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Developing China's National Symphony Orchestra

This article about the problems facing a new conductor appointed to head China's trouble prone National Symphony Orchestra was first published in the Asian Wall St Journal on 29 July 2003.

A Native Son Returns To Strike a New Chord For Chinese Symphony

By Leslie Chang

After the second encore, an energetic rendition of a Brahms "Hungarian Dance," the students applauded like mad. Some even stood up and shouted out, "Bravo!"

BEIJING -- The trumpet and the tuba were still smarting from a fight over who played too loudly at a concert a year ago. The heads of several instrument sections were lobbying for fancier titles. On his first visit to China after being named principal conductor of the national orchestra, Li Xiaolu found himself surrounded by discord.

Mr. Li, a 44-year-old Shanghai native, returned to China in January following two decades as a conductor of community orchestras in U.S. cities. He wore a blue pinstripe suit, spoke in a booming voice and used his meaty hands for emphasis as he discussed his dream of restoring harmony to an orchestra shaken by years of dissonance.

"For young people, for government officials, to sit in a concert hall and listen to all these people who have different ideas playing one piece of music, creating harmony, it is so important for them to see," Mr. Li said. He felt that was something Chinese society had been missing in the past two decades as economic reforms fostered self-interest and sometimes made it difficult for people to work together.

The orchestra survived by playing pieces with revolutionary themes.
China's National Symphony Orchestra, like many of the country's institutions, has been buffeted by the sharp policy shifts that have governed life in China in the past half-century. Established in 1956 and funded by the government, the orchestra initially sought to build a repertoire of Western classical music. But during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, such music was attacked for its bourgeois associations. The orchestra survived by playing a set list of symphonic pieces with Chinese revolutionary themes.

When the upheaval subsided, there was little chance to regroup and rebuild. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping approved market reforms in 1979, setting off an economic boom that left many cultural institutions behind. Many musicians went abroad to study. The national orchestra struggled with dwindling audiences. Starting in 1996, it endured two painfully unsuccessful repair efforts by Western-trained Chinese conductors whose radical shake-ups created turmoil.

By the time Mr. Li arrived in January, he faced an ensemble whose members had grown cynical from watching maestros fly in with radical treatments that cured little, only to depart amid rumors and recriminations. The orchestra had been rudderless for 15 months and had lost a third of its musicians, including principals in most of the woodwind and string sections. Many had gone to a rival orchestra in Beijing offering bigger salaries. There was no musical calendar, and neither the musicians nor the public knew more than a week or two in advance where the orchestra would be performing.

"We are placing a lot of hopes in Conductor Li, but the task is hard," said Deng Chuan, a violinist who has played in the orchestra for a decade. "Right now, hearts are not at peace. People want to know: If I stay, will my best years be wasted on this stage?"

Daily rehearsals were instituted in 1996.
The orchestra's first would-be savior had been U.S.-educated Chen Zuohuang, who was named chief conductor and artistic director in 1996. He instituted daily rehearsals and invited well-known guest conductors. He introduced the concept of a musical season, which laid out the year's schedule of concerts in advance.

He also fired a chorus, a chamber-music group and full-time soloists. And he inaugurated something that had never been seen in China before: auditions for all new and existing members, with pay based on merit rather than seniority.

Veteran musicians were humiliated at having to audition for seats they had held for decades. More than half of the existing members didn't make the cut or left, taking with them both the institutional memory and the musical rapport of experienced players. To those who remained, the competition was brutal. Members say musicians would inform on their fellows to the conductor when someone played badly.

"There was no sense of cohesion in the orchestra. People were coming and going all the time," says a violinist.

The opponents of change struck back. Anonymous letters charging that Mr. Chen was financially corrupt were sent to would-be donors. Funding dried up. The media attacked in articles questioning his loyalty to China. He left in 2000, saying in an interview after his resignation, "This is not work that can be completed in a single generation."

