Classical music

World's orchestras help ready China's apprentice players to perform

The Shanghai Orchestra Academy lets young musicians find out what it's like to be part of an ensemble, through exchange programmes with some of the world's leading institutions

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 August, 2015, 12:52am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 June, 2018, 12:01pm

Violist Ba Tong is no stranger to performing on stage. But when the Shanghai Conservatory of Music graduate was rehearsing for a Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra concert in May as an "apprentice", her excitement was palpable.

"This is the first time I have worked with [the troupe] so I have high expectations," says the 28-year-old through an interpreter.

Ba, who has a master's degree in music, is among the first intakes of the newly established Shanghai Orchestra Academy, which runs a number of courses that give the students a chance to work with overseas orchestras. Although she was in town for just two weeks, her brief stint here was memorable. The young musician says she was impressed with conductor Case Scaglione, particularly how well he led the troupe into the music and how efficiently they put together a performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No 11, despite its difficult string parts.

"I learned a lot at the Shanghai Orchestra Academy. At the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, they want students to learn solos, but at the SOA it's orchestra skills. I am more moved by playing an entire piece with an orchestra than just solo work," says Ba.

China has in recent decades produced world-renowned soloists (pianists Lang Lang and Li Yundi being prime examples), built fine concert halls and filled them with eager audiences. Most mainland musicians tend to focus their training on solo over ensemble performances.

This need for specialised orchestral training was felt by Yu Long, music director of the Shanghai Symphony, who founded the Shanghai Orchestra Academy last September to offer a focus on ensemble work in the country's music education and training. Funding for the institution comes from multiple sources including the local education department in Shanghai.

As part of either its two-year certificate or three-year MFA course, students have an opportunity to serve apprenticeships in world-renowned orchestras. This makes the academy something of an orchestra geek's dream, offering lessons, chamber music coaching, orchestral repertoire classes and audition preparation training. But what also makes this programme noteworthy is that it counts some of the world's best orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic and Sydney Symphony Orchestra, as collaborators.

Last year as a part of its Global Academy educational programme, the New York Philharmonic launched a four-year "residency partnership" with the SOA that involves students in concerts, workshops and coaching. Last month, young SOA musicians were able to perform alongside the orchestra's music director and conductor, Alan Gilbert, at the Shanghai Symphony Hall.

Similarly, the Sydney Symphony signed an agreement with the SOA in March, under which the orchestra will mentor students at the academy, with its concertmaster Andrew Haveron attending a student audition and critiquing. Last month, three SOA students - including Ba - flew to Sydney to undertake a training and performance residency with the troupe.

This year, the academy also worked with the China Philharmonic Orchestra and Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra. The Hong Kong Phil and Singapore Symphony Orchestra also hosted SOA students as apprentices. It's the opportunity to work with experienced overseas musicians that is this programme's biggest draw.

Joseph Alessi, principal trombonist of the New York Philharmonic and a legend among brass players, is one of the mentors working with SOA students in Shanghai in June. Asked what is needed for brass players to reach international standard, he says: "All around the world, brass playing is getting better. I don't want to be too much of a flag-waver for the American brass-playing style, but it is respected in Europe, Latin America and Japan. China is now starting to investigate what it means to play in the American brass-playing style. So it's perfect timing that the SOA is having us come over to teach."

He says when mainland brass players want to play with emotion, "most end up doing it the wrong way", which results in forced notes.

"You have to separate the emotion from the operation of the instrument and how to blow correctly. It's a mistake that we all make when we first pick up the instrument: we tend to jam so much air into the horn, and then we spend years and years correcting that mistake," says Alessi.

"It's like if you pour gasoline into a lawnmower, you use a funnel. You start pouring the fuel, and if you pour it too fast it starts to overflow. When you get wrapped up in the emotion, you start to overblow and overplay. And that's when you don't make a good sound.

"So that's what I'm working on with them the most - how to keep the good sound, and the good form, and good intonation. Just the fundamentals that people tend to overlook."

Haveron says one of the main objectives of the programme is to broaden the experience of students.

"So much of our career, and so much of our life, is about mixing with other people. And the more experience you have of communicating in music, the better," he says. "That's what we have to offer. Come work with the Sydney Symphony for a week or two weeks. Meet other people who are doing the same thing that you are doing and enjoy the process of exchanging experiences, exchanging information and observing how things happen. The more musicians do that, the more they can reach their potential."

The second batch of SOA students will begin training at the end of this month. Already, 19 young musicians have been accepted for the certificate course, all from the mainland. Other than the existing partnering ensembles, this upcoming academic year will also see North German Radio Symphony Orchestra joining the programme.

There are many benefits to be had. Students can polish and broaden their skills; China develops orchestral musicians with world-class skills; and the participating international orchestras can reach new audiences on the mainland.

"China is arguably the most important classical music market right now. There has been an explosion of classical music there," says Matthew VanBesien, president of the New York Philharmonic.

He says the partnership with SOA is "new territory" for the orchestra.

"We're used to touring and performing, but now we are making training and education a front-burner item.

"We think we can have a big impact on young people's orchestral training. We can help them see what life as an orchestral musician looks like. We feel well-positioned to offer a powerful experience, where they sit in and get the feel of how a grand an orchestra can be."

As for the future, VanBesien says the SOA will become one of the very special places to train and expand opportunities, right at the heart of where the opportunities are.

"It's a different world today. China is part of the global fabric of the music world. It's no longer Europe-centric. We want the best players we can find." [email protected]

Additional reporting by Kevin Kwong