Young audiences develop an ear for classical music
Performances embraced by vibrant concertgoers
Before 8 am on a chilly Saturday last month, people were lining up outside the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing.
That day — Dec 22 — more than 50 public programs were staged to celebrate the center’s 11th anniversary. The venue opened to audiences for free, a tradition since 2009.
Among the 10,000 people who went to the center that day was 12-year-old Beijing native Kang Ning, a big fan of Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films and their musical scores composed by his compatriot, Joe Hisaishi.
The boy was eagerly awaiting a live performance by the NCPA Orchestra featuring music from Miyazaki’s films, including Spirited Away and Laputa: Castle in the Sky.
“The orchestrated versions of the songs are beautiful. It’s a fun idea and it works. I want to listen to more music by the orchestra,” he said afterward.
Introduced to music by his uncle, who plays electric guitar, Ning studied piano when he was 6, and has been singing in his school choir for six years. Although becoming a professional musician is not high on his agenda, he enjoys listening to different types of music, especially classical.
A classical music performance often conjures up images of older concertgoers, the wealthy, and even formal attire, but the younger generation in China is now embracing the genre.
The NCPA’s slogan is “art changes life”, which was the case with Beijing native Zhang Zhengchen when he was 13.
In 2010, when the NCPA staged its production of French composer Georges Bizet’s operatic masterpiece
Carmen, auditions were held in the Chinese capital to select child singers.
At the time, Zhang, a student at Beijing No 171 Middle School, joined the audition as a member of his school choir. Zhang, who started to play piano when he was 4, stood out from his peers and played a role in the opera, which was directed by Francesca Zambello from the United States.
In a rehearsal room at the NCPA, Zhang met with Chinese conductor Chen Zuohuang, and was impressed by the way in which he used the baton.
“I want to become a conductor,” Zhang told Chen, the NCPA’s founding music director.
Chen told him: “Training to become a conductor and directing an orchestra are very hard. You have to be prepared.”
Undaunted, Zhang applied to the middle school affiliated to the Central Conservatory of Music and now, age 21, is a senior at the institution with a major in conducting.
“It was a crazy idea. I’ve always been interested in music, but I never planned to become a professional musician,” said Zhang, who will further his conducting studies at the conservatory after graduating in the summer with his bachelor’s degree.
“It was not easy to get admitted, but it is certainly one of my most exciting and memorable experiences,” Zhang said.
On Dec 22, Zhang took part in the public art programs at the NCPA and performed with pianist Sheng Yuan and Yuan Sha, who plays the
guzheng, a Chinese type of zither. Lyu Jia, music director of the NCPA and principal conductor of its orchestra and chorus, said: “It is such an encouraging environment for classical music to develop in China. The country has a healthy music education system and a large number of young people who are currently studying musical instruments, whether in schools or with private tutors. Most important, they remain passionate and exuberant.”
The average age of musicians with the NCPA Orchestra and NCPA Chorus is 30.
Lyu, a Shanghai native born into a musical family in 1964, studied piano and cello at a young age. He has appeared at many European opera houses, including La Scala and the Verona Opera in Italy, and Deutsche Opera Berlin in Germany.
He returned to China, joined the NCPA in 2012, and feels that the young audiences now attending concerts reflect a boom in classical music.
Lyu said: “When I worked in Europe, I was part of the classical music scene there. Compared with Europe, classical music audiences in China are very young and vibrant. I returned home and joined the NCPA because it’s much more exciting to be part of the country’s classical music scene. It’s very rewarding to see so many young people in the audience now.”
The NCPA, also known as “the egg”, was designed by French architect Paul Andreu. It has been the talk of the world’s performing arts industry since it opened in December 2007, attracting performances by a long list of top international artists and symphony orchestras.
More than 9,600 performances have been staged at the venue since 2007, and last year alone, more than 900 were held there.
Lyu also said classical music in China began to become more popular after the reform and opening-up policy was introduced 40 years ago.
“Many young people became fixated with classical music due to their parents. It’s not unusual for parents to introduce their kids to music. What excites me is that young people are not rejecting this music and are discovering it on their own when they grow up,” he said.
At a time when most opera houses around the world are cutting their budgets, the NCPA has staged its own operatic productions, and holds an annual festival at which dozens of offerings from overseas are performed.
It also launched an opera film project in 2013 to widen the popularity of classical music. Of the 76 operas the NCPA has produced since 2007, nearly 30 have been made into films.
In a new drive to reach younger audiences in China, the NCPA has launched free online broadcasting.
Since 2011, its online platform has livestreamed more than 100 classical music concerts, with each one receiving more than 1 million views on average.
Shi Yingying, head of the NCPA’s online classical music channel, said: “When we launched the platform, it was hard to build cooperation with streaming services. Classical music concerts only catered to a minority taste. For internet users, who are mostly young people, this was not a major draw.”
