Five encores later, the audience in Hong Kong finally permitted 22 year-old pianist Wang Yuja to leave the stage. Then they formed a queue that snaked out of the building, in hope that the virtuoso would autograph their copy of her debut CD.
Beijing-born Wang is the latest Chinese star to captivate the classical music world. The Washington Post calls her “jaw-dropping” and the LA Times thinks she is “the next Chinese sensation”.
At her Hong Kong recital – a one night only event – it soon became apparent why. Dressed in a flowing purple evening gown, Wang fuses the looks of Vanessa Mae with Lang Lang’s sense of musical drama.
In August Wang’s career went up a notch with an appearance at the Lucerne Festival, playing Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. The 76 year-old Claudio Abbado was conducting, and he then flew to Beijing for a reprise performance with Wang at the city’s National Centre for the Performing Arts. It was Abbado’s first concert in China since 1973, when he toured with the Vienna Philharmonic and had to make do with playing in a gymnasium.
China’s love affair with classicial music is superbly chronicled in the book Rhapsody in Red. Co-authored by Jindong Cai – a conductor who studied under Leonard Bernstein and now works as Stanford’s Director of Orchestral Studies – and his journalist wife Sheila Melvin, this history marvellously combines thorough research with revealing insights and anecdotes.
The authors’ goal is to help readers understand how ‘Western’ classical music has “become as Chinese as Peking Opera”. They trace the early efforts of the Jesuits to win over the Qing Dynasty court with gifts of clavichords (and lessons), through to the establishment of the first orchestra proper in 1920s Shanghai.
But it is the chapters on the Cultural Revolution (“classical music’s darkest hour”, the authors think) that really pique reader interest.
Almost by definition, this was a catastrophic time to be associated with anything as ‘bourgeois’ or ‘Western’ as classical music.
Take the July 1966 editorial in the People’s Daily celebrating the “smashing of the shackles” created by “specialists”, “scholars” and “venerable classes”.
Many musicians were caught on the front line. People like Tan Shuzhen, who had taught for 17 years at the Shanghai Conservatory, and was beaten by Red Guards and made to clean toilets. Or the pianist Li Cuizen, who was made to crawl on the ground, covered in ink and taunted for her style of dress. She put on her best clothes and gassed herself in the kitchen.
The composer He Luting was subjected to a televised show trial where he was called “Chiang Kai Shek’s running dog” and then imprisoned. His crime? Defending the music of Claude Debussy.
Leading the persecution was Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. Jiang had announced she would destroy Peking Opera and all ‘old’ forms of culture in favour of new ‘revolutionary’ art through her own eight ‘model’ operas.
In a bizarre twist, the conductor Li Delun – who had dropped music in favour of the less sensitive activity of repairing bicycles – was then recalled when Jiang realised that Western classical instruments sounded more “heroic” and needed to be incorporated into her operas.
Jiang’s opinions had far-reaching consequences. On one occasion she told Li that she didn’t like trombones and did not want them played anymore. Li could not envision an orchestra without trombones, so he responded that it must have been the tuba sound that she disliked. This meant that the tuba disappeared from orchestras for the remainder of the Cultural Revolution.
Classical performances also served as proxies for struggles between the leadership elite.
In October 1971, Premier Zhou Enlai invited Henry Kissinger to China. Zhou instructed Li Delun to arrange a performance for their visitor. “Kissinger’s German. You should play Beethoven,” he told him.
Jiang was incensed about the idea of playing Beethoven and insisted that Kissinger should hear revolutionary opera.
But when it became clear that Zhou had Mao’s ear on the matter, she turned her attention to selecting which symphony was least inappropriate. The Fifth was deemed unsuitable for communist China because it was about “fatalism”. The Sixth was acceptable because it was about “nature.” So Kissinger heard the Sixth.
Zhou’s next musical powerplay against Jiang came two years later when he invited the Philadelphia Orchestra to Beijing – in a sign of warming relations with America.
However, all did not go to plan. The orchestra was set to play Beethoven’s Fifth, but at the last minute Jiang said she would attend the concert, and the Sixth had to be played instead.
Hence the significance of March 26 1977, when Li Delun finally led the Central Philharmonic in a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth. For Li it was a performance that signalled the end of the Cultural Revolution. “Papers all over the world covered it,” he remembers. “China played Beethoven – their policies are really changing.”
Yet despite everything, Cai and Melvin credit Jiang’s obsession with model operas with seeding the conditions for the country’s current boom in classical musicians: “Thus, where zealous young revolutionaries were destroying pianos and violins just a few years earlier, now they were eagerly studying them in the hope of participating in the model opera productions.”
Never in history, they say, had so many young Chinese been trained to play Western instruments. “In fact, Jiang Qing’s radical cultural policies had not caused bourgeois music to ‘die’, as she had predicted. Instead, these policies had given it a new life, creating an entire generation of musicians who had a grounding in both Chinese and Western instruments and a passionate desire to obtain a formal music education.”
By 2004 the Shenzhen Daily was able to report that 38 million children in China were learning the piano. Large numbers were also learning to play the violin and other instruments. In that sense virtuoso pianist Wang Yuja and many like her are an unforeseen consequence of Jiang and the Cultural Revolution. It is an incredible irony – but one that the 22 year-old Beijinger is probably too busy to appreciate as she prepares to play Carnegie Hall next week.
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