A new international division of labor: China plays and the West
April 3, 2007
Classical Music Looks Toward China With Hope
By JOSEPH KAHN and DANIEL J. WAKIN
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With the same energy, drive and sheer population weight that has made
it an economic power, China has become a considerable force in Western
classical music. Conservatories are bulging. Provincial cities demand
orchestras and concert halls. Pianos and violins made in China fill
shipping containers leaving its ports.
The Chinese enthusiasm suggests the potential for a growing market for
recorded music and live performances just as an aging fan base and
declining record sales worry many professionals in Europe and the
United States. Sales for a top-selling classical recording in the West
number merely in the thousands instead of the tens of thousands 25
More profoundly, classical music executives say that the art form is
being increasingly marginalized in a sea of popular culture and new
media. Fewer young American listeners find their way to classical
music, largely because of the lack of the music education that was
widespread in public schools two generations ago. As a result many
orchestras and opera houses struggle to fill halls.
China, with an estimated 30 million piano students and 10 million
violin students, is on an opposite trajectory. Comprehensive tests to
enter the top conservatories now attract nearly 200,000 students a
year, compared with a few thousand annually in the 1980s, according to
the Chinese Musicians Association.
The hardware side has also exploded. As of 2003, 87 factories made
Western musical instruments. By last year the number had grown to 142,
producing 370,000 pianos, one million violins and six million guitars.
China dominates world production of all three.
April 4, 2007
Increasingly in the West, the Players Are From the East
By DANIEL J. WAKIN
With stunning swiftness China's surging ranks of classical musicians
have found a home in Western concert halls, conservatories and opera
houses, jolting a musical tradition born in the courts and churches of
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Consider that the hottest artist on the classical music planet may
well be the Chinese pianist Lang Lang, 24, the darling of fans
worldwide. The biggest event in the opera world last year was a
Metropolitan Opera premiere by Tan Dun, "The First Emperor," which the
Met hopes to take on tour to China next year.
In 2005, at the most recent Van Cliburn piano competition, a deeply
Texan tradition in Fort Worth, 8 of the 35 participants were Chinese,
up from 3 in 2001 and 1 in 1991; one of the six finalists, Chu-Fang
Huang, went on to win the Cleveland International Piano Competition in
2005. Chinese violinists and pianists now regularly win prizes in the
world's other major competitions as well.
Along with Lang Lang and another highly praised Chinese pianist, Yundi
Li, also 24, a new crop of stars in their teens or barely out of them
are on the way up. They include Yuja Wang, 20, a pianist studying at
the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, already under major
artists' management, and Sa Chen, 17, another 2005 Cliburn finalist.
For several decades Japanese and Korean musicians have formed a major
presence in the West. In particular they have long populated the
string sections of professional orchestras. Chinese musicians have now
joined them in force and are winning high-profile positions. Hae-Ye
Ni, who was born in Shanghai in 1972, was appointed principal cellist
of the Philadelphia Orchestra last fall. The Chicago and Pittsburgh
symphony orchestras have assistant concertmasters born in China.
And not only string players: Liang Wang, 26, was recently named
principal oboist of the New York Philharmonic, one of the most
prestigious chairs in orchestral music.
Chinese talent has entered almost every area of the classical music
A diverse group of composers like Mr. Tan, Bright Sheng, Chen Yi and
Zhou Long have opened up a new sound world of Chinese-inflected
rhythms, melodies and harmonies for younger American and European
composers. Chinese singers, whose culture has its own rich opera
tradition, round out casts in major opera houses around the United
Chinese conductors have in the last five years made the leap to
prominent podiums, shaping orchestras and opera companies in music's
most prominent role. Their arrival is felt especially in Europe, but
the rising star Xian Zhang, 33, was recently named associate conductor
of the New York Philharmonic.
It is in the elite Western conservatories that the presence of Chinese
is perhaps most significant for the future. The talented Chinese have
become a bonanza for music schools, where they are raising the
technical bar and joining the already robust ranks of Koreans,
Japanese and Taiwanese.
The wellspring is China's almost limitless pool of young musicians, a
mounting number driven by increasing prosperity and nurtured by
Chinese society's desire to compete with the West.
Music schools are sending administrators on recruitment trips to China
or holding auditions there. Online applications from China to the New
England Conservatory of Music in Boston have doubled in the last three
years. The Eastman School of Music in Rochester sent its admissions
director on a scouting mission in October, and the school has about
100 Chinese applicants for next year, twice what it had a decade ago.
"One goes where the talent is," said Jamal Rossi, Eastman's interim
Ties between American and Chinese conservatories are growing. Teachers
from the United States are increasingly traveling to China to give
master classes and lessons. A youth symphony from the New England
Conservatory plans to go in June; another, from the Juilliard School,
hopes to go early next year.
But the West is where careers are made.
