Monday, December 10, 2018

Wales goes to China

Xian Zhang, principal guest conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, fulfils a long-standing dream this month: she is at the helm as the orchestra heads for a tour of her native land. She's sent me a guest post about what this confluence of countries means to her, with a look, too, at the state of musical life in China [compared to the state of things here at the moment, one could weep - jd.]. Enjoy!

First, here they are performing Respighi's The Pines of Rome.

A Meeting of Minds

Guest post by the conductor Xian Zhang

Xian Zhang
Photo: Benjamin Ealovega
It has long been a dream of mine to take a European orchestra to my native country, China, and after years of planning, it is finally happening as I conduct BBC National Orchestra of Wales in five concerts in four major cities 15-21 December. 

For me, it’s a homecoming: I was born in China and studied there but, the main focus of my career has been in Europe and the United States. It feels a bit like three old friends meeting up, having looked forward to it for a long time, and simply picking up where they left off last time: as if they’d never been apart. BBC NOW has toured to China before, but it is still quite rare to see a Chinese native bring a foreign orchestra to China. 

The popularity of classical music in China is rapidly growing, with audiences getting younger and younger which is great. Education is focused on letting children play music: almost all take private lessons. They are even more likely to play an instrument than play soccer. We are very fortunate in China that music education is taken seriously.

The ‘software,’ as I like to think of it, of the industry then improves, with the standard of playing in Chinese orchestras being very high. As the economy grows, people want to indulge their cultural interests and an effect of this is that more and more concert halls, ‘hardware’, are being built all over the country: every year a couple of new concerts halls are built. Indeed, we will be playing in some fantastic, beautiful venues. 

My own journey into music started when my father built me a piano. My parents wanted me to learn at a very young age, but they were very expensive. He is an instrument maker, so he made the shell of the piano himself and sourced the keys and strings, assembling them together himself. My own ‘hardware!’ What a fantastic gift. I actually played it for about 10 years, up until I went to conservatoire, and then we sold it to a fellow student. We eventually bought it back as I have so many memories attached to it but unfortunately it is not playable anymore. 

That neatly sums up how I feel about this tour: with China and Wales both meaning so much to me, I wanted to reunite them. Thankfully, that is where the metaphor ends: BBC NOW is definitely not broken and unplayable! Bringing one of the best orchestras in the world to my home country? I can’t wait.

Xian Zhang
Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

There are two concerts in Beijing at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (15 & 16 December), then we travel to Changsha for a performance at the Concert Hall there (18 December), followed by a date at Qintai Concert Hall, Wuhan (19 December). The tour culminates in the Shenzhen Concert Hall (21 December), which I’m looking forward to, in particular as it is so close to Christmas and New Year: there’s always a different atmosphere in the audience around this time of year.

I am very proud of my connection to both China and Wales and I was keen to show that in the programme. All musicians believe in music’s ability to build bridges, relationships and friendships (particularly when the language options are Chinese, English or Welsh!) and this is precisely what I want the tour to achieve between the players, audience and the two countries. We are doing this in a number of ways: one of our encores is a piece by Welsh composer Huw Watkins and Chinese harpist (the national instrument of Wales, of course) Shimeng Sun performs Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto with BBC NOW’s Principal Flute Matthew Featherstone. Sun also studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in the UK. Cellist Jiapeng Niealso joins us on the tour, having studied in Germany, to perform Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations

In the final concert in Shenzhen, BBC NOW will perform alongside musicians from the Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra who hosted the Vienna Philharmonic last year, so this is something they are particularly passionate about and good at championing. I absolutely loved the idea when their director suggested it to me, particularly as I did one about 10 years ago with the Julliard Orchestra.  It is great for the players to perform together, exchange ideas and for the audience to see the mixture of players together: that’s the point of touring! 

Xian Zhang
 BBC National Orchestra of Wales and their Principal Guest Conductor Xian Zhang tour China 15-21 December. They perform in Beijing (15 & 16 Dec), Changsha (18 Dec), Wuhan (19 Dec), Shenzhen (21 Dec). Full details here.