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Once shunned in China, Western classical music comes on strong

BEIJING—Western classical music, once reviled by Chinese communist leaders, is making a huge comeback here.

Conservatories are bursting at the seams. Young people crowd symphony concerts. Private music schools are flourishing, and urban parents jockey to hire the best tutors, seeing music as a path to status and educational achievement.

By one newspaper's estimate, some 38 million Chinese children study the piano. Millions more practice the violin and other orchestral instruments.

The steady climb of Western classical music is all the more remarkable given China's modern history. Barely three decades ago, the country's leaders stirred up mobs to taunt the "poison weeds" who promoted such bourgeois foreign influences. Thousands of classical musicians were sent to toil on peasant farms, while dozens of teachers and composers committed suicide.

Curiously, some experts say the hardships of the Cultural Revolution, the cataclysmic period of turmoil from 1966-1976, may be one reason Chinese-born composers and performers have soared to world fame, deepening a passion for Western classical music.

With turmoil in the streets, many musicians holed up at home, improving in solitude. Some joined folkloric music or Beijing opera troupes, mastering Chinese music.

"The universities in the cities were closed. Young people had more time. They studied music," recalled Zheng Quan, a professor at Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music.

As China opened to the West in 1979, supporters of classical music emerged. Nearly every city financed a symphony or two.

Today, the nation has about 4 million professional musicians, and new concert halls and opera houses are being constructed regularly.

In urban areas, playing an instrument has become a fashion, and newly prosperous families eager to show their status are encouraging—even forcing—lessons on children.

"People regard playing the piano as high class," said Bai Jingzhi, 21, a Beijing conservatory student who moonlights as a piano instructor for children.

At a private music academy in a bustling mall in southern Beijing, scores of parents ushered their children to music lessons in private practice rooms, then hovered over their shoulders to ensure that each word by the tutor was understood.

"There is fierce competition (in Chinese society). That is why parents want their kids to develop additional skills," said He Nan, a piano instructor, who estimates that 100,000 children in Beijing alone are studying piano.

China has a rigorous testing system for skill levels on instruments such as the piano and violin, and parents often boast of the rankings of their children.

"The first thing somebody will tell you is what level their child is. ... It's definitely a status thing for parents," said Sheila Melvin, a journalist who co-wrote a book about classical music in China with her husband, Jindong Cai, the Beijing-born director of orchestral studies at Stanford University. The 2004 book is titled "Rhapsody in Red: How Western Classical Music Became Chinese."

Many parents want their children to get into one of China's nine hyper-competitive music conservatories, moving long distances once a child is enrolled. Students now swamp some of the conservatories. The Sichuan Conservatory in Chengdu, a city in southwest China, recently divided hundreds of practice rooms in half to cope with the needs of its 14,000 students.

The technical quality of music instruction has improved.

"Conservatories in Beijing and Shanghai can definitely compare with any conservatory in the world. They produce many winners of competitions," Cai said.

Indeed, some Chinese musicians have soared to international fame, such as piano virtuoso Lang Lang, a 22-year-old who's hyped like a rock star, and Li Yundi, the youngest ever winner of the Chopin Piano Competition (at age 18 in 2000).

"Many kids are impressed by the achievements of Lang Lang and Li Yundi, and that's why they are determined to follow their example," He said.

Several Chinese composers have also gained renown, such as Tan Dun, recently commissioned to do a work for the Metropolitan Opera of New York, and Bright Sheng, who won a prestigious "genius" grant in 2001 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Some scholars say the Cultural Revolution's stark experiences gave rise to groundbreaking work by China's musicians and composers, many of whom live abroad.

"I was sent to the countryside for five years as a tractor driver," recalled Zhou Long, a Chinese-born composer at the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. "I joined a song-and-dance corps. ... We played folk songs."

Today, those influences are enriching new classical compositions, some say.

"Chinese folk music is in their heads. What many of them are doing is merging their formal training in Western music and their knowledge of Chinese traditional music," said Melvin. "That's where you're getting this pretty good music from Chinese composers."

With only a few decades of broad exposure to Western classical music, China's young musicians often have extraordinary technique, Cai said, but little virtuosity.

"That's why we have many teenaged winners (of piano competitions), but China doesn't have too many soloists in their 30s or 40s still active in world musical circles," Cai said.

A clothing merchant, Dong Xueping knows little about such matters. But on a recent day, she nudged her 8-year-old, Dong Zichen, into a private piano lesson.

"It helps make her competitive and sharp in her thinking. It will help her get into a better university," Dong said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHINA-MUSIC

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