Music is a burgeoning industry in China, with foreign music organizations paying increasing attention to the world’s largest population. The trend is also true for classical musicians. As interest in classical music wanes in the United States and parts of Europe, groups are turning to China to find new audiences with which to share their art and passion.
In late January and early February 2011, I joined the Orlando, Florida-based Mantovani Orchestra as bassoonist for my second tour of China with the group. We performed concerts in Ningbo, Zhejiang; Shanghai; Shenzhen, Guangdong; and Suzhou, Jiangsu. A classical orchestra of about 40 instrumentalists, the Mantovani Orchestra plays music in the style of Annunzio Paolo Mantovani, who, with his staff, wrote and arranged thousands of popular songs and classical works from the 1930s through the 1970s. The orchestra lives on beyond Maestro Mantovani, presenting the light-orchestra style that made him famous around the world.
Many Chinese are turning their cultural focus outward, seeking to import new products from other parts of the world. As with rising affluent and middle classes in any country, Chinese with more free time and disposable income want to explore new flavors to augment their own traditions. Shanghai’s trendy shopping districts are full of Western clothing and jewelry stores, Suzhou has re-sellers of Apple Inc.’s iPad, and concert halls across the country host more foreign groups.
The Chinese appetite for Western classical music, and particularly for the cheerful, romantic Mantovani style, doesn’t seem far-fetched. Though quite different from traditional Chinese music, Mantovani’s style seems well matched to the optimistic and friendly sound of Chinese pop music.
The Mantovani Orchestra has traveled to China many times in the past, and its popularity remains strong, despite high ticket prices (¥180-¥880, or $27-$134, per ticket) and long spans between appearances. This year, we played to packed houses with rousing responses from the audience. I was warned numerous times that Chinese audiences generally don’t give standing ovations and may act more subdued than Western audiences. Yet, not only did we receive the requisite polite applause between songs and enthusiastic clapping at the end of the program, but sometimes we received standing ovations and shouts for more.
Though classical music audiences in the United States are growing older, the orchestra’s Chinese audiences vary widely in age. Some of the younger folks—ranging from children to young adults—chose to meet us at our buses after the concerts. They sought autographs and conversations about our performance, though most just wanted to greet and thank us. Our biggest fans would shyly tell us about their own efforts learning the violin or piano. Few had stories of participating in ensembles, however. Despite the rising interest in Western classical music, it appears that relatively few opportunities exist for young Chinese to study Western instruments. It felt incredible to have affected them to such a degree.
Cultural exchange is a two-way street, and the trip allowed us to learn about Chinese music culture as well. Many of us in the orchestra sought out Jinling Road in Shanghai, where we could peruse the many musical instrument shops. Most of the stores sell low-quality pianos, violins, and rock instruments, such as drum sets and guitars. A few offer traditional stringed instruments such as the erhu, guqin, and pipa. As a bassoonist, I sought wind instruments such as the hulusi and dizi. The offerings are fewer now than they were several years ago, but one shop still has a wide variety of wind instruments for sale. Several of us spent a long time in the shop playing instruments, trying to ask questions about them, and trying to understand the answers. The staff was patient with us, if a little perplexed by our curiosity. Many of the instruments looked like they had been untouched for a long time. Together, we brought a half-dozen instruments back to the United States to continue learning them and to share with other musicians.
With the easy accessibility of file transfer on the Internet, the quickest inroad to cultural understanding and reduction of cultural barriers may be music. Arguably the oldest form of art, it can be presented and observed alone or in groups. It can share a story without the need for language and can elicit ardent emotions in listeners. As China fills its concert halls with foreign musicians, its appetite for the new and diverse brings the prospect for musical groups to share cultural histories with, and find new opportunities in, the world’s second-largest and fastest growing major economy.
Alan Michels ([email protected]) is a freelance bassoonist in the Washington, DC, metro area. He is also executive director of the Great Noise Ensemble and a program manager for a government contracting company.