On Nov 22 and 23, the Berliner Philharmoniker gave two sold-out performances at the NCPA under the baton of Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, with a repertoire including Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No 5 in C-sharp minor and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5 in D minor, Op. 47.
In addition to the audiences in the concert hall, more than 1,500 people watched the two performances at three smaller venues in the NCPA, and even more watched them online.
Shi said, “We are literally bringing classical music into people’s homes, where we hope that we’ll be able to recreate the sensation of friends gathering to celebrate music together.”
Star pianist Lang Lang performed with the Berliner Philharmoniker on Nov 23, when he played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 24 in C minor, K.
491. He said, “When I started to play piano many children had already started to learn it. There was a vibrant market.
“The piano is a bridge between East and West. It is a gateway for Chinese to approach the world. For most Chinese, classical music is quite new. We don’t have the concept that it is from the old times, say 200 or 300 years ago. We have a fresh image of Mozart and Beethoven, and a deep respect for these composers.”
The 36-year-old, who was born in Shenyang, capital of Liaoning province, studied piano from age 5, and was inspired by watching a film in the Tom and Jerry cartoon series called The Cat Concerto, which features Franz Liszt’s Hungarian
Rhapsody No 2. He now plays to sold-out houses around the world and has become a role model for millions of young Chinese who are learning classical music.
After two years’ preparatory work, Lang is poised to release his latest album early this year, aiming to make classical music much more interesting and accessible to a wider audience.
He has adapted some of the bestknown folk songs from around the world, including those from China, Australia and Japan. He has also recorded some of the most popular works of Frederic Chopin, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach.
“I would like to introduce classical music to everyone in the world, because it changed my life, and I believe it can change others’. Playing or listening to these great pieces is like reading the world’s best novels. With the same appeal, they relate emotions, inspiration and enjoyment,” Lang said.
Ma Xiaojia, deputy principal of Lang Lang Music World, a training school in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, and director of the Lang Lang Shenzhen Futian International Piano Festival Organizing Committee, said, “With the power to be a role model, and with support from the government, classical music has been promoted greatly in China.
“We are meeting a deep need from young Chinese who are learning music, and who have the same enthusiasm for classical music as they have for popular movies and pop music. They perform mostly for their own pleasure.”
Nearly 300 Chinese from around the country, ages from 4 to 15, are attending Lang Lang Music World.
One of Lang’s teachers is pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim.
When Barenboim conducted the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Berlin Opera’s resident orchestra, in two concerts at the NCPA last month that featured a cycle of Johannes Brahms’ symphonies, he asked for the concert hall house lights to be turned up before giving an encore.
Looking at the audience, he said: “I have never seen such a young crowd sitting in a classical music concert. It’s a surprise.”
The booming classical music market has also thrown the spotlight on China’s musicians.
Chen Guangxian, director of the China Symphony Development Foundation, a nonprofit organization, said the number of symphony orchestras in the country has risen in recent years.
There were about 30 professional orchestras four years ago, but by last year the figure had risen to 82, presenting opportunities not only for young Chinese musicians but also for those from around the world.
Chen is also general manager of the Suzhou Symphony Orchestra in Jiangsu province, which celebrated its second anniversary on Nov 18. It has more than 70 musicians from some 20 countries and regions, including China, Japan, South Korea and the United States. Their average age is 30.
To change the way in which young people experience classical music concerts, symphony orchestras are also trying to break with convention by offering easy-to-listen programs.
For example, Music in the Summer Air, an annual festival, stages about 20 indoor and outdoor performances every summer. It was launched in 2010 by conductor Yu Long, music director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, and Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit, music director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the United Kingdom.
Held over two weeks, about 30,000 people attend the festival, which presents not only classical concerts but crossover performances between the genre and others, including rock and jazz.
Wang Xiaoting, director of artistic planning with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, said one-third of the audiences attending Music in the Summer Air concerts are traditional classical music lovers, and one-third are newcomers, especially young people. The remainder are college students, as the festival teams up with Shanghai universities to offer low-price tickets and recruit volunteers.
“Young people are now listening to and are open to various musical genres online. With the special arrangement of programs, we want to attract people of different ages and from all walks of life,” said Wang, 37.
The Shanghai native graduated from the University of Oxford and London School of Economics with masters in literature and political science.
Young people are now listening to and are open to various musical genres online. With the special arrangement of programs, we want to attract people of different ages and from all walks of life.”
Wang Xiaoting, director of artistic planning with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra
A primary school choir in Beijing takes part in celebrations marking the 11th anniversary of the National Center for the Performing Arts on Dec 22, when more than 50 public programs were staged. The Beijing venue opened to audiences for free on the day, a tradition since 2009.
Lang Lang performs with the Berliner Philharmoniker on Nov 23 at the National Center for the Performing Arts.
Zhang Zhengchen (center), a 21-year-old student conductor from the Central Conservatory of Music, and Wang Ning (left), director of the NCPA, greet an audience member at the celebrations.