Mr Tang was attacked for his extravagent lifestyle.
His successor, Tang Muhai, a protege of the late Herbert von Karajan, sought to broaden the orchestra's repertoire and bring in more international guest artists. But he clashed repeatedly with an orchestra director appointed by the Ministry of Culture, a former official with little experience in classical music. Articles attacked Mr. Tang for an extravagant lifestyle. He left after a year.

Before Mr. Li arrived, some orchestra members had speculated that he got the job only by arranging for a large chunk of money to be donated to the orchestra. Mr. Li says this isn't true. Others said the post was a mere stepping stone that he would abandon as soon as he got a better offer. Mr. Li says he has a "short term" contract with the orchestra but he is considering staying on longer. He says he was flooded with congratulatory phone calls from musicians who tried to lobby him on issues such as salaries.

On his first day in China, Mr. Li tackled cultural differences. In a meeting with the orchestra's top administrators, he highlighted some of those differences, steeling himself and his new colleagues for the inevitable clashes to follow. Americans like people who talk freely, while Chinese don't. Americans favor confrontation, while Chinese don't. Americans readily acknowledge mistakes, while Chinese find it more difficult. "They responded very well to it," Mr. Li said on the evening of his first day.

Born in 1958 to a musical family, Mr. Li left home at age 14 during the Cultural Revolution to play violin first in China's naval orchestra and later with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. He left China in 1983 to attend the Cleveland Institute of Music. He has since gained a reputation in the U.S. as the energetic builder of orchestras in Lafayette, Louisiana, Bangor, Maine, and New London, Connecticut. He still conducts for the Bangor and New London orchestras.

His effusiveness is dictinctly unChinese.
In China, he is unknown, and he has to some extent lost touch with his homeland. He often fumbles in speaking Chinese, trying to use complicated classical sayings and then relying on whoever is around to supply the correct one. His effusiveness is distinctly un-Chinese. When he was a guest conductor of the national orchestra last year, his boisterous praise put people on edge. "They played well, so I said `Bravo!' " Mr. Li says now. "I heard a lot of people came back and wondered, `Why does he say that? We're not that good.' "

But Mr. Li has shown himself to be shrewder than he may appear. On the second day of his January visit, his first meeting was with Wang Lilan, who heads the orchestra's "old cadres department." It takes care of 500 retired musicians and staffers, many of whom still live in orchestra-owned housing behind its white-tile office building in downtown Beijing. These retirees have no official role, but they possess enough clout to block change.

Mr. Li asked if Lunar New Year greetings had been sent to the retirees yet. Ms. Wang said no. Mr. Li suggested that greeting cards be sent, wishing the retirees good health and asking them to fill out a form recalling their fondest orchestra memories. "When I am at home in Shanghai, my parents often receive calls from the old cadres," he said. It was a canny reference, telling the staff that he was still one of them and not an interloper from abroad.

Guo Shan, the orchestra's deputy director who was sitting in on the meeting, jumped in: "Let's do it today. They will get the cards by New Year, when their family is all around. From now on, let's do something the moment we say we will." Ms. Guo, an ex-pianist with a fine-boned face and an imperious manner, is crucial to the execution of any new plans.

Job descriptions were written.
Mr. Li next asked the orchestra's chief of staff, Wang Tie, to write down a job description of every person on the staff. Ms. Wang, a middle-age former mezzo-soprano with tightly permed gray hair, was bewildered: Write down every single thing each person does? It took Mr. Li 10 minutes to explain the concept of a job description -- details that separate the position from the person occupying the post.

"I feel that our past problems were because things were not written down clearly," he told her. "So in the future, when we have conflicts, we can refer to these written descriptions."

Late in the afternoon, after dripping a solution into eyes bleary from jet lag, he sat down with Tian Zhenlin, who was in charge of artistic administration. The orchestra desperately needed to build up its box-office receipts and cut back on the extensive giveaways that were filling seats. Mr. Li also wanted to broaden the audience exposed to orchestral music. He suggested two short concerts on Children's Day in June to bring in a young audience. He planned a summer outdoor concert, Beijing's first taste of such an event with a full symphony. He envisioned refrigerator magnets with the season calendar printed on them and an opening-night fund-raising gala for big donors. The orchestra depends on funding from Chinese and Western companies for the bulk of its $2.1 million annual budget.

