NYT: China’s Smaller Cities Struggle to Cultivate an Interest in Classical Music


APRIL 20, 2016

At the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing, which opened in 2007, classical music performances abound. Middle-tier cities have not supported classical music as effectively.  Chang W. Lee/The New York Times    

At the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing, which opened in 2007, classical music performances abound. Middle-tier cities have not supported classical music as effectively. Chang W. Lee/The New York Times



BEIJING — After more than a decade as the world’s great hope for classical music, China is suffering growing pains.

Audiences in many cities remain enthusiastic, virtuosos continue to multiply, and conservatories and concert halls keep mushrooming. The New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra have both forged long-term partnerships here, and the Juilliard School announced plans last year to open a branch in 2018 in Tianjin, just outside Beijing.

But stubborn roadblocks have drawn the concern of many in the field. Observers point to weak management at performing arts institutions and insufficient efforts to educate audiences, who then prove indifferent to adventurous fare.

According to Long Yu, whose posts include artistic director and chief conductor of the China Philharmonic Orchestra and music director of the Shanghai Symphony, “The question for China now is, how do we cultivate passion for music, and not just stars?”

The biggest hurdle appears to be institutional.

It is true that China’s major cities, namely Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, are hives of classical activity. In the early 1990s, Beijing had only a few dedicated concert halls and concerts a year. Now, residents of the capital and of Shanghai can choose from hundreds of classical music performances annually.

At the same time, many second- and third-tier cities, like Wuhan and Xi’an, are struggling to fill their gleaming new theaters and concert halls with quality musicians and audiences. Most of these cities lack regular concert seasons and the funding to bring in distinguished foreign orchestras. In some, once-grand halls are falling apart because of poor upkeep.

“The orchestras in these second-tier cities are very thirsty and looking for help,” said Cai Jindong, a professor at Stanford and a frequent guest conductor in China. “They need soft-skills development, from the very top leadership down to the musicians, the maintenance of the concert hall, education, everything.”

In many places, a lack of quality programming has led to weak ticket sales, a situation that some managers say has worsened because of the slowing Chinese economy. And the culture of philanthropy in China is relatively undeveloped, with few tax incentives to encourage individuals to support performing arts institutions.

“What China lacks is a unified cultural policy,” said Ren Xiaolong, deputy director of programming at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing.

Throughout the country, the arts are still largely seen as “a part of the revolutionary machine — the government runs the machine and the people passively receive,” Mr. Ren said, drawing a contrast to Europe, where he said many governments aim to help, rather than control, the development of culture.

Then there is the issue of Chinese concertgoers’ appetite for music outside the mainstream.

Wu Jiatong, general manager of Wu Promotion, a Beijing performing arts agency and events organizer, recalled bringing the Bruckner Orchestra Linz from Austria to perform Brucknerfor one of the first times in China, in 1996.

“At the time, people said it’s too long, no one will buy tickets,” said Mr. Wu. “So we played Bruckner’s Overture in G minor, which is very short, and then we played Strauss, of course, because back then the ‘Blue Danube’ waltz was what Chinese thought of as classical music.”

Program managers say there is now a demand to hear not only Brahms and Beethoven but also Bruckner, Mahler, even Prokofiev. But all of those composers are considered part of the standard canon by European and American standards and not adventurous.

Many halls are struggling just to get the attention of a public increasingly drawn into the orbit of films and online television.

“In China, it’s not like in Russia, where even if the economy is really bad, people still have the tradition of getting dressed up and going to performances,” said Lin Hongming, general manager of the Shanghai Oriental Art Center.

As a result, educational programs at leading halls are often designed to cultivate an appreciation for the performing arts in general, not just Western classical music.

Mr. Long, the conductor, said, “Music education needs to be more complex.”

Still, more halls are beginning to offer discounted student tickets and annual memberships.

“Since our main target audience is the middle class, we try to price a bulk of our tickets to be competitive with the cost of a movie ticket,” Mr. Lin said.

Many observers say that perhaps the biggest challenge for concert halls in China is finding strong managers who have both the musical knowledge and the patience to persuade local governments that supporting culture is about more than just building the halls.

“China is so big and we have so many grand theaters and opera houses, but if you asked me to give you the names of five general managers who are running their halls professionally, I wouldn’t be able to,” Mr. Wu said.

Even some managers who are succeeding acknowledge they faced a steep learning curve.

Before joining the National Center for the Performing Arts in 2008, the year after it opened, Mr. Ren said, he had “no idea about classical music.”

“We were learning about programing at that time and wondering, who is Mahler?” he said. “But our knowledge of the music and of the music fans has increased over the last seven years.”

That willingness to learn is especially important at places like the National Center, which depend on ticket sales for at least 50 percent of their revenues (compared with about 30 to 40 percent for many top American orchestras).

“But once you get the general managers in the halls, China will take off,” Mr. Wu said.

Such optimism remains widespread.

Tens of millions of young Chinese are studying instruments, believed to be one of the top drivers of audience growth. At the Shanghai Oriental Art Center, for example, over half the patrons for classical music are under 40, according to Mr. Lin, the general manager.

“The change over six years has been extraordinary,” said Rory Jeffes, managing director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, which has toured China four times. Mr. Jeffes, like others, said that not so long ago people would cough loudly and spit during performances, or talk on the phone while their children ran around. It was also not uncommon to see blocks of empty seats because of problems with ticketing systems.

Audiences now, he said, “have really come to grips with the music and want to understand and engage with it in a real way.”

A version of this article appears in print on April 21, 2016, on page C3 of the New York edition with the headline: China’s Smaller Cities Struggle to Cultivate Classical Music.