Veteran Chinese conductor Yan Liangkun dies aged 93

Yan was one of the dominant figures in choral music on the mainland and in Hong Kong over six decades

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 June, 2017, 10:14am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 June, 2017, 11:15pm

Music circles in mainland China and Hong Kong are mourning the death of a conductor who reigned supreme in Chinese choral music for over six decades.

Yan Liangkun, who left behind a rich legacy of choral arts on the mainland as well as in Hong Kong which he once called home, died in Beijing on Sunday morning after fighting cancer. He was 93 and is survived by three daughters.

“Maestro Yan introduced to China a large number of choral gems around the world and Chinese folk music arranged for chorus,” said Feng Wanzhen, a retired soprano in Beijing who worked with Yan since the 1950s.

“His unique way of interpreting the Yellow River Cantata could only come from a man who lived through the war years and worked directly under the composer,” she added.

Born in 1923, Yan grew up in Wuhan and became attracted to the patriotic songs sung by the young in the run-up to the war against Japan in 1937.

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Yan joined a chorus in 1938 coached by Xian Xinghai – a young composer who had just returned from Paris with a degree in composition – to sing the March of the Volunteers, now China’s national anthem.

Yan studied under Xian for six months until the composer left for Yanan, the headquarters of the Communist Party, where he wrote the Yellow River Cantata.

With basic conducting skills, Yan joined the Children’s Theatre in Guilin.

He led the chorus in 1940 to perform the Yellow River Cantata in Chongqing, then the wartime capital.

The following year, Yan studied theory and composition at the national conservatory of music in Chongqing.

On graduation in 1947, he went to Hong Kong and joined the new China conservatory of music in Wan Chai.

Yan later joined the new Central Conservatory in Tianjin and led the chorus when the Central Song and Dance Ensemble was founded in 1952. He then spent five years at the Moscow Conservatory studying conducting under Professor Nikolai Anosov.

In 1959, he conducted the Central Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus to perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for the 10th anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. The famous Ode to Joy was sung in Chinese and the piece was also performed by the visiting Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra under Yan’s baton.

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Yan suffered during the politicals upheavals of the Cultural Revolution.

“He was denounced by his own chorus members who put a toilet wastebasket over his head and the toilet paper would move with each breath he took,” recalled Yim Hok-man, then a member of the Central Philharmonic and now concertmaster of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra.

Yan resumed his full duties as a conductor after 1976 and took the chorus on tours, including the Yellow River Festival in Hong Kong in 1985.

In July 1997, he conducted 40 choruses in a concert in Guangzhou to celebrate Hong Kong’s return to China.

“He had a special way to take us into the emotional realm of the work that elevated us to a different level,” recalled Au Choi-kai, a tenor who took part in the performances with the Allegro Singers.

The group’s founder Barbara Fei died in January.

“Mr Yan was our honorary music director and the loss of him and Ms Fei spells the end of an era, but we will strive to continue their legacy,” said Au.