After another day of meetings, Mr. Li headed back to the U.S. "I'm afraid I will not get results that fast, and it will disappoint people," he said. He figured he had about nine months to prove himself.

In the ensuing weeks, the New Year's greetings went out. Many retirees wrote back sharing their memories and treasured old photographs. The orchestra's concertmaster traveled to New York to perform in a concert under the arrangement of Mr. Li. The national orchestra joined the American Symphony Orchestra League, a grouping of 850 orchestras in the U.S. and abroad. Inquiries from record companies and music agents began to arrive, exploring possible collaboration. Ms. Guo, the deputy director, traveled to the U.S., where she and Mr. Li recruited music lovers and potential sponsors to a new "Friends of the National Symphony Orchestra," a nonprofit organization they set up in the U.S. to raise money and promote exchanges between American and Chinese musicians.

His musical scores were meticulously marked. 
Ms. Guo, who visited Mr. Li several times last year while assessing his fitness for the post, was clearly won over. "For a long time, I thought he was just a dreamer, someone who talked big and indulged in fantasies," she confided. She said she realized otherwise when she looked at his musical scores: They were meticulously marked, with different parts highlighted in different colors and the hard parts specially clipped. "He is very organized. He has done a lot in the past one or two months," she conceded. "We give him the most headaches of all his orchestras."

Mr. Li returned in mid-March and began to tackle the music. In two days of rehearsals and fighting through a bout of food poisoning, he pushed the orchestra through Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," a complex piece that he added to the program at the last minute, alongside standards the orchestra knows well, such as Rossini's "William Tell" overture. By midmorning of the first day, after hours of urging the brass section to play with more verve and volume, his shirt was soaked through with sweat.

"More savage! More savage! I want a sound that doesn't listen to reason," he ordered the tuba player.

When the first trumpet began to play the stately opening with a clear, pure tone, Mr. Li cut him short. "It sounds like a nervous little child going to school. Can it be a bit more heavy, more vigorous?" But he also was careful to thank each player after a difficult solo.

The tendency among Chinese musicians is to hide rather than to stand out. 
Chinese orchestras have distinctive weaknesses, he says. An orchestra needs vivid individual voices, particularly in the brass and woodwinds, in which each part is usually played by a single instrument. The tendency among Chinese musicians is to hide rather than to stand out.

"It's an emotional thing," he says. "Western people turn on when people are watching them. But in Chinese orchestras, there is so much pressure for a person not to lose face, that when the time comes for them to show off, they are hesitant to do it."

Chinese orchestras' relative isolation from the outside world also hurts. Mr. Li notes that all the principals in an American orchestra would have studied the entire musical score, not just their own parts. In China it is hard to find such scores, so only the conductor has one.

They remained perfectly silent during the performance. 
After the two days of rehearsal, the orchestra's first concert under Mr. Li's baton was the next evening at the China University of Law and Politics in Beijing. Most of the students had never been to a classical-music performance. They packed the 1,700-seat auditorium, crowded along the stairways and against the back wall. They listened raptly as Mr. Li explained what the concertmaster does, why it is polite to applaud soloists after they play a difficult part, and how the crash of the brass section and the timpani is a clue that the piece is coming to an end. They remained perfectly silent during the performance, with none of the coughing and rustling, the beeping and phone-ringing that usually accompany performances in China.

Mr. Li told his youthful audience, "When Chinese are happy, they are silent. When Westerners are happy, they shout out `Bravo!' If you hear us and like us, I urge you tonight to break with Chinese tradition."

After the second encore, an energetic rendition of a Brahms "Hungarian Dance," the students applauded like mad. Some even stood up and shouted out, "Bravo!"

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