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Playing From the Heart

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Michelle Peters on the Western classical music scene in China

In recent years, there has been a revival in interest in classical music in China that is aiming to shake China's traditional emphasis on technical superiority and instead emphasize emotion.

Chu Yi-bing, a world-renowned cellist who founded the China Cello Philharmonic, an all-cello chamber ensemble, recalled that as early as eleven that his music, however technically sharp, was missing a deeper spirit. "I realized that although I could play the notes better than the German music students, they could tell the historical context and emotional narratives that formed the basis of these notes." Born into a musical family (both his parents were professors at the Central Conservatory of Music), Chu studied at the Paris Conservatory and went on to become the principal cellist of the Basel Symphony Orchestra in Switzerland.

According to Chen Xi, a violinist who attended the Yale School of Music, "whereas in the U.S., teachers care about your personality of interpretation, in China, we care about technique more." These differences, according to Chu, can be attributed to deeper cultural distinctions. "Traditional Chinese culture advocates that we do not tell anybody what we are thinking in our hearts," says Chu. "Our culture has told us not to share our feelings and emotions with strangers."

The China Cello Philharmonic aims to challenge that tradition, and imbue its music with emotion that can be shared with the audience. "We are a group of people who are willing to express ourselves, who are willing to share the most valued and most sensitive feelings of our heart," Chu says of the ensemble. "That's why we are making huge earthquakes everywhere we play. People cry and tell us that they are for the first time being moved for nothing in their life."

Another aspect of Chinese culture that Chu must reconcile in his musical teaching is how Chinese tend to act in groups. He points to Chinese paintings as a parallel to music: "In, Chinese painting there is never a shadow in the picture; likewise, in Chinese traditional music, we don't have harmonies...and for us Chinese, having two ideas is not okay. In the chamber music, I constantly need to tell my young Chinese students to not do the same thing as the person sitting besides them." He argues that chamber music requires a different style of thinking, the ability to be an independent voice within a larger group.

Tianyu Zhang, a clarinetist at the Yale School of Music, believes that the one-child policy may also be affecting classical music in China. While research into the psychological effects of the policy has not shown consistent results, many believe that China is now dealing with a generation of entitled "little emperors" doted on by their parents. Only-children tend to be more selfish, and in the music world, become more focused on being a soloist in the orchestra. On the other hand, the one-child policy, pragmatically, could also prove beneficial to classical music's advancement in China. With only one child, parents may be better able to support the financial burdens associated with musical pursuits, such as instruments and expensive private lessons.

According to Xinyi Xu, a violist at the Yale School of Music, the continued expansion of the Chinese economy could be key to supporting the development of classical music. In the United States, many music organizations are struggling because of the stuttering economy and lack of support for the arts. The Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy in July 2012 and the New York City Opera closed a year later due to lack of funding. The opposite is taking place in China. Xu points to her hometown of Hangzhou, where the city government, thanks to a thriving economy, has recently founded a philharmonic orchestra. Chu and many like him believe that "Western classical music has a golden future in China."

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Michelle Peters is a sophomore in Yale University. Contact her at michelle.peters@yale.edu.

This article also appears in China Hands.