Classical music

China’s ‘genius conductor’ rarely seen on stage, but he’s not yet ready to pass on the baton

Despite being born with Down’s syndrome, Zhouzhou’s innate aptitude for musical direction made him a star around the world

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 May, 2018, 8:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 May, 2018, 8:02pm

Once a household name, Chinese conductor Hu Yizhou is a rare sight in music circles these days.

After rocketing to fame two decades ago, the 40-year-old “genius conductor”, better known by his nickname Zhouzhou, now performs fewer than 10 times a year, according to a Beijing News report on Thursday.

Born with Down’s syndrome, Zhouzhou grew up listening to classical music because his father was a professional cellist. But his journey to stardom began only after he was jokingly asked to pick up the baton after he was spotted mimicking the conductor’s movements during a rehearsal for a performance of Bizet’s opera Carmen.

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Despite the intellectual limitations caused by his genetic disorder, and the fact he could not read a musical score, Zhouzhou wowed audiences with his apparently innate ability to direct an orchestra. His father, Hu Houpei, attributed it to his son’s flair for feeling the rhythm of the music.

Between 1999 and 2006, Zhouzhou performed in five countries on three continents, and in every provincial capital in China, the report said.

He once joined a tour by a troupe of disabled performers, during which he met several Chinese leaders, and shared a stage with American actor and former politician Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hong Kong singer and actor Andy Lau. His love of music even became the subject for a documentary made by a Chinese director.

Hu was quoted as saying that Zhouzhou once performed 168 times in a single year, including taking the baton in front of one of the United States’ top symphony orchestras at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York.

Among the pieces he liked to conduct were Dance of the Yao People, a Chinese composition inspired by folk songs of the eponymous ethnic group, and the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No 9.

His story was an inspiration for millions, especially at a time when disabled people in China struggled to get any form of recognition.

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Sadly, due to a number of physical ailments, including arthritis and gout, Zhouzhou is not as mobile as he once was and as a result has not conducted an orchestra for some time, the report said.

While he still likes to take to the stage when he can, his rhythm is slower and his movements less precise, it said.

His passion for music has not waned, however, and he has been known to describe his life outside the spotlight as “boring”.

Born in Wuhan, capital of central China’s Hubei province, Zhouzhou now lives with his father in the southern industrial city of Shenzhen.

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At 78 years of age and suffering from diabetes, Hu said he often worried about who would take care of Zhouzhou after he died.

“Even if I live past 80, that is only a few years,” he said. “When I’m gone, what will happen to him?”

According to the report, Zhouzhou would love nothing more than to return to Beijing, the city with which he was most associated.

His father said that whenever he [Zhouzhou] feels listless, he starts to pack his luggage, perhaps in an effort to relive his glory days on the road.