David Burke: Music brings cultures together

By Yu Ying, Xiangtian Ding (People's Daily Online) 17:18, July 25, 2023

Situated along the scenic banks of the River Thames, the Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall is home to the internationally acclaimed London Philharmonic Orchestra. Night after night, under the glittering spotlight, musicians share the beauty of orchestral masterpieces with thousands of audience members. The orchestra’s collaborative performances of Chinese and Western music have also provided Western audiences with a deeper understanding of China.

On a summer afternoon, People's Daily Online had the pleasure of sitting down with David Burke, Chief Executive of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, to discuss the enduring connection between China and the orchestra as well as himself. For him, music has the power to transcend geographical and disciplinary boundaries, serving as a bridge that brings together people from different cultural backgrounds and fosters cultural exchanges between East and West. After three years of the COVID pandemic, Burke expressed his excitement and anticipation for the orchestra's upcoming tour to China in 2024. “It is going to be great to be able to perform back in China!”

David Burke (Photo/Watson Fraser)

A legacy that lasts a millennium

People's Daily Online: The London Philharmonic Orchestra, as one of the five permanent symphony orchestras based in London and the UK’s largest orchestra, has played a leading role in cultural exchange between China and the UK. Today, people still love to talk about the Orchestra’s ‘first contact’ with China. Could you share with us this initial encounter?

David Burke: The London Philharmonic Orchestra, its relationship with China and its whole heritage is a vital part of who we are and who we are going forward. I think the conversations that we are having today still stems from the first initial visit. The history that we have with China also specifically reinforces a need for us to continue to collaborate in the future. The Orchestra first went to China in 1973 and subsequently became the first Western Orchestra to do so. There is now such a big passion for classical music in China, but this was unknown when we first visited China and we were glad that there was a remarkable response from the audience.

People's Daily Online: The London Philharmonic Orchestra toured Beijing in 2008 with the world renowned conductor Kurt Masur during the Beijing Olympics and became the first leading Western orchestra to perform at the National Theatre in China, which was followed by visits from many other orchestras. What partnerships did the orchestra form with China during the intensive period of cultural communication between China and the UK from 2008 to 2012?

David Burke: From 2008 the Orchestra would tour in China for two weeks every two years. Traditionally we would go around the end of December and early January, so we have a Western New Year's concert that would be televised until COVID hit. Notably, during the London Cultural Olympics in 2012, the orchestra worked with the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra. They came over to the UK and both orchestras played together on the same stage. It is always interesting to see exchange between two orchestras; having two violinists from different orchestras working together is a great symbol for cultural exchange.

David Burke (Photo/Watson Fraser)

People's Daily Online: The London Philharmonic Orchestra has played a crucial role in fostering cultural exchange between China and the UK. Could you tell us about your personal exchanges with China? What impression did China leave you with?

David Burke: I joined the orchestra in 2009 and became Chief Executive in 2020 at the start of the COVID pandemic, so I have unfortunately not had a chance to travel to China with the orchestra. But I have a very personal soft spot for China. I went to China in 2000 with my wife and we spent three weeks just backpacking around various cities and towns and had the most amazing welcome from the people there.

There are two memorable moments during my trip to China. One was meeting two young local boys in Xi’an, who wanted to practice their English with us. They took us to see the Terracotta Army and the back streets of Xi’an, where there was a quarter with lots of artists, and we bought some paintings while we were there. The other memorable moment would be in Guilin, where my wife and I went cycling around the most beautiful countryside. In addition, we had a unique experience of sleeping on the night-time train in China with about 10 people in a carriage and everybody looked after each other, sharing food together.

Buddha Passion’s premiere in the UK. (Photo/Yu Ying)

A performance that transcends boundaries

People's Daily Online: In January this year, on the first day of Chinese New Year, the London Philharmonic Orchestra collaborated with the famous composer and conductor, Tan Dun, to put on the first UK performance of his masterpiece, Buddha Passion. Tan Dun hopes this piece will allow audiences from all around the world to understand the origins, beliefs, and future of Chinese people. Could you tell us a little about this collaboration?

