Magazine | February 10, 2014, Issue

The Twain, Meeting

Hao Jiang Tian and ‘I Sing Beijing’ (Christopher Lee)

About ten, fifteen years ago, a phrase occurred to me: “the Sinification of music.” This refers to the ever-growing influence of Chinese musicians on Western classical music. Has this influence been positive or negative? It’s hard to think of it as anything but positive. Westerners are letting music go, some people say. If that’s true, others are eagerly picking it up. In 2009, I interviewed Lorin Maazel, the veteran conductor, and asked him about the future of classical music. (A standard question, usually posed nervously.) The first words out of his mouth were, “Thank God for China.”

Time was, Chinese or Chinese Americans were string players or pianists. The kid practicing the violin in the back room of his parents’ laundry may be a stereotype — but it’s perfectly true. I saw it with my own eyes, or heard it with my own ears. Asians and Asian Americans (if I may broaden our categories) are still string players (and pianists). About half the violinists in the New York Philharmonic — a not atypical American orchestra — are Asian. So are about half the cellists. Asian Americans face quotas at universities — ceilings. But the beauty of blind auditions, which are the rule in music, is that no one can be discriminated against, except musically.

Over time, Asians branched out from the piano and the string instruments — into the woodwinds, for example. The Philharmonic’s principal oboe is Chinese (and its English-horn player is Japanese). I have not seen many Asians in brass sections, I must say. (Should I mention that the English horn, somewhat misleadingly, is a big oboe?) But I met a young woman a couple of weeks ago — Chinese-American, I believe — whose instrument is the trumpet.

There came a time — about ten years ago — when I was seeing Chinese sopranos. Not in Chinese opera, but in Handel, Mozart, Verdi, and the rest. This was something new under the sun. In 2007, I saw a Chinese Pamina at the Met. (Ying Huan sang the role of Pamina in Mozart’s Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera.) Not long after, I saw a Chinese Tosca — Hui He. She was markedly Italianate, too. And Chinese conductors in the pit, or on the symphonic podium, are increasingly commonplace.

Most important, probably, are the composers: the Chinese and Chinese-American composers. For the last many years, the accent of much contemporary classical music has been Chinese. Typically, the Chinese-born American composer was born in the mid-1950s. He was an adolescent, or younger, when the Cultural Revolution hit. He was made to do hard labor. He was lucky to survive. When the schools reopened, he attended the conservatory in Beijing or Shanghai. Then, in the mid-1980s, he came to America, to complete his studies and have his career. Often the school he came to was Columbia University, where Chou Wen-chung taught. Chou, who is now in his early 90s, immigrated to the U.S. in the brief years after World War II and before Communism.

One of the most prominent Chinese-American composers is Tan Dun, who wrote the score to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. (And an opera for the Met: The First Emperor, which starred Plácido Domingo.) Another prominent composer has the wonderful name of Bright Sheng — he teaches at the University of Michigan. Then there is Chen Yi and her husband, Zhou Long.

Recently, Xuefei Yang played a piece by Chen in a New York recital. Yang is a guitarist, and therefore an honorary Spaniard — all guitarists are Spaniards, in a way, because Spanish music is the heart of their repertoire. In 2008, Yang made an album called “40 Degrees North,” a title that refers to the line of latitude connecting Madrid and Beijing. One of her life ambitions has been to forge a Chinese repertoire for the guitar. The piece she played in New York was commissioned for her, from Chen, by London’s Wigmore Hall.

Many cities have Chinese New Year’s concerts, and New York has one in store. The Philharmonic will present a program featuring a typical mix of East and West. The Chinese pieces have such titles as “Soaring Song of Miaoling” and “Flying Song of the Earth.” (There seems to be a lot of airborne motion in China.) Then there are Western staples from Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff. Among the soloists is Yuja Wang, the sensational young pianist, born in 1987. She attended the Central Conservatory in Beijing and then made her way to Philadelphia, where she studied with Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute. That’s exactly what Lang Lang did, a few years earlier. (He is another sensational pianist.)

At American conservatories, we see a pattern: a pattern of Jewish teachers and Asian students. The same pattern is evident in orchestras — in string sections, that is. Gray and white heads are apt to be Jewish, and black heads are apt to be Asian. It is a cliché to say that Asians are the “new Jews,” but there is merit to the cliché. America became the center of the musical universe for a reason: The Jews were hunted out of Europe (if they were lucky enough to be hunted out rather than murdered). There are other reasons, but that is a big one.

