The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The future of Western classical music is in Asia – specifically China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Why is that?

May 25, 2019
2 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s not just about Lang Lang.

The signs are everywhere.

They were present at a recent piano recital by elementary school, middle school and high school students that The Ear attended.

You see it at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and at top music schools, including the Curtis Institute of Music, across the U.S. and Western Europe. And you see it in youth groups such as the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (below).

Western classical music recording labels, such as Deutsche Grammophon and Sony Classical, are looking to develop new markets and so are signing more Asian musicians, such as the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and Shanghai String Quartet, and releasing more Asian performances. (Below is the Taiwanese-Australian, prize-winning violinist Ray Chen, who is also a master at using social media to build his meteoric career.)

All these items point to the same conclusion: The future of Western classical music looks more and more likely to be found in Asian culture and in Asia  – specifically in China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. (Next season, prize-winning South Korean pianist Joyce Yang (below) returns to Madison, where she first gave a recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater, to solo with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.)

Consider some of the following:

There are, The Ear read somewhere, now more piano students in China than in all of Europe, North America and South America combined. And he is reading about more and more concert tours of China and other Asian countries by Western performers — even while in the U.S. the number of pianos in homes are on the decline.

Increasingly the winners of major international competitions — such as the Chopin competition, the Van Cliburn competition, the Tchaikovsky competition, the Queen Elizabeth of Belgium competition and the Leeds competition – come from Asia or are Asian. (Below, in a photo by Simon Fowler, is American pianist George Li, who immigrated from China as a child and attended Harvard and the New England Conservatory before winning a silver medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition. His concert career is now blossoming fast.)

In recent years, China has been building a lot of first-rate concert halls, opera houses and music schools. And the famed Juilliard School in New York City will open its second campus this fall in Tianjin, near Beijing.

China has certainly come a long way from the days of the Cultural Revolution when people could be imprisoned for listening to Beethoven, who is now a cultural icon in China — as you can hear at the bottom in the YouTube video of Li Jing Zhan conducting the orchestra at the Chinese National Opera in Beethoven’s No. 7. (Below is the striking new National Center for the Performing Arts in China.)

https://www.interlude.hk/front/culture-construction-chinas-new-concert-halls/

Nineteen of the 24 final competitors, ages 13-17, in the second Van Cliburn Junior Competition – which starts in Dallas, Texas, on May 31 and ends on June 8 – are Asian, Asian-American and Asian-Canadian, all with astonishingly impressive credentials and experience. It will be streamed live and free. Take a look and listen:

https://www.cliburn.org/2019-cliburn-junior-competitors/

Why this Asian shift is happening remains somewhat of a mystery to The Ear, although he had been thinking about for a long time.

Then he came across a op-ed column confirming the prevalence of Asian classical musicians. It was written by the American concert pianist and teacher Inna Faliks (below), who teaches at UCLA and who wrote convincingly about her recent concert experiences in China in The Washington Post.

Read it and see what you think, and tell us whether you agree:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-future-of-classical-music-is-chinese/2019/03/22/2649e9dc-4cb5-11e9-93d0-64dbcf38ba41_story.html?utm_term=.7f149e0f8eb9

Why are Asians so interested in Western classical music and music education? And why do they respect it or even revere it so much?

Does it have to do with the “tiger mom” phenomenon of strong parental pressure to succeed and achieve?

Is it largely a function of population?

Is it because of the collective teamwork required to make a lot of chamber music and orchestral music, or with the intense and instructive teacher-student relationship?

Is it because the cultural depth and seriousness in Western music education – ing contrast to the increasingly pop culture of the West – that prepares students well for the training and intellectual discipline required in other educational fields and careers, including the STEM areas (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)?

Is Asia simply fascinated by Western culture the same way that Western culture was fascinated by the exotic Asian cultures – especially in China and Japan — during the 19th century and earlier? Or is the West increasingly ignoring its own culture. (The Ear can’t recall any classical musicians performing at President Donald Trump’s White House. Can you?)

How do you see the situation and react to it? And what do you think about the causes and effects?

Please leave your reactions and thoughts in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The music of Beethoven played a major role in modern China. Here’s how

September 3, 2016
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

If you think classical music has lost much of its relevance in modern times, you might want to read or listen to this terrific interview about the importance of Ludwig van Beethoven in modern China.

Below is a photo of the first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the “Choral” Symphony with the famous “Ode to Joy,” done in 1959 by an all-Chinese orchestra with Chinese singers and sung in Mandarin.

Plus, a radio broadcast of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony also played a major role in modern China following the Cultural Revolution.

