In China with the NAC Orchestra

On tour in a country where classical music isn’t as beloved as suggested, but studying Strauss is the ticket to a good school
Fred Cattroll

Ottawa is the world capital of standing ovations. Audiences there will get to their feet and clap wildly for just about anything. In China, meanwhile, the standing O, and the mechanics of applause in general, remain something of a mystery. Chinese audiences, taking in the novelty of a Western classical music concert, look on with puzzlement when their foreign counterparts rise in their seats and bellow “Bravo!”

So it was that, earlier this month, when the Ottawa-based National Arts Centre Orchestra undertook its ambitious tour of the Middle Kingdom, ushers managing the crowds at one or another of China’s stately new concert halls did not quite know how to handle all of the Ottawans—an entourage made up largely of affluent donors travelling with the orchestra—who insisted on standing at the end of performances. One night, at the newly built, magnificent, $240-million Tianjin Grand Theatre, when Peter Herrndorf, the NAC’s rangy president and CEO, had the temerity to do so, one usher stormed up demanding that he sit down.

It was not the only evidence that the Chinese, advertised internationally as great lovers of classical music, with something in the order of 100 million children practising daily on their violins and pianos, continue to be a tad uncomfortable with the pomp of brass and strings, that strange circumstance of black evening dress.

The fact is, classical music just isn’t as beloved in China as many observers of the form outside Asia like to believe, an article of faith for those worried about dwindling audiences in North America and Europe. Concerts in China do sell out, and audiences are on the whole enthusiastic, particularly for orchestras as good as the NAC’s. But it is less a love affair than an infatuation driven by the idea that listening to Western classical music is a necessary part of what it means to be a sophisticated, upper-middle-class person. “They have this impression that that’s what bourgeoisie do,” says Jay Peng Chieh Sun, a Taiwan-born pianist who grew up in Texas and who is now department chair at the Xinghai Conservatory Middle School in Guangzhou. “They go and they listen to classical music and absorb culture. I’ve heard people say that—they say, ‘I don’t understand but, hey, I guess that’s what I’m supposed to listen to.’ ”

Last Thursday at the Giant Egg, as Beijing’s impressive titanium and glass National Centre for the Performing Arts has come to be known, was Guang Li, a solidly built public servant, who spoke of his love of Johann Strauss before the music began, but who was no longer sitting in his $100 seat when the NAC Orchestra struck up a Strauss waltz as an encore. Arriving late and leaving a show unfinished is a favourite gambit here: they trickle out, a slow bleed.

Crowd management is also a routine phenomenon. Even for the slightest of infractions, audience members are liable to receive visits from ushers, who wade deep into the auditorium to deliver scoldings. One usher at the Egg, wearing the venue’s silver dinner-jacket uniform, pushed into the crowd to tell a man to stop drinking water.

More frequently these ushers, equipped with hand-held laser devices, will zap spectators who fail to uphold their officious standards—whether because they are taking photographs or consulting smartphones. One particularly aggressive concertgoer, sitting in the second row at the Egg, continued taking video footage of the NAC Orchestra even as three separate red beams triangulated upon him and played furiously across his hands and face.

Chinese crowd control extends also to children. When three horn players from the NAC orchestra serenaded the giant pandas at the Beijing Zoo, half a dozen thuggish zoo security guards cordoned off an area, making sure mothers and offspring did not get too near. It took coaxing from Kathy Lin, the compact but feisty publisher of the Chinese Canadian Times, who was travelling with the orchestra, to persuade them to let the kids approach the musicians. During the NAC Orchestra’s performance in Fuling, a small city on the Yangtze River outside Chongqing, where a brand-new concert hall has just opened, and where no Western orchestra had ever played before, audience members chatted with each other during the performance, prompting the conductor, Pinchas Zukerman, to shush them. “They had no idea about audience etiquette,” says bass trombonist Douglas Burden. At one point a spectator’s bird-call ringtone interrupted Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.

The phenomenon of music study—100 million kids, or so it’s said—is frequently seized upon as evidence that China may save classical music. Those keen on this argument point to such classical music stars as the pianists Lang Lang, Yundi Li and Yuja Wang, or the violinist Ning Feng, as emblematic of that promise. But studying a classical instrument is thought to boost a young student’s chances of getting into a good school. For kids who are not academically inclined, a musical instrument is seen as a respectable way of getting an education and finding work. For girls, it is a suitable pursuit for a future wife. “For me, it’s not entertainment,” Diyang Mei, a 19-year-old viola student, told Maclean’s last week. Mei had just finished receiving instruction from Zukerman as part of a master class at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Impressed with his playing, Zukerman had just offered him a place at the Manhattan School of Music. If not entertainment, what did classical music mean for Mei? “A job,” he said. “I want a job!”

Funnily enough, it is not that easy to actually take in a classical music concert in China. In Tianjin, a city of 7.5 million on the coast just south of Beijing, where the opulent new concert hall is part of a cultural and retail complex that features high-end shopping outlets, the evening with the NAC Orchestra was one of just four nights this month featuring classical music. The schedule in November is much the same; because of New Year’s celebrations, December is only slightly more promising. The Xinghai Concert Hall, in Guangzhou, China’s third-largest city, is dark a good third of the time. That seems odd given another phenomenon that’s often touted as indication of China’s passion for the form—the boom in building concert halls across the country, as many as 50 in the last 10 years. “They build concert halls the way we put up hockey stadiums,” quips Jayne Watson, CEO of the NAC Foundation, who led efforts to fundraise for the orchestra’s China tour.

Never mind that these halls only host classical musicians a fraction of the time. The frenzied building may actually have more to do with the way China’s central government allocates cash each year, in a use-it-or-lose-it fashion. “Frequently you’ll receive a notice—‘We have money for you, but you have to spend it within the next year or the money’s gone,’ ” says Sun, the Guangzhou conservatory prof. “So sometimes things get built kind of hectically.”

At the Tianjin Grand Theatre, which opened last year, a small, unknown and heavy object fell from the high ceiling during Zukerman’s performance of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, landing in the aisle up in choir loft right. Later inspection showed it was a piece of epoxy that had somehow been dislodged overhead.

While many of China’s halls are fabulous—Zukerman said the Tianjin theatre was among the best he’d ever performed in—others are marred by poor acoustics and cramped backstages. Occasionally, architects forget to provide toilets for the musicians.

These musical Potemkin villages have another function besides being convenient spaces to park government largesse. Yuan Sheng, a pianist who has performed at Carnegie Hall and who is an associate professor of piano at the Central Conservatory in Beijing, points out that Hu Jintao, China’s former president, pursued a Harmonious Society policy aimed at growing the country’s middle class. “A concert hall is really a symbol of the Harmonious Society,” says Sheng. “You probably will get promoted if you build a concert hall.”

Seats in auditoriums sell out, even if this is often because large companies, such as banks, purchase block tickets for their employees, who frequently do not show up. “It’s got a lot of potential, but it’s not a paradise because I think there’s a lot of superficiality in it,” says Sheng. “The true understanding or appreciation of Western classical music is—how do I put it?—not ideal.”

In that vein, Chi Wu, a concert pianist who teaches at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music, in Chengdu, thinks classical music could yet have a future. “Many Chinese people get rich, and then they don’t know how to show off,” he says. “They buy Armani suits. And they go to classical concerts.” Wu laughs darkly. “There’s a funny proverb one of my best friends told me: ‘If you can fake your entire life, it will become true.’ ”