largely illiterate rural population on party goals. [Source: Library of Congress]

In the Mao era, foreign music was initially embraced but kept within strict ideological bounds. Then is was dismissed as propagandist took over (See Music in the Communist Era). After the death of Mao and the imprisonment Jiang Qing, the classical music scene re-emerged, When the Central Conservatory reopened in 1978, 18,000 people applied for a 100 places. Among those who won places were composers that would come define contemporary classical music in China: Tan Dun, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Chen Qigang and Guo Wenjung. Of these Tan Dun, Chen Yi, and Zhou Long moved to New York and Chen Qigang went to Paris, where they absorbed themselves in the contemporary music scenes.

Beethoven in China

Although the first piano was brought to China in the early 1600s, Chinese only began really listening to and performing Western classical music in the 1920s. Jindong Cai, an orchestra conductor, a professor at Stanford University, told the New York Times: Beethoven was introduced to China by a writer named Li Shutong, who wrote an essay about Beethoven in 1907 and even made a charcoal drawing of him. He admired Beethoven’s fighting spirit, and thought that this was what China needed” but he probably never listed to his music. He studied in Japan, but it’s not clear he even heard him there. It was Beethoven’s spirit and life story he admired.

Beethoven was first performed by the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra — now the Shanghai Symphony — in 1911. But that was an all-foreigner orchestra and Chinese were not allowed to attend its concerts until 1925. So the first time that Beethoven was played by and for Chinese was thanks to Xiao Youmei. He was a follower of Sun Yat-sen and later got a Ph.D in music at Leipzig University in Germany. He returned to China in about 1919 and the great educator Cai Yuanpei asked him to start an orchestra at Peking University. He created the Peking University Conservatory, and in 1922, the Peking University Orchestra performed the second movement of the Fifth Symphony and the first movement of the Sixth Symphony. They only had 15 musicians, but that can sound pretty good.

Since then, Beethoven has been symbol of classical music in China. When Kissinger visited in 1971, they had to bring musicians back from the countryside, where they had been exiled in the Cultural Revolution, when Beethoven was reportedly banned, which may have been partly a myth. Cai said: “Chinese people believe that to succeed you have to chi ku [literally “eat bitterness,” meaning endure hardship]”. Beethoven fit the bill. He struggled all the time and then he succeeded. This made him popular, as famous in China as Shakespeare in literature or Darwin in the sciences. In 1957, Mao invited musicians for a talk in Zhongnanhai [the leadership compound in Beijing]. He said, we need foreign things, but they should serve China. This goes back to his 1942 talk on arts in Yan’an. Art had to serve politics. Obviously, it has created many problems, but one positive effect is that Chinese artists want their music to be understood by people.

Puccini’s Turandot

In recent years Puccini’s “Turandot” has become popular in China. The film maker Zhang Zimou staged a $15 million production of it in Beijing’s Forbidden City in 1998. A new production was staged in the 100,000-seat Olympics Bird nest stadium in 2009. “Turandot” was the first opera staged at Beijing new National Center for the Performing Arts. Puccini’s “Tosca” opened China’s first bona fide opera festival, where four of the nine full-length operas were by Puccini.

The popularity of “Turandot” is kind of surprise in that a decade or so ago it was derided as an insult to China and its people. The opera is about a despotic Chinese princess who has her suitors beaded unless they can answer three riddles, a story inspired by a Persian tale not a Chinese one. Puccini never visited Asia and died before finishing “Turandot”. The libretto is full of historical inaccuracies such as events taking place in the Forbidden City more than thousand years before it was built.

Props for “Turandot” have traditionally included severed heads on poles. These libretto contained lines like, “They strangle you in this palace, impale you, cut your throat, skin you, tear you to pieces and decapitate you, saw you and disembowel you.” These have been removed from Chinese productions of the opera.

Study and Appreciation of Western Classical Music

Depending on the source there are between 30 million and 100 million children studying piano, violin or both, either at school or with tutors. In many cases, on a given afternoon in a particular neighborhood, more kids are likely to be practicing piano than playing outside.

Promising musicians are given special treatment like promising athletes in the United States. They can get into top universities with lower scores on their entrance test than students without musical skills.

