Tuning in, sounding out

Updated: 2012-05-11 11:11

By Mu Qian (China Daily)

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China might not have the world's best symphony orchestras, but it has the world's fastest growing symphonic scene.

It possesses the third largest number of symphony orchestras, after the United States and Germany, China Symphony Development Foundation director Guo Shan says.

The Association of Chinese Symphony Orchestras under the foundation has 58 member orchestras from around the country. More than 20 have started in the last decade, Guo says.

"This is because governments are paying more attention to culture," Guo told the recent 2012 China Symphony Summit in Zhejiang's provincial capital Hangzhou.

"A symphony orchestra has become an important part of a city's development."

Beijing alone has at least 15 professional symphony orchestras, including such State-level orchestras as the China National Symphony Orchestra and the China Philharmonic Orchestra.

The Beijing Symphony Orchestra has received an unprecedented government subsidy this year - to the tune of more than 50 million yuan. It will use the money to arrange cooperation with such internationally acclaimed maestros as Christoph Eschenbach and Daniel Barenboim, and it will host a series of free concerts in colleges and universities.

Because it's from the host city of the 2008 Olympic Games, it will team up with the London Philharmonic Orchestra to perform a special gala in London on July 29 to celebrate the 2012 Olympics.

But on the other end of the spectrum exist such orchestras as the Nanjing Philharmonic, a private organization that barely survives in the market.

The orchestra was founded in 2008 and has 70 members, most of whom are retired musicians or students. There are also music conservatory graduates with day jobs.

"We must perform more popular works than big orchestras," Nanjing Philharmonic Orchestra president Wang Yang explains. "Survival is our ruling preoccupation."

Wang played viola with the Philharmonic of the Nations in Germany but moved back to China in 2007.

The orchestra is scheduled to stage 60 concerts this year, including 25 free performances at universities, with limited government support and some commercial sponsorship. Several big companies have invited the orchestra to play at their events.

Many of the concerts have themes, such as Chinese works or film music.

"We hope we can foster a bigger symphonic music market in China by performing more popular works," Wang says.

Nanjing Philharmonic Orchestra has built up a fan base in Jiangsu province's capital Nanjing. It has about 4,000 registered members and 12,000 micro blog followers.

"There seems to be a kind of awakening in the enthusiasm to absorb the arts in China," Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra chief executive Michael MacLeod says.

"That happened in Japan maybe 30 or 40 years ago. It's now happening in China."

MacLeod believes China has an advantage in music education since many parents provide opportunities for their children to study music. He also says the country can develop its own symphonic music through integrating Western classical and Chinese music.

This is already happening, especially with many provincial orchestras playing and commissioning music works that use local cultural themes.

Gansu province's Lanzhou Symphony Orchestra has performed at the Sydney Opera House the concert Classics, Dunhuang, playing works inspired by Dunhuang's Buddhist frescoes. Hangzhou Philharmonic Orchestra, which was founded three years ago, performed earlier this year Seven Episodes for West Lake, which it commissioned from composer Ye Xiaogang. The Symphony Orchestra of Inner Mongolia Song and Dance Theater premiered Genghis Khan, composed by Tang Jianping.

"While we don't have as many resources as a State-level orchestra, we can become the best at interpreting Jiangsu music," Jiangsu Symphony Orchestra president Lu Jun says.

MacLeod, who previously worked as general and artistic director of Glimmerglass Opera and executive director of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, believes international conductors are what China needs most to develop its symphonic music.

It's already typical for orchestras in Beijing and Shanghai to work with world-class conductors, but this isn't as easy for western China's budget-constrained orchestras.

The China Symphony Development Foundation established a "conductors' fund" in 2010 to help Chinese orchestras work with international conductors. It has supported more than 10 provincial orchestras so far.

It has also supported the Beijing Modern Music Festival and presented a youth symphony orchestra camp in Shanghai. "We believe symphonic music plays an important role in improving the quality of Chinese people's lives," Guo says.

"And it's a great way to enhance social harmony."

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