Why the Chinese love Germany’s National Youth Orchestra

Deutsche Welle
7 Min Read

Just as the number of classical music lovers is expanding in China, Germany’s National Youth Orchestra has broken records of attendance during its tour there. Some cultural quirks can be surprising for Europeans.
It’s a mixed crowd: Young women in summer dresses, students wearing T-shirts, and parents with their children flock to Jinan’s large concert hall.

Li Zhang is among the concert guests. The 12-year-old girl has come with her mother for a very special guest performance: Germany’s National Youth Orchestra, on tour in China, performs in Jinan today. Li Zhang, who has been playing the piano since age four, is particularly looking forward to hearing Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto.

A growing number of Chinese are getting passionate about Western classical music, like Li Zhang and her mother. Musical training and culture used to be concentrated in major cultural centers such as Beijing and Shanghai. Now classical music lovers can be found across the entire country. Outstanding concert halls have recently been built in many provincial capitals and urban centers. Musicians from around the world are coming to play.

The cities are practically competing against each other over who has the best and largest concert hall, and thus the best conditions to become a cultural and musical center.

It’s also the case in Jinan: Inspired by the spectacular opera and concert hall complex NCPA in Beijing, which was designed by the French star architect Paul Andreu, the capital of the province of Shangdou has set up an impressive cultural complex over a year ago. In terms of facilities, furnishings and acoustics, it leaves nothing to be desired: The complex includes an opera hall, a theater and a 1,500-seat atrium-shaped concert hall paneled in light colors, boasting a sumptuous organ.

China attracts international musicians

Ensembles such as Germany’s National Youth Orchestra are therefore happy to perform in such a magnificent hall filled with an enthusiastic audience. Sönke Lentz, director of the orchestra, raves about the “fantastic” concert hall. “A lot of money has been invested there, and of course it’s great, especially for foreigners, to play in such concert halls.”

On the other hand, the economic aspects ruling here are alarming, Lentz says. Those who pay the most can be part of the program. Jinan’s commerce-oriented cultural scene relies on guest performances. In this capital of a province counting almost 100 million inhabitants, there is no music academy and not a single professional orchestra.

Germany’s National Youth Orchestra will spend almost two weeks traveling around China. Jinan, located right between the two megacities of Beijing and Shanghai, is an important stop-over.

Germany’s youngest top orchestra’s ambitious program, effectively advertised in China, ranges from Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, symphonies by Mendelssohn and Prokofiev, to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, a multi-faceted modern work depicting American landscapes.

Thanks to conductor Patrick Long and pianist Herbert Schuch, these are high-quality concerts, which the audience reward with enthusiastic applause. The vice-director of the concert hall, He Ying, is pleased with the ticket sales. Germany’s National Youth Orchestra has topped all previous concerts this season, filling over 85 percent of the hall.

Germany inspires China

A full house and an enthusiastic audience: Xin Yu is highly satisfied with the concert and the entire performance of the orchestra on tour. She is the representative of the Agency Wu which organized the concerts and sold them to concert halls throughout the country. She knows that the quality of the music is high and that the Chinese are impressed by the musicians’ young age.

Having recently completed her master’s degree in Munich, where she did research on the concept of the Germany’s National Youth Orchestra, Xin Yu now wants to create something similar in China. Together with the director of the agency Wu, she is now preparing a nationwide youth competition following Germany’s example.

The classical music market is a growing industry. Promoting young talent is an investment in the future. Xin Yu’s reasoning goes this way: Just like Li Zhang, 50 million Chinese are now learning how to play the piano. These people, as well as many others, are likely to attend concerts. It’s time to develop expand the cultural programs.

A 10-year contract with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is only one of the major arrangements made by the agency. In the meantime, hundreds of outstanding concert halls are being built nationwide.

Even a laser pointer does not stop them

There are still quite a few cultural clashes during these musical encounters between Europe and China. Concert-goers are constantly online. Concert halls offer free Wi-Fi access – however those expecting anything more than the usual highly restricted China-friendly content will be disappointed.

People are asked to swith off their mobiles during the concert. At the beginning of the concert and during the breaks, they are reminded that making calls, taking pictures and filming is prohibited. Lasers are pointed on the smartphones of people who decide to use them nevertheless. That discourages them only for a short while: Cameras keep flashing and clicking in all the rows.

A neon display above the stage explains that people should not applaud between the different parts of the symphonies, during title announcements. But who cares? The audience is enthusiastic – and much more relaxed than in Europe. It is considered normal to go to the bathroom during a concert.

Sönke Lentz has observed that these educational measures are no longer necessary in cultural mega-cities like Beijing.

In any case, these quirks do not dampen the enthusiasm of the audience: Li Zhang is totally thrilled. She buys a CD from the pianist while her mother photographs the two of them with her smartphone. She posts the picture to her girlfriends right away.

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