The Sichuan Conservatory in Chengdu has more than 10,000 students. By contrast Julliard only has 800. Among Sichuan’s graduates are the pop singer Li Yuchon, who won the American-Idol-like “Super Girl” contest in 2005 with a “hip-hop-flavored, gender-bending” dance-and-song routine.

The Chinese Western classical music system creates great soloists but fails to develop a breadth of talent with the collaborative skill necessary to fill a first-rate orchestra. Even among the top orchestras in Shanghai and Beijing the string section is not bad but the wind and brass sections are often not much better than those in a civic orchestra or even high school marching band.

The audiences at classical music concerts in China tend by younger and less considerate than audiences in the West. Many look at the their cell phones. Some read newspapers and ignore bans on taking photos or video images, But then again they seem to enjoy themselves more and applaud when the music deserves its.

Western Classical Musical Students in China

In the remote parts of China some children who had never learned music have been selected for art schools and conservatories the same way promising athletes are picked for different sports through a series of tests. Mama Yiba, a member of Tibetan song and dance company told the China Daily, when “I was a primary school student, I remember one day, some teachers from a Beijing music school visited the class. I could call it an audition, Obviously few of us had learn music. They just asked you to clap to certain rhythms and do other very simple tests.”

Many parents encourage their child to take up a Western musical instruments. As Chinese become more affluent more and more of them can afford instruments for their kids.

Many Asian and Chinese parents dream of their kids becoming classical music stars and spend a great deal of time and money providing them with lessons and instruments. One 19-year-old cellist who was good enough to become a professional started piano lessons at four, began studying the cello at six, entered the Shanghai Conservatory when she was nine, and left home to attend the Hong Kong Academy of Music when she was 14.

There are many events and competitions. Plus, competition is stiff to get into China’s nine conservatories. Many say they atmosphere is too competitive, with serious players preparing for events as if they were Olympic athletes.

One European director of a music school in China told the International Herald Tribune: “There is a very competitive attitude, which is very Asian. The children in China learn an instrument and think they will be the next Heifetz, But you have millions of musicians in the world and only one Heifetz. It is the wrong attitude. It is simply not a good education system. Most young musicians in China will not have good careers if this continues...In China, they grow up so fast. I just heard a 13-year-old pianist play with fantastic skill but he played with no other knowledge. What does such as 13-year-old know about life?”

“Conservatories on the mainland concentrate only on finding the next student who could win the world’s most difficult competitions, like Yundi Li did, and the rest can be forgotten. It is very wasteful to develop all that talent, and then drop it...Some teacher did not want students to play in groups because there is stigma that you only become an orchestral or chamber music player if you’ve failed otherwise. It’s a very competitive world and it conditions kids to be disappointed.:..I want to show these students how much fun and joy and friendship there can be with ensemble music.”

Western Classical Instrument Industry in China

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Pearl River Piano

China is increasingly becoming a major manufacturer of Western musical instruments. It produces the overwhelming majority of the world’s student-level violins, violas, cellos and string basses. It also produces many the world’s pianos and guitars. Some piano companies report increase of sales of 30 percent a year.

The world’s largest piano factory, the Pearl River Piano factory, is located in Guangzhou. It produces 290 pianos every day. The company was founded in the 1956 and now produces quality pianos that rank with ones made by famous names and produces ones for famous names such as Steinway. Gibson, the maker of Gibson guitars and Baldwin pianos, took over Dongbein Piano Group, China’s third largest piano maker in the mid 2000s.

By some estimate 1 million violins are produced by hundreds of factories in China each year and 70 to 80 percent of the violins sold to U.S. music students are made in China. These range from basic student models to concert quality instruments that bear names like Andreas Eastman, Johannes Kohr and Andre Schroetter.

China owes its success to the skill of its workers and their ability to copy designs that remained virtually unchanged for the last 300 years. China has come a long way very fast. Violins produced by China in the 1970s were crap. In the 1980s China sent violin makers to Cremona Italy and violin centers in Germany to learn how to make violins from Europe’s greatest violin makers. Through 1980s and 90s the quality steadily improved.

The quality of the violins produced in China is now very high. Western violin makers told the Los Angeles Times that “the quality has improved exponentially” and instruments are “incredible...They’re just gorgeous instruments for the price.” The Chinese have yet to dominate the market professional quality instruments but they are getting there. Zhu Ming Jiang, a violin maker in Beijing, won a gold medal from the Violin Society of America in 2006.

