Thursday, September 22, 2011


September 21

Tangʼs tutoring has produced impressive results.

The latest Chinese juggernaut rolled through Prague yesterday in the form of the Zhejiang Symphony Orchestra, led by international man of mystery Muhai Tang. Or so one might have thought, given the snaky bodyguard in shades who was at Tangʼs side much of the day, whispering in his ear. But onstage the conductor was his usual ebullient self, and his orchestra put on quite a show.

The Zhejiang ensemble was until recently a “folk orchestra,” providing music for dance and theater performances and holiday celebrations. Under Tangʼs tutelage, it is being recast as a Western-style symphony orchestra with big ambitions. Though most of the players are strikingly young, and have yet to tour China, the orchestra is currently on a six-country tour of Europe sponsored by Geely, an even more ambitious Chinese automobile manufacturer. (Mission: “To make the safest, most environmentally friendly and energy-saving cars and see Geely cars go all over the world.”)

In deference to the Dvořákʼs Prague festival format, the orchestra performed two Western standards: Mozartʼs Piano concerto No. 23 in A major and Dvořákʼs Symphony No. 5. Both were smart, spirited and technically flawless, though noticeably lacking in character. Which isnʼt a criticism; itʼs simply what one can reasonably expect from an inexperienced group of Eastern musicians still learning their way around Western music. Local soloist Martin Kasík seemed to sleep through the Mozart concerto, but woke up the crowd with a witty and dexterous encore, Klement Slavickýʼs Toccata.

The Chinese pieces on the program were brilliant. The evening opened with Wanchun Shiʼs Festival Overture, an explosion of aural fireworks augmented by piercing solo lines from two traditional horns, which flew through the piece like chirping birds. Soloist Danhong Huang charmed the audience with BBK, a traditional piece for gaohu (a bowed string instrument); flute specialist Guoji Jiang turned in a dazzling mouth-flute performance on Whistle Ciocarlia Romania; and the orchestra brought the house to its feet with the final encore, Yuan Liuʼs Train Toccata, a cinematic work with cascading horns, train-on-track sound effects and a burst of singing at the end.

Tang showed the same masterful control and polish that he has with orchestras all over the world. He currently holds conducting or artistic director positions with ensembles in Hamburg, Belgrade and Brisbane, and four different orchestras in China. If last night was any indication, the lessons in Western music that heʼs bringing to his homeland are being well-learned by disciplined, enthusiastic young players. Earlier in the day, Tang graciously agreed to sit for a brief interview.

Did you always want to be a conductor?

No, I was in love with composition, and studied composing at the Shanghai Conservatory. But you couldnʼt choose your profession during the Cultural Revolution, and they decided that I should be a conductor. Then I didnʼt have any time for composing, even though I still love it.

In 1978, you received a scholarship to study in Munich. How hard was it to study abroad?

At that time it was very difficult. Chinaʼs door had opened just a little bit, not like today. It was a very hard time to do anything, and I was very lucky to get the scholarship. Then later, [Herbert von] Karajan helped me by giving me a chance to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic. Iʼve been fortunate – at important moments of my life I always got some help, like gifts from heaven.

How is classical music different in China?

European classical music is very welcome in China, millions of children are learning the piano and violin. And with Western orchestras now coming regularly to China, they are learning how a good orchestra sounds. But also very important for us is the spiritual side of the music; how can we connect over so much time and distance with the Old Masters of Europe? We are missing that foundation, which is one of the reasons we are doing this tour. If these young musicians play this music, they should see the countries, meet the people and learn about their lives, because the music reflects all this.

Youʼve worked in the West for a long time. Does that make you a cultural diplomat?

Yes, absolutely. And I think there should be respect from both sides. We respect the European music and traditions, but Europeans canʼt say “We are the best” anymore. That time is over. Iʼm sorry to say it; I donʼt want to offend anybody, but thatʼs the reality. So I think there should be a lot of respect for Chinese musicians, and I think we should work on building a common foundation, learning how to live together and play together. Itʼs not “I serve you.” We all serve the music.

What impression do you hope your orchestra makes on European audiences?

I think Europeans should be proud that their music is being played by these young musicians from China, and love them and support them. Weʼre not in competition with our colleagues in Europe. The Czech Philharmonic has been together for 100 years; the orchestra Iʼm conducting tonight has only two yearsʼ experience playing this music. So we are showing what we can do in two yearsʼ time, and we hope the audiences will enjoy it. Itʼs not about judging or comparing. Itʼs about happiness of the spirit, and I hope the audiences feel that.

For more on the Zhejiang Symphony Orchestra:

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