The Global Chi­nese Or­ches­tra brings ac­claimed Chi­nese mu­si­cians from across the globe to cel­e­brate their jour­neys to­gether 无数华人音乐家在世界古典乐坛上闯出了自己的一片天地,随着国内古典音乐关注度的提升,他们决定每年赴中国演出,分享自己的音乐故事

The World of Chinese - - Ed­i­tor’s Let­ter - BY B EMILY CON­RAD


On a cold Jan­uary day in 1989, an as­pir­ing young con­duc­tor em­barked on the Trans-siberian ex­press, leav­ing Beijing for Moscow. Armed with just a few phrases of ba­sic Ger­man, a deep pas­sion for clas­si­cal mu­sic in­stilled by his mu­si­cian par­ents, and an in­sa­tiable aca­demic cu­rios­ity which had led him to read ev­ery Western clas­sic in the Cen­tral Mu­sic Con­ser­va­tory li­brary, Lü Jia’s des­ti­na­tion was West Berlin, a sev­en­day transcon­ti­nen­tal trek across the Iron Cur­tain.

With the Cold War now long over, and many of Lü’s more mod­est hopes ful­filled, he has since em­barked on a grander mis­sion—the cre­ation of a new or­ches­tral group, draw­ing on the tal­ents of the best eth­nic Chi­nese mu­si­cians from across the world, aptly named the “Global Chi­nese Or­ches­tra.” The jour­ney has not been easy. “In Ger­many, I learned Ger­man. Just like in Italy, I learned Ital­ian,” Lü told TWOC about his ca­reer abroad. In 1991, Lü was of­fered his first job as chief con­duc­tor at the Tri­este Opera House, mak­ing him the first res­i­dent Asian con­duc­tor in an Ital­ian opera house. He quickly be­came one of the most sought-af­ter con­duc­tors in the world, con­duct­ing over 2,000 con­certs and op­eras to date.

In many places where Lü per­formed, he broke racial and eth­nic bar­ri­ers. He was the first Chi­nese con­duc­tor of the Chicago Sym­phony Or­ches­tra. How­ever, he prefers to em­pha­size the dif­fi­cul­ties that all mu­si­cians face, rather than the hard­ships of be­ing Chi­nese in an over­whelm­ingly Euro­pean art form. “To make a ca­reer in clas­si­cal mu­sic, it is not easy. You need great tal­ent, prac­tice, luck, and tim­ing. All the stars must be aligned (天时地利人和).” Af­ter nearly two decades hob­nob­bing with Euro­pean and Amer­i­can elites, Lü was pre­sented with a unique op­por­tu­nity to re­turn to China, which he viewed al­most as a duty.

Like many fil­ial Chi­nese, he be­lieved that he should re­turn to care for his el­derly par­ents. Just as strong was his sense that the Chi­nese clas­si­cal world needed his ex­pe­ri­ence and tal­ent.

In­deed, over the last 40 years since China’s re­form and open­ing-up, its econ­omy has grown sub­stan­tially, pro­vid­ing new op­por­tu­ni­ties for Western mu­sic. The gov­ern­ment is now seek­ing to pro­vide cul­tural and in­tel­lec­tual ful­fill­ment be­yond “red bal­lets” and TV war dra­mas. Opera houses and con­cert halls have pro­lif­er­ated in se­cond, third, and even fourth-tier cities. Al­though it is es­ti­mated that there are around 60 world-class mu­sic halls through­out China, many lack the ad­min­is­tra­tion, mu­si­cal lead­er­ship, or hu­man cap­i­tal to take off.

The China Poly Group’s Wuxi Grand The­atre in Jiangsu prov­ince is one ex­am­ple: De­signed by Fin­nish ar­chi­tect Pekka Salmi­nen to mir­ror the aes­thetic of a pair of col­or­ful but­ter­fly wings, it has be­come an iconic ad­di­tion to the city of 6.5 mil­lion res­i­dents, but lacks a res­i­dent or­ches­tra, re­ly­ing in­stead on tour­ing troupes.

As China’s grow­ing mid­dle class en­cour­ages their chil­dren to take up Euro­pean in­stru­ments, with an es­ti­mated 40 to 60 mil­lion Chi­nese chil­dren alone learn­ing to play the piano, these new mu­sic halls will surely not have to re­main with­out orches­tras for long.

But only a decade or so ago, the vast ma­jor­ity of estab­lished mu­si­cians in China faced im­mense chal­lenges on the in­ter­na­tional stage. Western mu­sic was es­sen­tially for­bid­den dur­ing the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion; as chron­i­cled in Jin­dong Cai and Sheila Melvin’s Beethoven in China, Pre­mier Zhou En­lai had to spe­cially sum­mon a very out-of­prac­tice Cen­tral Phil­har­monic to play Beethoven to wel­come US Sec­re­tary of State Henry Kissinger in 1971.

The Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion had un­in­tended con­se­quences for many in­no­cent par­ties, and clas­si­cal

mu­si­cians were no ex­cep­tion. In his me­moir Jour­ney of a Thou­sand Miles, famed pi­anist Lang Lang chron­i­cled how a com­bi­na­tion of his par­ents’ sti­fled mu­si­cal dreams and the onechild pol­icy cre­ated a hot­house en­vi­ron­ment in which his “tiger fa­ther” pushed him al­most to break­ing point.

Dur­ing the 1980s, mu­si­cal in­stru­ments were be­yond the eco­nomic reach of most Chi­nese. Study­ing clas­si­cal Euro­pean mu­sic was ei­ther a lux­ury or en­tailed fi­nan­cial sac­ri­fice by the en­tire fam­ily. Due to the lim­ited num­ber of do­mes­tic op­por­tu­ni­ties, the best mu­si­cians usu­ally had to go abroad—a fur­ther ex­pense.

Still, when Lü re­turned to China as chief con­duc­tor at the Na­tional Cen­tre for Per­form­ing Arts (af­fec­tion­ately known as “The Egg”) and mu­sic direc­tor of the Ma­cau Sym­phony Or­ches­tra, he was in­tox­i­cated by the pos­si­bil­i­ties: “In Europe, you have an op­por­tu­nity to par­tic­i­pate in the his­tory of clas­si­cal mu­sic; in China, you have the op­por­tu­nity to make his­tory.”

In 2014, he em­barked on his lofty mis­sion to start the Global Chi­nese Or­ches­tra (GCO).

Dur­ing this Oc­to­ber’s Na­tional Week hol­i­day, the nearly 100 symphonic or­ches­tra mem­bers of the GCO will con­vene for the fifth time at The Egg. “I believe that with more prac­tice, this could grow to be­come one of the best orches­tras in the world,” says Lü. Many GCO’S mu­si­cians are res­i­dent mem­bers of world-renowned col­lec­tives such as the Chicago Sym­phony Or­ches­tra and the Berlin Phil­har­monic, but “even the best mu­si­cians need re­hearsal,” Lü ad­mits. “A lot of peo­ple do not re­al­ize that an or­ches­tra is all about team­work. You need to un­der­stand one an­other.”

Some of the mu­si­cians born abroad com­mu­ni­cate bet­ter in English, which is of­ten used in re­hearsal along­side Chi­nese. The per­for­mances in­clude both Western clas­sics and works by mod­ern Chi­nese com­posers, which of­ten draw in­spi­ra­tion from tra­di­tional Chi­nese mu­sic.

This in­ter­play be­tween East and West is a topic that Lü re­turns to fre­quently. He shared his be­lief that mu­sic al­lows peo­ple to com­mu­ni­cate with­out lin­guis­tic, cul­tural, racial, or re­li­gious bar­ri­ers. Al­though clas­si­cal mu­sic orig­i­nated in Europe, “Mu­sic is some­thing that is heart-to-heart; mind-to-mind. It gives Chi­nese peo­ple in­sights into the West—and Chi­nese clas­si­cal mu­sic pro­vides op­por­tu­ni­ties for the world to un­der­stand China more deeply.”

His phi­los­o­phy is em­bod­ied by mu­si­cians like Lu Lu, a vi­o­lin­ist with London’s Phil­har­mo­nia Or­ches­tra who joined the GCO in 2015. Lu left China when she was 18 to study at the Royal Academy of Mu­sic, later tran­si­tion­ing to the Man­hat­tan School of Mu­sic for a mas­ter’s de­gree and re­main­ing abroad for the rest of her ca­reer. But the GCO holds a spe­cial place in her heart. Lu told TWOC: “Not only do I get to make mu­sic with some of the dear friends I grew up with at the Cen­tral Con­ser­va­tory of Mu­sic, but also with some of my child­hood idols!”

Many GCO mem­bers have over­come the same ob­sta­cles and ex­pe­ri­enced sim­i­lar ca­reer paths, mak­ing the or­ches­tra a unique plat­form to “bring our hearts and souls closer, which can be heard in our mu­sic-mak­ing,” says Lu.

Lin Wei, who has been a mem­ber of GCO since 2016, agrees. “Clas­si­cal mu­sic is a uni­ver­sal lan­guage, but as Chi­nese mu­si­cians liv­ing abroad, we of­ten miss home and our own cul­ture,” says the vi­o­lin­ist who left China at age 21 to study in London, then ob­tained a full-time po­si­tion at 24 with the Ice­land Sym­phony. As the main­land mar­ket ma­tures, “I hope that we… can give what we have learned abroad back to the Chi­nese peo­ple,” says Lin.

Drink­ing a cap­puc­cino in a Beijing café, Lü rem­i­nisced on his ex­pe­ri­ences abroad—from hik­ing in the Alps to eat­ing seafood in Si­cily—as though it were a dif­fer­ent life. “Even if you have lived abroad a long time, the land calls you back,” he wist­fully tells TWOC. “I want to share with the world the beauty of the Chi­nese cul­ture through mu­sic.”


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