World’s Largest Violin Factory

20080303-Taixing Fengling Musical Instruments product 3.gif
Taixing products

Taixing Fengling Musical Instrument Co., based in the southeastern Chinese town of Xiqao, is the largest violin maker in the world. In 2006, it made 300,000 violins, violas, cellos and basses and 400,000 guitars and posted sales of $25 million. By some estimates the factory accounts for 45 percent of China’s violin production and a quarter of the world’s supply. Xiqao has a population of only 35,000 people. It is home to 40 violin companies and may produce as many as a third of the world’s violins.

Taixing Fengling employs 1,280 people. Workers get paid about $125 a month, working all day, six days a week. Most of the instruments are made assembly-line style in basketball-court shops filled with workers specializing in a specific tasks such as sanding violins, carving scrolls, chiseling out the front and backs, glueing pieces together, and placing the bridge in the correct place. Few machines are used other than hand tools.

20080303-Taixing Fengling Musical Instruments product 1.gif

The combination of good quality, low labor costs and low price of the products has crushed the competition. Many violin makers in Europe have been put out of business. Most of the ones that have survived either make top of the line instruments of buy Chinese models, add a few finishing touches and attach their name to them.

Piano Playing in China

The Chinese are wild about piano playing. By some counts 15 million Chinese are diligently trying to improve their skill so they can make a living playing a piano. Parents are supportive of such dreams, monitoring practice sessions up to 10 hours a day. They devote a considerable chunk of their incomes, and are even willing to relocate and give up careers.

During the Cultural Revolution the only piece that pianos were allowed to play was Yellow River concerto, a pastiche commissioned by Mao’s wife.

Top prospects start playing at age 3, master Chopin’s preludes by 8 and Mozart concertos by 12. By the time they graduate from a top school like Shenzhen Art School---where top professionals such as Yundi Li studied---they can concertos by Liszt and Rachmaninoff.

China’s Six-to-One Piano Player Advantage over the U.S.

According to the Bluebook of Pianos 36 million Chinese children study piano today, compared to only 6 million in the United States.”Chinese parents urge their children to excel at instrumental music with thesame ferocity that American parents [urge] theirs to perform well in soccer or Little League,” wrote Jennifer Lin in the Philadelphia Inquirer 8 in an article entitled China's “piano fever”. [Source: Spengler, Asia Times, December 2, 2008]

There is some evidence that classical music produces better minds, and promotes success in other fields. A study in Psychological Science entitled “Music Lessons Enhance IQ” suggests that that music lessons raise the IQs of six-year-olds. Elite American families still nudge their children toward musical study. At Brearley, New York’s most exclusive girl’s school, playing in the orchestra is a requirement. American medical schools accept more undergraduates who majored in music than any other discipline (excepting pre-med). [Ibid]

Spengler wrote in the Asia Times, ‘something more than the mental mechanics of classical music makes this decisive for China. In classical music, China has embraced the least Chinese, and the most explicitly Western, of all art forms. Even the best Chinese musicians still depend on Western mentors. Lang Lang may be a star, but in some respects he remains an apprentice in the pantheon of Western musicians. The Chinese, in some ways the most arrogant of peoples, can elicit a deadly kind of humility in matters of learning. Their eclecticism befits an empire that is determined to succeed, as opposed to a mere nation that needs to console itself by sticking to its supposed cultural roots. Great empires transcend national culture and naturalize the culture they require.” [Ibid]

“China's commitment to classical music will have effects that are at once too subtle and too powerful to categorize easily. It is not that classical music helps to train good scientists, for example. Music and the sciences are different disciplines to begin with. Mathematicians who learn music, though, are more likely to cast an ironic eye upon their craft, and look for flaws and opportunity in its cracks and crannies. It is not Mozart's sense of order, but his sense of irony that refines the mind of the mathematician.” [Ibid]

“It is hard to explain what is important about something that most people never will understand. That is what makes America's music gap with China so difficult to remedy...American musical education remains the best in the world, the legacy of the European refugees who staffed the great conservatories, and the best Asian musicians come to America to study. Thirty to 40 percent of students at the top schools are Asian, and another 20 to 30 percent are Eastern European (or Israeli). There are few Americans or Western Europeans among the best instrumentalists. According to the head of one conservatory, Americans simply don't have the discipline to practice eight hours a day.” [Ibid]

In response to the article Andrew Field wrote: Can't say I agree with this article. Sure, China may be training more classical musicians on the whole, but America is still producing countless outstanding musicians in many different genres, from jazz to pop to rock to rap to folk to experimental. Also, just because people are technically skilled in the rigors of classical music doesn't necessarily translate into musical brilliance or creativity (or for that matter, scientific brilliance).”

