In part, it’s a numbers game. About 800 music students are enrolled at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School. The Sichuan Conservatory, in Chengdu, China, has 10,000. By some measures, between 40 and 100 million children in China are learning Western classical music, mostly piano or violin but enough other instruments to populate symphony orchestras around the globe for generations to come.
Many American musicians, feeling their art embattled at home, now take China’s rise to musical supremacy as a godsend, as if the cavalry was coming to the rescue. “China is integral to the future of classical music,” says conductor Michael Alexander, who will lead the Kennesaw State University Symphony Orchestra to China on its first international tour, December 31 through January 7. “This isn’t a recruiting trip,” he says. “It’s more a chance for us to learn from them. If we happen to recruit someone for KSU, that’ll be really lucky.”
The 76 student musicians, accompanied by Alexander, two soloists and five KSU staffers, will perform three concerts, in Beijing and Xi’an. They’ll spend an afternoon with a Chinese youth orchestra — most young people in China speak at least some English — and watch a traditional-instrument ensemble rehearse and perform. There’s time for sightseeing, too, as well as the traditional Peking Opera and a visit to an elementary school.
In all, KSU and its orchestra had to come up with about $200,000 to pay for the trip, with many students contributing $2,000 to help defray the costs of those who couldn’t afford anything. (“I told them, ‘Either we all go or none of us go’,” remembers Alexander.) KSU’s Confucius Institute chipped in $30,000. The Chinese government waived the visa fees and many concert expenses, such as hall rental.
One KSU violinist, Christina Volz (at left), has been blogging about the tour. “It was a struggle to come up with the payments for this trip (there were many days of eating ramen!), but the experiences one gains from international travel are priceless,” she writes. “I’ve never been to China and I’m incredibly excited to see what new experiences and perspectives this trip will bring!”
Says Alexander: “I’m reluctant to say we’ll get more from a tour to China than to, say, Australia or Sweden, but as musicians we have to be aware of who’ll be the major player in our field, and it’s happening really quickly.”
In his book “Listen to This,” Alex Ross explains that, “While classical musicians from around the world yearn for a glint of media attention, their counterparts in China have no trouble drawing the spotlight. Western classical music is big business, or, at least, official business.” Ross, who spent time in China for a New Yorker magazine article, notes that the “creative climate, with its systems of punishments and rewards, still resembles that of the late-period Soviet Union, which heavily influenced the development of China’s musical institutions.”
Peter Witte, the former dean of KSU’s music school who’s now at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, credits Kennesaw with “doing exactly what a school should be doing: getting their students to interact meaningfully with top schools in China.” Today, a freshman entering college in the U.S. might have a 40-year career in the arts, and Witte sees inevitable and increasing intersections with Chinese musicians along the way.
The KSU program in China holds its own cultural experience. In addition to familiar music by Tchaikovsky, Bernstein and John Williams, the students will perform “Momentum” by Chen Yi, among the most acclaimed composers on the international scene today, a professor at UMKC and a visiting professor at Beijing’s Central Conservatory, her alma mater. She’s also a “Class of ’78” composer, along with Zhou Long (now her husband) and the celebrated Tan Dun, among others.
The daughter of two physicians, Chen Yi, who was born in 1953, started piano lessons at 3. As a teenager, she was relocated to a work farm during the Cultural Revolution, a period of enforced madness when Western influences were banished, art was destroyed, schools were shuttered and city intellectuals were relocated to the countryside. One benefit, Chen later realized, was the nurturing of a deep appreciation for folk tunes. When it was over, in 1978, she was in the first class admitted to Beijing’s reopened Central Conservatory — securing one of about a hundred slots for which 18,000 had applied. As the first women in China to earn a master’s degree in music, she departed for New York, where she earned a doctorate at Columbia University.
“Classical music in China started late,” Chen told me, in clear, fractured English, “but is now growing very fast. The population size makes competition very high, that’s my opinion. China needs an understanding with the rest of the world, for its own growth and economics and society. It’s very meaningful when Kennesaw [State] University goes to China, to exchange ideas and influences.”
She composed “Momentum” in 1998, for Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory Orchestra to perform at a New York concert.
“I thought Kennesaw would have some troubles with ‘Momentum’; there are lots of very high-level solo lines,” she said. “The music is my impression of a traditional Fire Mountain, with lava, lots of orchestral texture with a Peking Opera-style section in the middle. During the Cultural Revolution I was a farmer, then the concertmaster of Peking Opera. This work evokes some of those memories for me, and the momentum is a building up of tension, with big bursts.” (KSU performed “Momentum” last year and sent the composer an MP3. She praised the playing, emailed a few suggestions to tighten the performance, and offered her blessing of the tour to China.)
For her part, like many serious Chinese musicians living in the United States, Chen downplays the role of China in 21st-century classical music. “When poor farmers had a little income and started to get educated — or get their children educated — they imitated role models and bought a piano. Most people in China buy a piano as furniture. It looks very impressive in the living room. But the population is so high that a few million children will learn to play well anyway.”
But why and how is a student orchestra from the northern Atlanta suburbs performing in China?
Six years ago, KSU’s student orchestra and the Cobb Symphony Orchestra, a semi-professional community group, were effectively the same ensemble. In 2004, Alexander was hired at both, with a mandate to split them apart. For the KSU orchestra, playing at a high student level and performing across the globe, a tour is a coming-of-age moment, a validation of institutional and artistic merit.
The “how” is somewhat less ennobling. KSU was approached by Music Celebrations, a company that facilitates pay-to-play international performances, usually by student and amateur groups. “We’re not naïve going into this,” Alexander says. Asked whether Music Celebrations is akin to Mid-America Productions, the conductor shoots back, “They’re not as sleazy. Mid-America cheapened going to Carnegie Hall, because if you paid them the money you could rent the hall, no matter how good or bad you were. Music Celebrations has some standards. Look, we’re going to share a program with the orchestra of Beijing’s Central Conservatory, the most prestigious school in the country. That’s pretty exciting. A lot of my [KSU] students will be important free-lance musicians around Atlanta for years to come. The opportunity for them to experience China will benefit them in fundamental ways.”