“Talking about the concert frenzy in the Golden Hall, I have set a bad example,” admitted Song Zuying, China’s best-known folk singer.
We first mentioned Song, who doubles as a Rear Admiral, in WiC46. After joining the military’s song-and-dance troupe more than 20 years ago she became a famed soprano, after former leader Jiang Zemin noted her talent.
In January there was speculation that the army will scale back its 10,000-strong force of actresses and acrobats, so Song’s colleagues in the lower ranks may be feeling apprehensive about their futures. But her own anxiety last week was different: concern that Chinese tourists playing concerts at one of Vienna’s most fabled halls are damaging the country’s musical reputation.
The Wiener Musikverein, or the Viennese Music Association, is home to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. But “the Golden Hall” – as it is known by most of its visitors from China – has also been pulling in hundreds of aspiring musicians. The trend dates back to the New Year holiday in 1998 when the China National Orchestra first performed there. The concert got rave reviews and the commercial interest meant that the orchestra could pay its employees properly, says Southern Weekly. Soon professional troupes from cities like Beijing and Shanghai were making the trip to Austria. Song herself turned up for a high-profile gala evening in 2003.
Over time, hopes of a commercial boost from visiting Vienna wore thinner and professional troupes started to pooh-pooh the venue. But the hall has welcomed many other Chinese musicians, many of them hobbyists paying for the chance to play. Among the recent ensemble was a concert organised by staff of a wholesale clothing market from Beijing. Pensioners from Hainan and Dalian have staged chorus evenings, the Global Times reports, while proud parents have been paying for children to scratch away on their violins as part of holiday tours too.
The Austrians seem happy to take the business, renting out the Musikverein for about €20,000 ($27,567) during quieter times of the year. “So long as they can pay, they can perform,” the venue’s manager told the Beijing Youth Daily.
Tan Lihua, conductor of the Beijing Symphony Orchestra, griped about the calibre of the concerts at a session of government advisory body the CPPCC last week. “Most of our overseas performances are really just recreation for ourselves,” he warned. “They are treated as a joke.” Rear Admiral Song has similar views. “I didn’t mean to blame everyone who performs at the Golden Hall,” she explains. “But nothing should be overdone. Can’t we have some standards?”
That might help Chinese consular officials in Vienna with another problem: how to persuade people to go to the concerts. “Everyone from the embassy has quotas to dole out free tickets. And they have to give them out to Austrians – not to Chinese – to make it look good on TV,” says Wu Jiatong, the man who organised the first trip in 1998.
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