Pulling strings

Yu’s orchestral manoeuvres

Pulling strings

Maestro: Yu Long has built China’s top orchestra

Conductor Yu Long has a classicial history – in employment and geneological terms. His grandfather was pianist and composer Ding Shande, one of the first students to study at the National Conservatory of Music when it opened its doors in Shanghai in 1927. And now grandson Yu heads up one of the country’s leading orchestra’s himself, in tours across China and further afield.

Grandfather Ding’s career epitomised how the music of Mozart, Bach and Beethoven took root in China – leading to a situation today in which the study of classical music is immensely popular. Shenzhen Daily estimates there are 38 million Chinese children learning to play the piano, for example.

When Ding turned up for his audition at the National Conservatory, he’d never played a piano. That was a problem as admissions were skewed towards candidates gifted in Western instruments. Ding specialised in the native pipa, a four stringed instrument (a little like a lute) that has been played in the country for almost 2,000 years.

When Ding was finally accepted, he turned his attention to the piano too, earning fame on campus for completing a year’s worth of lessons in two months. He became the student of the Russian, Boris Zharoff. Apparently, Zharoff subscribed to the ‘tough love’ school of piano instruction. He would shout “I kill you” whenever Ding erred.

On graduation Ding became a member of China’s first professional orchestra – Mario Puci’s Shanghai Municipal Orchestra – and, after studying composition at the Paris Conservatory, returned to China in 1949. Very much the patriot, he composed the Long March Symphony and taught widely in the new People’s Republic.

With a family pedigree like that, it is little surprise that grandson Yu Long was later to be charged with establishing China’s most ambitious orchestra. The German-trained conductor was given the mission to build an orchestra of such quality that it could stand comparison with prestigious names like the Berlin Philharmonic.

Yu’s China Philharmonic Orchestra is now celebrating its 10th anniversary, with a series of five concerts that will feature renowned Chinese performers like Lang Lang, as well as international stars including French conductor Christoph Eschenbach and South Korean soprano Sumi Jo.

Perhaps too Yu will feel vindicated. A recent ranking in the influential classical music magazine, Gramophone classed his musical outfit as “one of the 10 most inspiring orchestras”, alongside the Royal Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic.

As described in the highly readable history Rhapsody in Red, the China Philharmonic was born out of a bureaucratic fight between the Ministry of Culture and SARFT (the State Administration for Radio Film and Television). The former controlled the China National Symphony, while the latter wanted to create a professionally managed orchestra under its own patronage. The funding came from CCTV, which SARFT controls. The state broadcaster guaranteed to pay Rmb200,000 for each of 50 concerts.

Suddenly, Yu had pulling power with the country’s best musicians. Just 35 years-old, he was able to offer internationally-competitive salaries, and he used the management methods he’d learned abroad (for example, he recruited performers based on blind auditions in order to raise standards) to assemble his orchestra.

Yu’s efforts caused quite a stir, especially when 40 musicians defected from the China National Symphony. It was a move welcomed by veteran conductor Li Delun (see WiC34). The authors of Rhapsody in Red quote him as saying this sort of creative destruction would ultimately benefit the Chinese music scene. “Talent exchange is a good thing”, Li concluded, “it is feudal societies that keep people in one place; there should be movement. We need to break the old system.”

However, success wasn’t guaranteed. Statistics suggested that new orchestras in China tended to fold within four years. And in April 2005, the China Philharmonic looked set to confirm the trend. CCTV was no longer guaranteeing to pay for its next season and a 40 day world tour had left Yu’s orchestra with just Rmb200,000 ($29, 300) in its bank account. Desperate, Yu was able to persuade the government to give the orchestra a Rmb10 million subsidy to ensure its survival.

Today the orchestra’s financial health is no longer in question and its successful performances abroad have even helped to promote notions of China’s ‘soft’ power. In the decade since its founding, the orchestra has held more than 500 concerts and played for 800,000 people, according to China Daily.

Ding Shande died in 1995, five years before Yu founded the China Philharmonic. But if he had been able to attend the last of this year’s celebration concerts – to be held on May 25 – he would no doubt be very proud of his grandson’s achievement.

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