A Less Forbidding City

Beijing Rushes Toward Westernization

Beijing_KFC_035.jpgBeijing is a city veritably shivering with a sense of transition, more than any of the world’s cities. In this bustling, metamorphosing metropolis, you see signs of the shift toward capitalist, materialistic appurtenances. You find the transitional spirit in the energized magnetic force between two recurring icons: Mao Tse-tung and the symbol for the 2008 Olympics. Mao, whose beaming and somehow idealistic face in the legendary portrait on the Gate of Heavenly Peace smiles over the vast, open Tiananmen Square, is gradually becoming an emblem of the past. The forthcoming 2008 Olympics here is a beacon of the future, the first real chance for Beijing to show itself off to the world since the country has opened up its portals to outsiders — and its value systems to the seductions of the free market.

In this rush toward modernization and Westernization, symbols of Western influence have invaded this ancient city within the last decade and a half. Ritzy hotels line the boulevard just blocks from the antiquity of the Forbidden City region in central Beijing, and another familiar facial icon can be found around the city — that of Colonel Sanders. The rustic charm of the narrow streets of the hutong have largely given way to the bulldozer army, modern architecture, and corporate rule, to the point where preservationist efforts are belatedly being fired up to protect what’s left of the pre-KFC-friendly Beijing.

All of which is to say that Beijing is still a powerfully inviting place to visit, especially for westerners whose curiosity has been piqued for years. There is still a sweetness and purity about China, and blessed relief from the cynicism, avarice, and crassness of culture in the U.S. and Europe.

One way in which East has been blissfully meeting West in China for decades is in the form of classical music. Apart from the anti-Western strictures of the Cultural Revolution period from the mid ’60s through Mao’s death in 1976, Western classical music has been played and studied here since Russians imported it starting in the 1920s, and it has been greeted with the fierce discipline that can produce great musicians.

At the moment, Chinese musicians and composers are making a strong impact on Western music. Witness the ascendancy of several important mid-career Chinese composers now making their way in the West, including Tan Dun, Chen Yi, and Bright Sheng. Witness the abundance of Chinese musicians whose solid playing and sturdy work ethic are earning them places in U.S. schools and orchestras. And, locally, witness the presence of many young and clearly gifted Chinese students attending, on full scholarship, the Music Academy of the West.

I was in Beijing recently to visit a fledgling summer academy similar to the Music Academy. The Great Wall Academy, finishing up its second year, is a month-long educational and performance setting for mostly Chinese violin and cello players, with a few visitors from other global points. Last year’s inaugural academy reportedly took place in a ramshackle hotel nearby the Great Wall. This year, they’ve moved to the much posher setting of a huge, luxurious, walled-in compound called the Grand Epoch City, located an hour outside of downtown.

While the academy is still undergoing growing pains, it is clearly a harbinger of the future for China, in which the idea of summer academies — a tradition in which the Music Academy of the West is one of America’s oldest and finest — makes perfect sense.

Classical music lovers in America, where classical music’s future seems somewhat murky, might well wonder: What’s the secret to China’s musical achievements? Sitting in his apartment, academy founder Kurt Sussmannshaus offered his explanation. He cited China’s Confucian society, one that respects its elders — and elder, traditional music forms, from Mozart to Peking Opera — as well as a general emphasis on education and the stricter focus on a child’s development, given the country’s one-per-family culture. A renowned violin pedagogue based at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and 25-year veteran at the Aspen Festival, Sussmannshaus began planning the Great Wall Academy only two years ago. He recognized a ripe student body: “The level of musicianship is incredibly high here.” Sussmannshaus had the eager help and encouragement of Chinese teachers and conservatories, in Beijing and Shanghai, ready to expand their East-West musical interactions.

Over dinner one night, the veteran violin professor Lin Yaoji spoke about his musical and philosophical ideals. Lin, who has taught at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing for many years, studied at the Moscow Conservatory in the early ’60s. Prevented from teaching Western music during the Cultural Revolution, he quietly developed his method for teaching during that dark period. Yaoji likes to emphasize the slow, systematic approach to learning the instrument: “Practicing is like building a house,” he said at the table, with ever-able Assistant Dean Fangfang Li acting as translator. “You start very small. You don’t look up. You start on the ground.”

Numerous successful Chinese violinists have been mentored by Yaoji, including the man who stole the show at the Great Wall Academy this year, the remarkable and enigmatic young player Chuan-Yun Li. In concert, the restless and seemingly self-effacing player dispensed both free-flowing virtuosity and achingly beautiful lyricism, by turns. He’s a name to watch for on the world stage, and is already being touted as one of China’s greatest.

Other proof of musical might at the academy came out at night, during regular concerts held in a rather drab and acoustically dubious conference hall on the property (one could easily imagine politburo confabs in the house). The polite young musicians Xie Haoning and Zhang Xiaxia, a lovely young lady, breezed through knuckle-busting Paganini scores sans sweat. The 23-year-old violinist Lui Xiao, who has already begun appearing professionally as a soloist, played Chen Gang’s Butterfly Lover Violin Concerto. At the risk of appearing American-centric, the work’s bright-toned and pentatonic lyricism invited a comparison to Aaron Copland, with even less angst attached.

A huge change is slowly, steadily taking place, on the road to China’s 21st-century economic miracle. For the moment, though, Mao’s face seems friendly enough, and there remains plenty ancient exoticism to satisfy the Western escapee’s fantasies of life before corporate invasion. Both Imperial and Red Chinoiserie are alive and well, at least for now.

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