Armless Chinese Uses Toes to Play Piano

Pianist Liu Wei sits quietly to compose himself before plunging into the music. Then he takes off a sock. The 23-year-old, whose arms were amputated after a childhood accident, plays the piano with his toes. Liu was thrust into the limelight earlier this month when he performed on "China's Got Talent," the Chinese version of the TV show that helped make Britain's Susan Boyle a singing star. "Whatever other people do with their hands, I do with my feet. It's just that," says Liu, a tall, slender man who peers shyly from behind dark-rimmed glasses. [Source: AP, October 10, 2011]

In his first appearance, Liu received a standing ovation from the audience, many of whom were moved to tears, for a performance of "Mariage D'amour" by Richard Clayderman. Sitting on a tallish red stool, he removed his shoes and right sock, carefully using his toes to place the sock in his right shoe. (He plays with his left sock on.) He wiped some of the keys with a tissue, and then rested his heels on a velvet-covered, narrow platform before the piano. Time after time, he played the piece gently and flawlessly.

Liu, who was 10 when he lost his arms from an electrical shock while playing hide-and-seek, uses his feet to navigate online, eat, dress and brush his teeth. "I wish I could go out driving to have fun. Apart from that, there is really nothing more I want to do," said Liu, who lives in Beijing. "Music has become a habit for me. It is just like breathing air." He only began playing the piano in his late teens. "Nobody ever decreed that to play the piano you must use your hands," he said.

Prosthetic limbs don't interest Liu. He has no need for special support, he said, though he conceded he has often met with discrimination. Disabled people in China, despite efforts to improve conditions, are often forced to beg on the sidewalks. Liu is able to support himself, though he wouldn't say how. "I have food to eat and clothes to wear and many people caring about me. What is there to be dissatisfied about?" he said. "There are many people without enough to eat. I'm much more fortunate than they are."

Liu's biggest beef is with people who insist on helping him without asking first. "Here, if someone thinks you need help they will just do it. They assume you must want help," he said. "Foreigners will ask first if you want any help. They will first respect your wishes. In that way, China could make an improvement." Liu would like to be seen just as a pianist. "Right now, everyone looks at me and says, 'Oh, Liu Wei has no arms and it's very difficult for him to play the piano,"' he said. "In the future, I want them to say, 'Oh he's good.' To first notice the work is great, and then say, 'Liu Wei did it.' ... What I demand is that my work be so good people won't notice that my arms are missing."

Attempts to Introduce Baroque Music to China

Ian Johnson wrote in the International Herald Tribune: “The young musicians ended the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and looked expectantly at the maestro. Christopher Hogwood weighed his words carefully then decided that honesty was the best policy. “That was Tchaikovsky,” the 69-year-old guru of Baroque music said to falling faces. “It was not Baroque music. Can you buy CDs of Baroque music in China? DVDs? I’d suggest listening to them first.” [Source: Ian Johnson, International Herald Tribune, October 27, 2010]

“It was a small but telling scene at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music, where Mr. Hogwood was holding a master class on Baroque music. As part of an unprecedented program of Baroque music at the Beijing Music Festival, Mr. Hogwood was in town doing pioneer work: bringing 17th- and 18th-century western music---Bach, Handel, Rameau, Lully and Vivaldi---to a country where western classical music seems to begin and end with the big Romantic stars of the 19th century---Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler---with a bit of Mozart and even less Bach thrown in to the mix.”

“But as Mr. Hogwood was discovering, even students at this prestigious school had little idea what Baroque was all about. Students could not play without “vibrato”---the rocking of the hand on the violin neck that is typical of later classical music but rarely used in the Baroque era. They didn’t know how to organize themselves on stage like the music calls for and didn’t have scores from the Baroque era, instead using heavily marked-up sheet music that turned the light, subtle score into overpowering Romantic fare.”

