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

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

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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