When top mainland conductor Li Xincao made his debut in Hong Kong in 2000, he was “cautiously optimistic” about the future of Western classical music in China. At the time, he reckoned the most pressing issue was funding.
China had tens of millions of students learning piano and violin, and thousands competed in order to enrol in conservatories across the country.
Thirteen years on, however, Li, the principal conductor of the China National Symphony Orchestra, the country’s leading classical ensemble, has a gloomier view. “It’s true that the country is richer, has more new concert halls and better orchestras. But there are fewer classical music concertgoers,” says the Beijing-based maestro.
“That may sound ironic, but it’s the reality. We musicians in China have been working very hard but to little effect. No one cares. It’s scary.”
Li, who recently toured the US with the orchestra, will lead the Hong Kong Sinfonietta tomorrow in a season finale featuring works by Beethoven and Mozart, including the latter’s Piano Concerto No 22 featuring pianist Lio Kuok-wai, a native of Macau.
The 42-year-old is in a prime position to observe the changes taking place in classical music on the mainland. A graduate of the Central Conservatory of Music of China and the Musikuniversität Wien in Vienna, he was just 22 when he won the all-China conducting competition.
“Classical music as we know it today developed [over time] in Europe, from the Renaissance through to the Industrial Revolution. But in China, the economy has risen so rapidly that people find themselves continually trying to adjust to changes in their lives, such as high property prices. So how would they be in the mood for classical music?” he asks.
“Young professionals and college graduates work around the clock to make money, which never seems to be enough to offset the rising cost of living. They are either too exhausted for a concert, or seek other forms of entertainment for relaxation or for excitement. A classical music concert, or an opera, doesn’t seem appealing. It is something that requires an active, rather than passive, mindset for appreciation.”
Li acknowledges he is in a fortunate position compared to the older generation of conductors, many of whom were sent to remote villages to do physical labour during the Cultural Revolution.
“My predecessors went through a hard time; there’s no question about it. Aside from political interference, however, their work later enjoyed a good response from society. But nowadays no one really pays attention to what we do,” he says.
Li is ambivalent about the orchestra culture on the mainland. “In Europe, there are top orchestras like the Berlin and Vienna philharmonics, and then there are many second- and third-tier orchestras, each performing at a compelling technical level. The overall performing standard of orchestras is also fairly even in other Asian countries like Japan and South Korea,” he says.
“In China, we have a few top orchestras in large cities like Beijing and Shanghai. But after that, there’s nothing; there are only the sixth- to eighth-tier orchestras all over the country, which are barely functional technically.”
Musicians in mainland orchestras are generally technically competent as soloists, and “some may be even better than their European counterparts”, he says. But Chinese performers are “very far behind” in terms of playing as an ensemble, and in their understanding of the music.
“I think it has much to do with the music education and the training they received, which focused primarily on technique. But the situation is now improving, as many returnees from Europe and America are trying to make a difference in their teaching at the conservatories,” says Li, himself among the teachers with overseas experience at the Central Conservatory in Beijing.
For all of his pessimism about classical music on the mainland, Li has been forging a successful conducting career in Beijing and beyond. He is often sought out by touring soloists because of his fluency with the Austro-German repertoire.
In 2004, he was chosen by the Russian cello guru Mstislav Rostropovich to conduct at his farewell concert series in Taiwan. Since 2009, he has also served as the music director of the Busan Philharmonic Orchestra in South Korea.
Li has often accompanied Chinese stars such as folk singer Song Zuying, a favourite of former president Jiang Zemin. Of his collabourators, perhaps none could register as prominently on the mainland musical landscape as soprano Peng Liyuan, who now has another role as China’s first lady.
But Li says Peng’s standing derives from her musicianship rather than the fact that she is married to the new president, Xi Jinping.
He particularly recalls performing with Peng and the national symphony orchestra in the Kremlin for a “Year of China” finale in 2007 and a year later in Vienna as part of a publicity campaign in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics.
For their performance with the prestigious Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Peng sang the title role in Mulan,an operatic work based on an ancient tale about a girl named Hua Mulan who enters battle disguised as a man in place of her ailing father, who had been conscripted into the army.
“She is a top-notch soprano in every sense of the word, with excellent musicality and fluency in foreign languages,” Li says.
Describing Peng as “absolutely professional and very pleasant to work with”, the conductor says it would be a pity if she had to stop performing because of her new status as first lady. But such a hiatus seems unlikely, at least in the near future.
When he returns to Beijing, Li will be collabourating with Peng again, this time on a film version of Mulan. “We’ve already recorded [the opera], and it’s the costume session we’ll be doing next month.”
Working with celebrities has added pressures, but these dissipate when the music starts. “Once we get started with the music, it makes no difference whether we are performing with celebrities or any performers. We just give our best,” he says.
He confesses to becoming nervous when he performs works of composers such as Beethoven, whose Fifth Symphony will close the Sinfonietta’s final concert of this season. This seems an odd reaction, as the work is familiar to both him and his players. In fact, it was the piece that Li conducted when he won his prize two decades ago.
But he has a good reason: “It is just too difficult to perform it right musically. By contrast, Mahler’s massive Third Symphony, which I’ve conducted many times, is a piece of cake.”
This time round, Li’s rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth will be far more restrained than the performances he conducted when he was in his 20s.
“When I was younger, I conducted in a showy way. But over the years, I gradually learned to appreciate the art of conducting. I learned that it is like a singer or a player conveying music through their voice or their instrument: a conductor should convey music through the orchestra, which is his instrument. He should seek the best way to present the orchestra, not himself,” he says.
“So you will see me conduct in a very different way than before, because I believe the best way to get the orchestra to work is through minimum effort for the maximum effect. Anything more than that is redundant.”
Asian audiences still enjoy watching energetic conductors who cavort about on the podium, he concedes.
“But let’s call that dancing, not conducting,” he quips.
Hong Kong Sinfonietta, 2012-13 season closing concert, City Hall Concert Hall, Central, Wednesday, 8pm, HK$150-HK$360. Urbtix: 2734 9009