“Baroque is totally neglected here,” said Song Tu, program director of the Beijing Music Festival, which featured four Baroque-era performances. “There’s no Baroque ensemble anywhere in China, there are no period instruments, and it’s basically not taught in the conservatories. Most people aren’t even aware it’s part of the western classical music tradition.”

In the West, Baroque has been undergoing a revival over the past few decades thanks to the efforts of conductors and musicologists like Mr. Hogwood. It’s a trend that has largely bypassed China’s nascent western classical music scene. Symphonies here have limited repertories, with most musicians unaware that western classical music sounded different in various eras. “Brilliant technique and great power are what’s most admired in China,” says Cai Jindong, a music professor at Stanford University and author of a book on classical music in China who is on sabbatical in Beijing. “People like things big here.”

Another reason for the difficulty in introducing Baroque is that Chinese musicians are trained mostly in technique, not interpretation. By and large, Baroque composers didn’t write down many instructions on how to perform a piece, so learning how to do so means studying the period and the composer’s style.

Still, performing this music in China has required some compromises. Mr. Hogwood said the Guangzhou Symphony is a “red-blooded, high-horsepower” orchestra geared for 19th-century Germanic pieces and basically not suited to playing Baroque music. Mr. Hogwood’s solution was to limit the evening’s performance to just one truly Baroque piece---Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks---which was originally scored for a big, loud ensemble playing outdoors. The rest of the program was of music by Stravinsky and Martinü who were influenced by the Baroque and early Classical tradition, or Baroque work rescored for modern orchestras by Elgar, Raff and Webern.

“If you’re going to work in China, then you’re going to be dealing with symphonic orchestras in the Germanic tradition,” Mr. Hogwood said. “There’s no point having them play music they aren’t comfortable with.”

If Baroque is to gain a foothold in China, it probably will have to be in classes like Mr. Hogwood’s. The students were enthusiastic and, as he noted, technically very competent. Many students were taken with the similarities to Chinese classical music, which also features much improvization and less firepower. Indeed, one of the most fruitful periods of cultural exchange between China and the West was during the late Baroque, when western architects built a pleasure palace for China’s emperors and chinoiserie was all the rage in Europe. “I feel that Baroque is more flowing, more natural,” said Xie Haoming, a 20-year-old violinist who played lead on one of Vivaldi’s violin concertos that Mr. Hogwood critiqued. “It’s like Chinese tea---a more delicate flavor.”

Classical Music with Chinese Party Elite Characteristics

At the end of 2012, arguably the hottest ticket in town was the Beijing premiere of the Three Highs Philharmonic Orchestra at the egg-shaped China National Center for the Performing Arts. Sheila Melvin wrote in China File, “The Three Highs—San Gao, in Chinese, or “3H” in colloquial English promotional materials—is an amateur ensemble named not for any notes its performers might reach in concert, but for the status they must possess simply to be members. Indeed, “three highs” refers to the bureaucratic ranking of the ninety-seven musicians and the accompanying 141-member chorus, all of whom are high-ranking members of China’s Communist Party, intelligentsia, or military. They include Minister of Foreign AffairsYang Jiechi, who sang in the chorus (along with dozens of other ministry officials); Shanghai Communist Party Secretary Han Zheng and chairman of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, Bate’er, both of whom played accordion; Shenzhen Party Secretary Wang Rong, who served as concertmaster; and retired astronaut Jing Haipeng, who played trombone. [Source: Sheila Melvin, China File, February 28, 2013

“The invitation-only audience at the Beijing performances—held December 21 and 22—was nearly as exclusive as the ensemble. While the dress rehearsal was open to friends, family, and a few people (like me) who called on every connection they had to get in, the first formal performance was attended by former president Jiang Zemin, former vice premier Li Lanqing, and former vice premier Wu Yi, along with numerous central and city government officials. The audience at the second concert included foreign ambassadors and other diplomats, select schoolteachers, university professors, and arts professionals.

