Replaying a classical record

15:02, November 02, 2009      

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The year 1979 is important in the history of classical music in China. Before Isaac Stern's trip, Seiji Ozawa visited Beijing in March with the Boston Symphony and returned to collaborate with the Central Symphony Orchestra in December.

In October, the United States-born violinist Yehudi Menuhin collaborated with the China Central Symphony Orchestra and Herbert von Karajan conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in the capital. Andrew Davis then conducted the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in November.

While the Chinese people were thirsting for culture from the outside world after the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), Western musicians also had a strong interest in understanding the country and its people.

"We come here to meet Chinese people, to say hello through music, as musicians and friends The easiest way for a person to learn about another country is to meet professionals in one's own field," Isaac Stern says in the movie From Mao to Mozart.

He found that at the beginning of the rehearsals the Chinese musicians were a little stiff, a little uncertain. They had an old fashioned technical approach in the way they played their instruments, but they would have an almost instant understanding once they were shown another approach.

What Stern did not know is that the Chinese side too put in a lot for the success of his trip. Not only did they get violinist Tang Yun to help Li Delun prepare for the concerts before he arrived, but also came up with an innovative solution when Stern said the piano, then Shanghai's bets, was in poor shape. Zhou Wenzhong, the American-Chinese musician who coordinated the trip, got the Chinese air force to airlift a piano from Beijing to Shanghai.

Like many other Western musicians visiting China, Stern helped the orchestra members and students by encouraging them and by giving them a musical direction.

"Stern opened up our vision of classical music and was a powerful impact on China's music scene at that time. I had listened to a few records but had never been so impressed by a live concert before. I had never thought the violin could be so beautiful, emotional and enter your inner heart," said the violinist Tsu Weiling who was then an 18-year-old student at the Central Conservatory of Music and took Stern's master class.

"At that time, Chinese students used to challenge themselves with difficult techniques, we did not care much about musicality and artistry. Stern taught us to play with heart, play like you are singing," said Tang Yun who was then a 29-year-old violinist in China and helped Li Delun prepare the orchestra for Stern's concerts.

Tsu and Tang are two of the seven young talents who played for Stern on his trip and were featured in the movie From Mao to Mozart.

On Friday, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Stern's music trip, the 12th Beijing Music Festival got all seven artists together to give a concert under the baton of Stern's son, David, at Poly Theater. Sketches of From Mao to Mozart were shown on two screens on either side of the stage.

"Though the old maestros have passed away, the music remains the same, powerful and expressive," said Yu Long, artistic director of Beijing Music Festival, who directed both the 20th and 30th anniversary celebrations. "I hope they can reunite every 10 years in the name of music."

When Stern visited Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Yu was a 15-year-old boy learning percussion and conducting there. His composer grandfather, Ding Shande, the vice-president of Shanghai Conservatory, received Stern. Though he did not play for Stern, Yu and his schoolmates rushed to see him through the classroom windows. He later married Tsu Weiling, who did play for Stern.

"From Mao to Mozart always reminds me of Stefan Zweig's Decisive Moments in History. Stern's visit was such a decisive moment in China's history, at least in the history of classical music. In the last 30 years, those kids who played for Stern have grown up to be established musicians on the world stage and China has become a powerful member of the global village," Yu said.

In 1979 everyone knew that China was going to develop, but nobody imagined it would have come so far, so fast, raising the question: What will China be like in another 30 years?

The Beijing Music Festival 30th anniversary celebration concert was filmed and will be made into a documentary. Yu said he hopes it will become a historical record and continue the story first started by Stern's visit in 1979.

Source: China Daily
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