Beethoven in China 1959

The interview, with two native Chinese musicians who now teach at Stanford University. was done by NPR or National Public Radio, for its Deceptive Cadence blog. The Ear found it both eye-opening and inspiring.

Perhaps it even helps to explain why these days classical music often seems more vital to the East than it does to the West.

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/08/25/491353170/tracing-the-peoples-republic-of-beethoven

 


Classical music: How well did Western classical music fare in China during the Cultural Revolution compared to today?

July 10, 2016
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Western classical music seems to be thriving in the new China.

The Ear sees Lang Lang — the world’s highest paid classical pianist — and Yundi Li and all the Chinese winners of major competitions, and he reads that there are more piano students in China than in all of Western Europe, North America and South America combined.

But the path to such success wasn’t easy.

In fact it was downright tragic during the Cultural Revolution waged by Chairman Mao Zedong – with dramatic stories and figures that may be worthy of an opera or two. (Below is a poster from the Cultural Revolution.)

Cultural Revolution poster

Anyway, weekends are a good time for reading longer pieces.

So here is a fine and eye-opening story The Ear liked. It comes from The Guardian newspaper in the UK. It even ponders the question of whether the more cerebral and intellectual Johann Sebastian Bach will soon replace the more dramatic and emotional Ludwig van Beethoven as China’s favorite classical composer.

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jul/08/after-the-cultural-revolution-what-western-classical-music-means-in-china


Classical music: Is Beethoven still relevant and our political contemporary with his opera “Fidelio”?

August 10, 2014
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

You might recall that Ludwig van Beethoven (below) composed only one opera.

It is “Fidelio,” and it reflected his Enlightenment-era political ideas about equality and democracy –- despite the composer’s own financial reliance on patronage by aristocrats and royals.

Beethoven big

And you may recall that the Madison Opera has slated “Fidelio” for a production this coming season in Overture Hall on Friday night, Nov. 21, and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 23.

The production comes during a time of great political unrest and perhaps upheaval at home, with crucial national and state elections, and especially overseas and in foreign affairs with Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Africa’s Ebola strife and many other hot spots showing no sign of letting up.

So will the local production of “Fidelio” be more or less a traditional one? Or will the Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith and its artistic director, John DeMain, who is also the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, have other ideas about how to tweak the opera and recast it for modern or contemporary relevance?

It will be interesting to see, although The Ear understands that the production will be traditional.

Here is a link to the Madison Opera’s website:

http://madisonopera.org/performances-2014-2015/

Currently, the acclaimed Santa Fe Opera is staging a controversial new version of “Fidelio”(below), created by director Stephen Wadsworth, that takes place in the Nazi death camp Bergen-Belsen. Sounds very Peter Sellars-like. (You can hear the moving music from the Prisoners’ Chorus at the bottom in a YouTube video.)

FIDELIO in Bergen-Belsen at Santa Fe

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, of The New York Times, did not like it and, in fact, said it offended her because it belittled the Holocaust. She also complained that the roles in the actual text did not match the roles that the new staging created. She saw the production as too inconsistent.

Her larger complaint seems to reflect the notion that after the Holocaust, writing poetry and creating art is impossible, that beauty has been ruined.

It is an ambitious, lofty and tempting thought, but one that is clearly not true. In fact, it is downright wrong. Great suffering and art are old pals. Sometimes art takes you away from suffering; sometimes it takes you deeper into it. It depends on the work and on the performers. But we need both.

Anyway, here is the review from the Times as well as another one with a different take. Read them for yourself. Then decide and make up your own mind. It sure sounds like a concept worth pursuing, even if flawed, to The Ear.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/04/arts/music/santa-fe-opera-sets-fidelio-in-a-concentration-camp.html?_r=0

Critic Heidi Waleson, of The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, praised the production:

http://online.wsj.com/articles/opera-review-santa-fe-opera-1407191039

Be sure to tell The Ear, and other readers, including members of the Madison Opera, if you have ever seen an updated version of “Fidelio” and what you thought of it.

Where do you think “Fidelio could be recast to best advantage The Holocaust? The Spanish Inquisition? The Soviet Gulag and Great Terror? The Killing Fields of Cambodia? The Rwandan genocide? Abu Graib prison in Iraq? A CIA black site torture prison in Egypt? The Chinese Cultural Revolution?

Or, given the fact that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, how about a Supermax prison in Wisconsin?

You get the idea.

Go wild with your imagination, and then write in.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music Q&A: Chinese-American composer and Pulitzer Prize winner Zhou Long talks about blending Western and Eastern music in “The Future of Fire, which the UW Wind Ensemble and Concert Choir will perform Saturday night in a FREE concert.