"America has everybody coming from the world," said Lang Lang, who
studied with Gary Graffman, the former president of the Curtis
Institute. "You can find every style in New York. I wouldn't have a
career like this and artistic development like this if I stayed in
China. China is great for fundamentals, for children. We are very
disciplined. We have great traditions. But we don't have this kind of
tradition that we have in Juilliard and Curtis. Piano is not just
talent. It's also tradition."
His success in the West has fueled his career in China. "In the last
five years, it's unbelievable," he said. "I've basically become a
Whether a talent like Lang Lang or a humble back-bench string player,
many Chinese musicians believe that absorbing Western classical music
on its native soil is essential.
Lin Yaoji, a prominent violin teacher at the Central Conservatory of
Music in Beijing, makes every effort to have his brightest students
study abroad at the earliest opportunity, he said, and he has placed
many at top schools in Germany and the United States. "It is not our
own music, so we cannot make them feel it is their own," he added.
"For that they have to go abroad."
So, at Curtis, 7 of the 20 piano students are China-born. Mr.
Graffman, the former president, who still teaches there, said that
four of his five current students are Chinese, including Yuja Wang,
who performs with major orchestras around the world. Another, Hao Chen
Zhang, 16, learned the 10 Rachmaninoff Op. 23 preludes over Christmas
"That's no joke," said Mr. Graffman, a member of the generation of
piano virtuosos who came of age in the 1950s, like Eugene Istomin,
Byron Janis and Leon Fleisher. "These kids learn, frankly, in one week
what it took me and my colleagues three months."
There is a dark side to the bonanza. Many Chinese musicians fall prey
to excessive competitiveness and grow obsessed with outward displays
of success, like winning prizes.
Yoheved Kaplinsky, the chairwoman of the Juilliard piano department,
also worries that there may simply not be enough room for so many
great young soloists on the concert scene. "There's bound to be
conflict," she said. "There's bound to be friction." Defying
stereotypes, the talent does not stop at the piano and violin. One of
the brightest young lights in the demanding precollege division at
Juilliard is a 16-year-old clarinetist from Guangzhou, Weixiong Wang,
an 11th-grader at the Professional Children's School in New York.
Weixiong picked up the clarinet at 10, studied at a local conservatory
and, at a clarinet festival in Shanghai, met a Juilliard clarinet
teacher, who invited him to study in New York, at 13. Like many young
Chinese students, he came with his mother and lives with her in
Queens, in a two-bedroom apartment in Elmhurst. His mother sketches
portraits in a mall; his father died five years ago in a car accident.
Weixiong's current teacher, Alan R. Kay, called him a "tremendous
talent," a natural performer and one of the five best students he has
had in 20 years of teaching. "It's rare to find somebody that hot at
his age," Mr. Kay said. "He's clearly a great musician."
Already Weixiong has won four local competitions, including a
Juilliard concerto contest. "When I was 11, my dream was to come to
America," he said. "I'm going to do my best to practice really hard,
so I can be a soloist."
On a Saturday in February, Weixiong gave a short recital at Juilliard.
Only about 15 people attended. Weixiong's mother, who was helping a
pregnant friend move out of her home, could not make it.
He took the stage in a dark suit and open-necked shirt, a tall young
man with shaggy hair that fell into his eyes. He performed Debussy's
"Première Rhapsodie," a cool work of soft, high, floating tones that
requires extreme control. Weixiong played with maturity, releasing a
full, ringing sound and moving in sympathy with the music.
In the next piece, a sonata by Joseph Horovitz, he added glissandos
and jazzy inflections. "My challenge is to calm him down," Mr. Kay
said later. "He's a big showoff. I'm trying to teach him some
Outside the recital hall the Juilliard lobby was abuzz with parents
and students lugging their instruments.
One mother, Czrina Suen, stopped to chat with members of the parents
association. A former flight attendant, she had moved from Hong Kong
with her daughter Poony Poon, 10, to give her the chance to study
piano at Juilliard, where she has a scholarship.
"They are the best in the world," Ms. Suen said. "In Hong Kong she
can't find a suitable teacher." Poony, a tiny girl in a fluffy white
coat, plopped into a chair.
Ms. Suen used to travel 90 minutes each way between Flushing, Queens,
and Manhattan, taking her daughter to lessons at Juilliard and to
class at the Calhoun School, an exhausting routine. Matters improved
when she and her daughter moved to West 150th Street.
Ms. Suen said that her husband had taken on extra work to send money.
"We cannot survive for a long time here," she added. "We are looking
for a sponsor."
But the will to overcome such difficulties among many families of
musical Chinese children points at what the future may hold for
As Lang Lang put it: "Two hundred years ago it was Europe. A hundred
years ago it was America. Fifty years ago it was Japan. And now it's
Joseph Kahn contributed reporting from Beijing.