Is China the future of Western classical music?

At a rehearsal break in Shanghai, violist David Nicastro gets to know his Chinese partner.
At a rehearsal break in Shanghai, violist David Nicastro gets to know his Chinese partner. (JAN REGAN / Philadelphia Orchestra)
Posted: June 09, 2013

BEIJING - Nicholas Platt may have a longer association with the evolving Chinese culture than anyone currently in the U.S. diplomatic corps. He was here in 1972 during President Richard Nixon's first visit, and lived in China for years after before ambassadorial appointments took him elsewhere. Given his recent advisory relationship with the Philadelphia Orchestra, he's able to discuss a question often asked in symphonic circles these days: Is China the future of Western classical music?

Platt is tentatively optimistic. China may not be classical music's future, he says, but it's definitely going to be part of it. Here's an edited version of our conversation. For all of it, go to Inquirer.com/entertainment.

Q: What sort of a performing arts trade model do you see emerging here?

A: I see a big joint venture that expands on the one that exists. People like Lang Lang and others go to the West, either to Europe or places like Curtis or Juilliard, to be finished. I see this happening more and more with orchestras, as well. The Chinese will tell you they're not very good at ensemble training, which surprises me because they're so capable of collective action. Organizations such as the Philadelphia Orchestra can help with that. There's a growing trend of Chinese orchestras going to the United States. What's being created is a two-way street.

How much the Chinese contribute to the creation of new work is evolving. They're creating a lot of this music, and it's getting performed out of politeness. But some of it is good and will last.  

Q: And there's Tan Dun - a fine Chinese-born composer who has won an Oscar for film scores and is performed by U.S. orchestras and opera companies.

A: Tan Dun is what I'm talking about - a home- grown product who then went overseas to become, in effect, a world-class figure.

Q: What potential does Western opera have here?

A: There's a lot of interest in all Western art forms, and the Chinese have a deep operatic tradition of their own. So I don't see any reason why they shouldn't be interested in it. They've developed a lot of opera singers, some of whom sing at the Met.    

Q: How deep is the devotion to Western classical music in China?

A: It's deep. I've often asked myself why they like it. I'm really flying by the seat of my pants here, but I have been interested in Chinese culture for a long, long time. And one of the things that strikes me is that most of the literature and the music and the philosophy and so forth are very practically oriented, directed toward the solution of problems, the description of events, or program music with pictures of moonlight on water. You know the routine. And it's beautiful. But it's not very abstract. And I think classical music has some appeal to the Chinese because of its abstractness. It may fill a hole in their needs.

There are simpler explanations. They love grand things - big buildings and big bridges - and Western classical music is grand. Furthermore, they respect collective action, and a big, capable orchestra like the Philadelphia Orchestra represents the epitome of collective action. All of these things play together. What strikes me as we go through these tours is that the audiences are young, and they're well-heeled.

Q: What might happen to the Western performing arts after the Chinese economic boom ends?

A: I think the boom is beginning to slow. The government is anxious for it to slow. The pace is not sustainable. There are potential problems, credit problems, that could come home to roost. If I were to bet, it would be that Chinese economic momentum will continue. Though the boom will slow, it won't be permitted to become a bust.

I don't think any of us have a clue how to govern 1.3 billion people. And the Chinese Communist Party insists that it be the sole source of power. If that's the case, then all the problems become theirs. So they have to figure out ways of solving them. The future is going to see some changes in the balance of power between the party and the people, but we don't know what shape that's going to take.

Q: More of a democratic model?

A: I'm not looking for multiparty democracy. I am looking for a greater focus on the rule of law, which is the other side of the democratic coin. That means you govern according to laws and not according to people's relationships. The biggest issue in the country is fairness. Is it fair for peasants to have their land taken away and not be properly recompensed? Is it fair for a particular class to get most of the wealth? Is it fair for a person to be arrested and held sometimes for years without charge or trial? These are all issues on people's minds. They want a government that's open, more open than this one is, and more transparent. Over time, the trend will be in that direction. The Internet has really changed things in China.

  Q: One of the Philadelphia Orchestra's tour sponsors is the stand-up comedian Zhou Libo. The very presence of such a comedian in China says something, since stand-ups are, by nature, irreverent.

A: Yes. And the Chinese have always had a wonderful sense of humor. They love to laugh, and they love to poke fun at people. You can be a famous stand-up comedian as long as you don't poke fun at the wrong people. He has a huge following.

Q: Do you see a certain selectivity in his targets?

A: I have not monitored his programs. All I know is that it's hard to survive if you're poking fun at sensitive topics. He's a naturally funny person, more like Jerry Lewis. But Lenny Bruce he's not.


Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com

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