February 23, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

On Saturday at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Wind Ensemble will perform “Circa Now,” a FREE concert of works by living composers, three of whom will be present at the performance.

The program includes “Fanfare for the Uncommon Man” by UW composer John Stevens (below), who was commissioned to honor Marvin Rabin, the founder of WYSO (Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras) and who will conduct the work. 

Also on the program are “Concerto for percussion” by Michael Udow, with percussion soloist Anthony Di Sanza; “The Future of Fire” by Zhou Long (below), the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner in music for his opera “Madame White Snake,” with the UW Concert Choir; and “Cosmosis” by Susan Botti, with soprano soloist Mimmi Fulmer and the women of the Concert Choir.  Scott Teeple is the conductor of the Wind Ensemble.

A pre-concert discussion with Stevens, Udow and Zhou will take place at 7:15 p.m.

Zhou Long recently gave an emailed Q&A to The Ear:

Can you introduce yourself briefly to readers?

I am Zhou Long and currently a Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of Missouri at Kansas City (UMKC). I was born into an artistic family and began piano lessons at an early age. During the Cultural Revolution , I was sent to a rural state farm, where the bleak landscape with roaring winds and ferocious wild fires made a profound and lasting impression.

I resumed my musical training in 1973, studying composition, music theory, and conducting, as well as Chinese traditional music. In 1977, I enrolled in the first composition class at the reopened Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Following graduation in 1983, I was appointed composer-in-residence with the National Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra of China.

I travelled to the United States in 1985 under a fellowship to attend Columbia University, where I studied with Chou Wen-Chung, Mario Davidovsky, and George Edwards, receiving a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in 1993.

My creative vision has resulted in a new music that stretches Western instruments eastward and Chinese instruments westward, achieving an exciting and fertile common ground.

Briefly, what should listeners pay attention to and know about “The Future of Fire” and about the meaning of the title?

Memories of my years in the countryside surface again in “The Future of Fire” (2001, rev. 2003). With melodic material taken from a Shaanxi love song, it is a brief symphonic anthem vibrantly depicts my memories of farmers burning off dried grass to prepare the land for planting, but losing control of the flame to the passing wind — a vivid, if charitable, metaphor for the Cultural Revolution (below).

Although a mixed chorus is featured in the recording singing the piece’s text-less vocalise, I have also suggested using a children’s chorus to emphasize the piece’s dedication to “the powerful energy of the younger generation and the passionate hope for peace in the new millennium.”

How has winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 changed your life? Has it helped get your music performed more often?

The prize might have been a sign of things to come, but mostly I feel my works finally have been accepted. I’ve lived here for almost 30 years, and have been entirely working to blend the cultures. I think that I carefully combined Western and Eastern cultures, and that I did it well. I don’t want the opera “Madame White Snake” (at bottom) that won the Pulitzer Prize to taste like wine and beer mixed together. You can’t ever say that you have the right or perfect result, but I believe in what I did.

The Pulitzer gave me more confidence. It’s a quintessentially American award. That it could be offered not only to American-born composers, but also to a composer who immigrated to the United States and became an American citizen, really means something to me. I would say, for a composer’s career there’s no ending, you have no ceiling. You don’t talk about everything when you reach the top.

So far, I feel honored by this recognition. But it doesn’t guarantee you will continue to write good music and it doesn’t guarantee you will get more opportunities. The prize does not provide opportunities. That is provided by pure recognition and the recognition is respect.

What are your current and future projects and plans?

Recently, I have just completed The New York New Music Ensemble (below) commissioned work “Cloud Earth,” for flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet in B-flat, percussion, piano, violin and cello, to be premiered on April 16, 2012 for its 35th Anniversary Celebration, at the Merkin Concert Hall in New York City.

I will also start a Portland State University commission, a solo piano piece for Prof. Susan Chan to be premiered at UMKC Musica Nova Concert in April 2012. My new projects, including a major work “Beijing Wind,” a 40-minute symphonic suite, commissioned by the Beijing Symphony Orchestra, to be premiered in 2013.

A lot of Chinese, and other Asian, composers such as Bright Sheng and Tan Dun are working within the tradition of Western classical music. What do you see as the effects of such an ethnic mixing or blending, and what do you see happening in the future of classical music both here and in Asia?

I think that makes sense for me as a composer who works here in the States. It’s international and metropolitan, and inviting to the multicultural society here. For the quarter century I’ve been living in the States, I think that’s my goal — to meld the Western and Eastern cultures together.


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