Maestro blames sloppy discipline for lack of progress in mainland arts

Mainland musicians do not want to put in the practice as they see no benefit - and this is hurting the performing arts, says conductor

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 January, 2014, 4:14am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 January, 2014, 4:14am

While economies and industries have thrived during China's reform era, the performing arts have not, according to a venerated mainland conductor.

Xia Feiyun, a Shanghai-based conducting guru specialising in Chinese traditional ensembles, says there is a prevailing trend among many professional musicians of "sloppy discipline".

"They just idle away by playing minimally on stage," the retired Shanghai Conservatory of Music professor said, adding he had heard rumours that some had even fallen asleep on stage.

The 78-year-old maestro made the remarks after two acclaimed performances last weekend with the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, where he was resident conductor during its debut tour of Canada in 1992.

"I rehearsed for three and a half days in Hong Kong and the result was very satisfying. I would say it would take three to four times more time and effort for the mainland musicians to produce a comparable result," he said.

The maestro attributed the problem to a lack of incentive for artistic pursuits.

"A player from a professional orchestra once told me privately he could meet all my requirements after a night of practice. But then he asked, what good would it do? Would it increase my salary? Since the answer was no, he advised me not to take the performance too seriously either," Xia recalled, with a deep sigh.

The high cost of living on the mainland contributed to this lack of enthusiasm.

"They want to get their daily work done as quickly as possible in order to teach private lessons for extra money to make ends meet. That explains why some nod off on stage," Xia said.

"Society is responsible for their regression."

He recalled that, during the Cultural Revolution, the orchestra played with such precision that each performance had to end within the designated time.

If a concert went one minute over its allotted two hours' playing time it would be regarded as a "political incident" with serious consequences.

"I conducted the model play Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy for eight years. All of us did our utmost because it was a political task coming directly from Jiang Qing [or Madam Mao]," he said.

In the reform era, economic growth is overriding political concern, but the maestro has seen little effect on the arts.

"It is easy to get rich or build something overnight. But it takes generations to nurture a human being. The same can be said of an orchestra," he said.

That is one major reason why Xia insists on working with school and community orchestras, both in Hong Kong and Shanghai, regardless of his numerous musical accolades.

In former days he took the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra to perform in Vienna's Musikverein concert hall and mentored a league of renowned conductors, such as Yan Huichang, the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra's artistic director and principal conductor.

"Playing in an orchestra enables young ones to communicate better and thus care about others and the common good," Xia said during a rehearsal break with the 30 young members of Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra's junior ensemble.

"It is no ordinary thing for Hong Kong parents to allow their children to play a Chinese instrument, much less to get them to rehearse on a Sunday afternoon," he said, adding the Shanghai junior orchestras are as big as up to 90 members and play with better technique.

Nine-year-old erhu player Naomi Wai Hiu-nam said she enjoyed playing music under the Shanghai master more than anything else.

And for 18-year-old Angus Wong Wing-tung, the ensemble's leader, it was the master's clear direction that instilled confidence in his playing.

"He called for a higher level of music interpretation, and we had a different chemistry under his baton," he said.