David Burke: Tan Dun’s Buddha Passion made a big splash when it was first premiered in 2018 at the Dresden Festival. As soon as we knew of it, we wanted to bring it to London and give the London premiere. So, the conversation between the Orchestra and Tan Dun started straight away. It was a mutual privilege for both parties to be involved in putting on this cleverly written piece.

Buddha Passion as well as having a very big orchestra and four soloists also involves a local choir. For this concert, our London Philharmonic Choir worked with the London Chinese Community Choir. The London Philharmonic Choir was amazing at learning the language in the text but working with the Chinese Choir just added an extra element and it was fantastic. The remarkable pipa dancer also gave an additional layer to both the storytelling element of the piece and the experience for the audience.

People's Daily Online: In your opinion, was Buddha Passion able to transcend cultural boundaries and bring music to people’s hearts?

David Burke: Music has this amazing power to bring cultures together, and I cannot think of a project that has embodied this more than Tan Dun’s Buddha Passion. The piece is a brilliant coming together of Buddhist stories, traditional Chinese music, and indigenous singing, which are merged with Western music and instrumentation. When all that work together it is absolutely perfect. Having worked on the concert also meant I got to really know the piece and the personality of it, which led me to develop a strong emotional tie.

The piece was well received across the board, what was really special was that both of the narrative and music have elements that spoke specifically to the Chinese audience who would'd been brought up with some of the Buddhist stories and some of the music in their childhood. And so, it reflected direct cultural references that while Chinse audiences understood, some of the Western audiences did not get. I think what the beauty of collaborations like this is that they emerge different cultural knowledge together and connect with particular audiences on a different level. At the moment, we are talking about giving a world premiere of Tan Dun’s new piece in 2025, but it is still in the early days.

David Burke (Photo/Watson Fraser)

A collaboration that shapes the future

People's Daily Online: You mentioned that you became the Chief Executive of the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 2020 when COVID began. Without live performances and audiences, how did you and the orchestra share the beauty of music with people?

David Burke: For me, the whole challenge of putting a concert is the most rewarding thing to get right. Thinking about when you are in a full-house concert hall, you see audiences enjoying the experience and you know you have enabled the musicians to perform to the best of their abilities are what drive me.

During the lockdown periods, we did 20 filmed performances where there was an audience of just me since we were not allowed to play to audiences anywhere. It was very strange, but a kind of really interesting way to reach new audiences. In particular, we commissioned a performance specifically for China-UK International Music Festival, which had successfully held for four years. Our commissioned performance for the festival was played on digital media platforms across China and reached significant audiences.

We are now the most followed Orchestra on TikTok globally and have over a million social media followers across all platforms. I think all of that is a really good way of engaging with music, not just as you can physically make it to the live experience. COVID gives an opportunity to explore new ways to interact with music; digitally there is so much we can do in various ways and it is a great window for us to share orchestral music.

People's Daily Online: What kind of new partnership does the London Philharmonic Orchestra hope to form with Chinese organizations or artists in order to continue cultural exchanges between the UK and China?

David Burke: We also have a young composer scheme and over the last two years two of those composers have been London based Chinese composers. We are always developing new talent and trying to bring together the heritage of China along with the Western music our Orchestra plays. In fact, in April we held Image China: East Meets West Concert at a different gathering hall where the Orchestra worked with Chinese conductors and Chinese soloists. The repertoire was a combination of Western music written by Chinese composers and some very English pieces. It was nice to meet some new musicians and composers that we had not worked with before, as well as new audiences. We will take some of that going forward and hopefully to bring more Chinese conductors, soloists, and composers to the Royal Festive Hall in the future.

The Orchestra will be touring to China in December 2024 and hopefully we will be going to cities like Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing. We wish this could be the start of going back to the previous pattern of going on biannual trips to China for the Orchestra. The Head of the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra has been in contact with us recently, looking for opportunities to collaborate. The London Philharmonic Orchestra also does a lot of education work. For example, when we travel to Guangzhou for two days; on the second day, players will be free during daytime, and we might be able to do some work in local schools. I think the whole ethos of showcasing the two cultures and showing the collaborative options of different cultures working together is really powerful. And this is the message that we need to keep alive and keep pushing.

(Web editor: Hongyu, Liang Jun)


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