#page#In mid December, Hao Jiang Tian gave a recital in a New York hall, Zankel (the downstairs venue in the building known generically as “Carnegie Hall”). Tian is a basso long associated with the Metropolitan Opera. Born in 1954, he was just about the first of the Chinese singers on Western stages. He has a one-man show, which was made into a television special: From Mao to the Met. This sort of alliteration is apparently irresistible. When Isaac Stern traveled to China in 1979, the resulting documentary was called “From Mao to Mozart.”

On December 17, 1983, Tian landed at JFK Airport with $35 in his pocket, a handful of English words, a guitar on his back, and two opera arias in his repertoire. He went right to the Met, where he bought a standing-room ticket for $8. The opera was Ernani (Verdi), starring Luciano Pavarotti. Tian was to make his Met debut in 1991.

His recital in Zankel Hall took place exactly 30 years after his landing in New York, December 17, 2013. The place was jam-packed, mainly with well-wishers, it seemed. The program notes were in both English and Chinese. The audience was that kind of blend — and included white parents with their adopted Chinese-born kids. As for the program that Tian sang, it must have been the strangest mélange I have ever encountered in a concert hall. Tian sang music that was meaningful to him, and it was beyond diverse.

He began with Chinese art songs, composed in the early part of the 20th century. These were written by composers under the influence of the West. Then he sang the two arias he arrived in America with: “Ella giammai m’amò,” which is King Philip’s monologue from Don Carlo (Verdi), and “Non più andrai,” from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. The latter aria, he knew half in Italian, half in Chinese, when he got here.

How did he sing, by the way? Throughout the evening, he was up and down, but he was always personable, professional, and completely sincere. He is the kind of performer you warm to and root for. In the Chinese music, he sounded completely idiomatic (so far as I could judge). And he made the following announcement, at one point in the proceedings: “Ladies and gentlemen, forgive me: I have laryngitis. I’ll do my best. If one note is weak, the next note will be stronger.”

He sang “revolutionary” songs — Party songs — and “unhealthy” songs. Those “unhealthy” songs were ones judged by the Party to be corrupting. They were love songs, mainly. Then Tian sang “Danny Boy” — yes, “Danny Boy,” which he learned from an Irish friend in Colorado. Following that was “The Impossible Dream,” from Man of La Mancha. Tian rose from the Beijing Boiler Factory, where he was a sheet-metal worker, to an international opera career — so he believes in impossible dreams.

In this song, he was surrounded by young people, singing with him. Where had they come from? They belong to a program called “I Sing Beijing.” For a variety of songs, Tian had onstage with him members of this program. He is the artistic director of it. The program’s aim, according to its literature, is to instill Mandarin as “a lyric language.” It was somewhat startling to hear young white singers, and young black singers, sing in Chinese. When one of them started speaking to the audience, in Chinese, the audience broke into applause. Several of the students paid tribute to Tian’s wife, Martha (as Tian himself did). She seems to be a kind of den mother to all of them. Seldom have I seen a concert hall filled with so much warmth, goodwill, and, indeed, love.

The final piece on the printed program was a weird one (in keeping with the evening at large): a combination of a Chinese folk song and the tenor aria from Puccini’s Turandot, “Nessun dorma.” (Turandot, note, is set in Beijing, or “Pechino.”) I thought of a corny lyric from Cole Porter: “It’s friendship, friendship / Just a perfect blendship.” This Hao Jiang Tian evening was corny too — and also touching, moving.

It would get more so in the two encores. The first was “America the Beautiful.” The second was “O Holy Night” (in this week or so before Christmas). Tian’s appreciation for the United States is obvious. And of all the Christmas carols in the world — many of them having to do with Santa Claus, reindeer, and snowmen — why did he have to pick just about the Christ-iest?

The global influence of the Chinese government is not benign, to put it mildly. For 65 years, China has been ruled by a one-party dictatorship with a gulag (laogai). There is no end in sight, despite regular predictions of that end. But the influence of the Chinese people in music is something else. Regardless, it is a fact of life.

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