Music in China
On our last morning in Shanghai, I found myself in the hotel lobby with a dozen or so Rochester singers waiting for the bus to the airport. With our suitcases collected by the glass revolving door, others drifted into the gift shop or hotel Internet center. Three of four Chinese businessmen sat smoking and chatting on their cells. The Chinese smoke pretty much wherever they want. Bored, I wandered over to a baby grand piano draped in a red velvet cover. I pulled the ruffled fabric away and sat down in front of a heavily lacquered, black Yamaha. I touched a few keys. Perfectly in tune.
Quietly, I started noodling through a few simple pieces I know by heart, beginning with Mozart's Sonata in C. I had launched into Chopin's Nocturne No. 2, Op. 9 when I sensed someone standing beside me, listening. I looked up. It was our Chinese guide, who goes by the English name, Jane. She smiled and nodded. A forty-eight year-old Beijing native, Jane has university degrees in chemistry and English. Her twelve year-old son likes video games. I grinned up at her and played a little louder. When I finished, she nodded, thanked me, and said "very good." I stood up, covered the piano, and walked away.
Surprise! Behind me, Jane sat down, lifted the cover, and started to play herself. She had been waiting her turn.
According to various estimates, between thirty million and a hundred million children are learning piano or violin in China. Chinese factories are said to be producing a new piano everyday. There's a widespread enthusiasm for Western classical music in the Middle Kingdom, which, combined with the discipline and passion the Chinese seem to bring to everything, may make China a world center for classical composers and performers within a few years. New Yorker writer Alex Ross recently took stock of the Chinese music boom in his article, "Symphony of Millions."
In my two-week visit to China with the Rochester Oratorio Society, I regret not having the time to listen to much live music. One free night, determined to hear some Chinese classical music, I discovered that the bookstore-slash-live music club mentioned in my Fodor's guidebook had closed early.
What music I did hear came in bits and pieces. In a sprawling green Beijing park surrounding the Temple of Heaven, amateurs played native instruments such as the dizi, a bamboo flute. In a restaurant in Zhouzhuang, a middle-aged woman sang Chinese folk melodies while a man doubled her voice part on the erhu, a two-stringed fiddle. The effect was eerie and charming, as though a cat were singing in unison with a person. Then the singer stepped aside and the erhu player stepped up the tempo, launching into a lively, rhythmic solo piece that had everyone smiling and tapping along. When he began improvising, it struck me how much the music felt like pentatonic jazz, surprising and complex. I watched composer Cary Ratcliff listening intently on the other side of the room. Later, I heard, someone asked him if he'd been inspired and he responded no, saying that the number of notes in the traditional Chinese scale was too limiting for him.
We encountered a few street musicians. A small band playing in a pagoda at Beijing's Summer Palace mixed traditional Chinese folk melodies with Jingle Bells and Frere Jacques. They were quite good. A foghorn-like tenor sax player on Shanghai's neon-lit Nanjing Dong Lu pedestrian walkway drove us in the opposite direction.
In formal settings such as the China International Choir Festival, we heard groups from all over the world. I would have liked to hear more of these performances, but we were usually shuttled away as soon as our part of the concert was over. The Chinese choirs we heard in Beijing produced a dense, throaty sound with clipped pronunciations. Their accompanists all played crisply, deftly. Almost perfectly.
The Shanghai Symphonic Choir offered a very ponderous version of Mozart's "Ave Verum," and to my ears, while the chords and phrasing were as convincing as any Western choir's, the Latin text landed flat. I wondered if they knew the meaning of what they were singing. Then I wondered if our rendition of the traditional Kang Ding song, a Chinese favorite, sounded similarly strange to Chinese ears.
Critic Alex Ross puzzles at the Chinese craze for Western classical music when the Chinese, he points out, have a rich tradition of their own going back five thousand years. I thought of that idea one night as I was wandering through the campus of the Shanghai Conservatory. Founded in the 1920's, in the same era at the Eastman School of Music, the Shanghai Conservatory offers more than a thousand students degrees in musicology, composition and conducting, voice, piano, orchestral instruments, Chinese instruments, music education and musical drama. I wandered from hall to hall, studying posters and busts, soaking in the familiar, noisy atmosphere. A cellist walked past me with a gig bag slung over his shoulder. Then I heard violin music. I peered into a small auditorium to see a young Chinese woman holding a violin on stage with a grey-haired man shouting at her in English from the floor. "The line! The line!" he said. "Follow the line! Don't just play the notes!" She played it again. It sounded like Brahms.
On our last morning in Shanghai, we boarded a bus for the Pudong airport. One of our guides went with us. I can't remember her name. She's from a town north of Beijing and maybe twenty-two years old. She was wearing a sparkly beige T-shirt with her glossy black hair pulled back in a pony-tail. On the way to the airport, she stood up and faced us.
"Now I have one last gift for you," she said. "I sing the Kang Ding song." With the sun slanting on her face, she spun out a husky, fluid, unadorned Chinese love song. Like a lullaby. The way it's meant to sound.