“It is near impossible to imagine any other nation on earth that would have the will, the wherewithal, or even the desire to create an ensemble like this—not to mention the moxy to call it the “Three Highs.” And, indeed, there was some tongue-wagging, as on the widely circulated post on the Twitter-like Weibo that joked “three highs” was actually a reference to the high blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol of the orchestra’s mostly retired members. But, while the Three Highs is many things, it is most certainly no joke. On the contrary, it is yet another signifier of the seriousness with which the PRC government takes its mission—formally announced at the 2011 plenum of the Communist Party’s Central Committee—to promote the “great development and great flourishing” of Chinese culture. It is also evidence of the enduring belief that a good leader should be cultivated and cultured, and of the leadership’s willingness to put its money—and time and energy—where its mouth is.

“The creation of the Three Highs was a top-down effort of near-Herculean proportion undertaken in less than a year. It began, according to a report in China’s Southern Weekend newspaper, around Spring Festival of 2012 when Li Lanqing—a long-time promoter of classical music who has authored several books on the subject and even begun to compose for orchestra—discussed the idea with Ye Xiaowen, a cellist and a vice president of the Central Institute of Socialism, and Zhou Shuchun, vice president of Xinhua News Agency. Li and Ye reportedly donated their own salaries to the undertaking, while institutional support was obtained from the Ministries of Culture, Education, and Foreign Affairs, the Communist Party School, the Central Institute of Socialism, and the Central Conservatory of Music. Ye traveled around the country seeking amateur musicians of high bureaucratic rank and ultimately recruited participants from sixteen provinces and Hong Kong.

“The Three Highs began to rehearse in July and in August and gave its first internal performance in Beidaihe, the Communist Party’s seaside retreat. Because of distance and work obligations, orchestra members were only able to meet in various cities every few weeks and come together as an ensemble even more sporadically. Since many musicians had not played their instruments in decades, they felt obliged to practice day and night; Chen Jiabao, chairman of the standing committee of the Nanjing People’s Congress and a flutist, reportedly practiced so much that the tendons in his hands became inflamed. Members of the chorus were asked to sing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in its original language and thus had to study German; some singers were unfamiliar with five-line staff notation and so had to pencil in the numeric musical notation (jianpu) commonly used by choruses in China.

“Adding to the demands on the amateur orchestra was a repertoire so challenging—it included works by Strauss, Bizet, Mozart, Shostakovich, Massenet, Mussorgsky, Lloyd Weber, and Chou (as in a Jay Chou, the pop music heartthrob from Taiwan)—that composer and Three Highs artistic director Tang Jianping had to create simplified arrangements, a common practice for non-professional orchestras. Because it was decided that orchestra musicians would premiere the use of electronic music stands developed in China, musicians also had to accustom themselves to newfangled technology in lieu of reading their parts on paper. The electronic system failed at the dress rehearsal, leaving chagrined players without music during a performance of Li Lanqing’s musical caprice “The Monk Jianzhen Sails Eastward”; renowned conductor Chen Zuohuang, who had a paper score, gamely apologized to the audience and forged ahead, leading the musicians as they bravely played from memory. A rigorous concert schedule was set and followed, with the Three Highs performing to full houses in Shanghai, Suzhou, Nanjing, and Wuxi prior to its Beijing concerts.

“In late January it was reported that the Three Highs would not perform again (although participants noted the ensemble was never intended to be permanent). In speculating as to why—if this proves true—some suggested unease among the leadership at the existence of an ensemble comprising, and backed by, so many high-level retirees. Others noted the considerable expense involved and suggested that the Three Highs was at odds with the political zeitgeist, which now emphasizes Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping's eight new rules for curtailing official extravagance. In truth, however, the nexus binding music and politics in China is sometimes as fraught as it is fruitful. Arguments against state support of music are as old as those in support of it, but they have never won out. As the philosopher Mozi (480-420BCE) wrote in “The Condemnation of Music”: If everybody loves and indulges in Music, neither the ruler and the nobles, nor the officials and scholars, nor the farmers and their wives, would be able to fulfill their duties. What is interfering with the affairs of the state? Music, of course!

Image Sources: 1) Poster, Landsberger Posters http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/; 2) Piano and violins, Pearl River Piano and Taixing; 3) Yo Yo Ma, Nobel prize com; 4)Lang Lang and Yundi Li albums, Amazon

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 November 2021

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