Long Yu: Dispelling the myth

First published in the Autumn 2018 issue of The Green Room, Long Yu speaks to Sophie Rashbrook about breaking down cultural boundaries and dispelling the myth of ‘East’ vs ‘West’

Long Yu is a conductor on a mission to break down cultural boundaries; a fact that is all the more remarkable, given his childhood experience of classical music. Born in Shanghai in 1964, his formative years were spent during one of the most tumultuous episodes in China’s recent history: “I belong to a very special generation that grew up during the Cultural Revolution. Officially, we were not allowed to perform or listen to Western music, and as a classical music student, I had quite a hard time. But when classical music was opened up to China again, it was quite amazing.” When talking to Yu, his optimism and enthusiasm for the art form shine through. Raised in a musical family, he undertook his musical studies in China and Germany, and is keen to dispel myths of opposing musical ideologies. “It sounds very sexy to talk about ‘East’ and ‘West’ today, but to me, music is music, and I don’t feel it is necessary to divide it into ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’. I don’t think that I have different feelings in my heart, just because of where I’m from. In the same way, I don’t think I understand Mahler or Beethoven in an ‘Eastern’ way – maybe I interpret it in a particular way because of my personal experience – but not because I’m Chinese.”

This belief in the universality of classical music is a hallmark of Yu’s approach, both as a musician and cultural leader. As Artistic Director of the Beijing Music Festival from 1998-2018, he launched ground-breaking collaborations with the Lucerne, Salzburg and Edinburgh festivals, bringing international orchestras to Chinese audiences. Yu has performed across the world with superstar pianist Lang Lang, and has also been a major player in the development and promotion of his country’s classical music reputation through his work on the national and world stage. Despite the relatively recent expansion of the genre over the last 20 years, classical repertoire is far from a new phenomenon to Chinese audiences. Speaking of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra – one of no fewer than seven Chinese orchestras or institutions under Yu’s leadership – he notes, “The SSO is now in its 140th year, making it not only one of the oldest orchestras in China, but also one of the oldest in the world.” If we add to that statistic the proliferation of provincial orchestras (of which, Yu tells me, there are over 80), and the boom in music education (China accounts for some 80% of global piano sales), it is not hard to understand why so many overseas management agencies, orchestras and conservatoires have caught on, and are eager to tap into the Chinese market.

Yu is pragmatic about the reasons for the rapid increase in public interest over the past two decades: “We have a lot of people in China, and the market is so much bigger than in Europe. Beijing is a city of 20 million people, and we have other cities that are almost as big – Guangzhou, Shanghai, and others. If just 1% of our population starts to get curious about this kind of music, we fill our concert halls!” Yu is cautious when I ask him whether there is anything that Western music organisations can learn from this burgeoning Chinese scene. “Our country has developed so quickly over the last 30 years that we are still learning how best to develop the [professional music-making] system. There are many things that don’t function well in China, and so I’m not saying this to be polite – but I would say it is the other way around. But we are getting there.”

“It sounds very sexy to talk about ‘East’ and ‘West’ today, but to me, music is music, and I don’t feel it is necessary to divide it into ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’. I don’t think that I have different feelings in my heart, just because of where I’m from. In the same way, I don’t think I understand Mahler or Beethoven in an ‘Eastern’ way – maybe I interpret it in a particular way because of my personal experience – but not because I’m Chinese.”

Rather than focusing the differences between the Chinese and Western classical music, Yu prefers to find common ground, emphasising the importance of enabling children to learn an instrument for the best reasons. “Across the world, I’m not sure that we always get the motivation right. It shouldn’t be about creating the next big star, or getting extra points when you apply to University. Whether you become a musician or not, it is a wonderful thing. You can’t see it or touch it – but by learning to play classical music, you release the imagination. Creativity comes from imagination, and by going to concerts and giving children this experience, you train them to face competition later in life.” I ask if he believes that classical music can have a positive impact on a child’s life, even if they don’t pursue a musical career. “That is the best way! Musicians have a long, long journey, and they deserve a lot of respect for what they do.” Yu pauses before adding, “I think that classical music can have a great influence on young people.”

From the future of the industry, then, to Yu’s forthcoming adventures. In bidding farewell to his role at the Beijing Music Festival, a new door has opened, in the form of an exclusive contract between the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and the prestigious label, Deutsche Grammophon. His delight is palpable. “It is a great honour and a pleasure to be a DG artist. The label is a symbol of such high quality, and it is a real moment of professional recognition for the SSO, which is turning into one of the leading orchestras in the world. ”Their first recording (due next year) will consist of a combination of Russian and Chinese repertoire – a natural affinity, says Yu, owing to common cultural histories between the two nations. Listeners will experience Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances from 1940 alongside the premiere recording of Qigang Chen’s violin concerto, La joie de la souffrance, played by Maxim Vengerov. The concerto is based on an ancient melody from the Tang dynasty, which the composer uses to explore the relationship between joy and suffering. According to Chen, these opposing forces are, to echo Yu’s views on cultural unity, “a matter of ‘Yin’ and ‘Yang’, inseparable and hence all things should contain both. Like loss and gain, they are bound to balance out.”

Yu remarks that the poignant text of Gustav Mahler’s orchestral song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) also dates from the Tang dynasty. “Of course, the text from those poems was translated into English and then into German,” Yu explains, “but Mahler was responding to the words of ancient Chinese poetry through his own musical language.” In April this year, Yu programmed a concert with the Hong Kong Symphony Orchestra, in which Mahler’s Lied was performed alongside a new setting of the same thousand-year old poems by Chinese composer Ye Xiaogong – in their original language. Yu’s aim in doing this was not to create an opposition between the two cultures, but rather, to put them “in conversation with each other.” And did it work? “It was a big success! The audience immediately understood that they were just different reflections on the same words. It was really interesting for them. As musicians, we are lucky to use a language through which you can share your happiness, pain, love, hate, all your feelings – it’s a gift sent by God, really.” With such an optimistic ambassador for classical music, the future looks bright – East, West, and beyond.

Long Yu is Music Director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director & Chief Conductor of the China Philharmonic Orchestra, Music Director of the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra, and Principal Guest Conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. He leads the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra on its 140th anniversary world tour this summer. 

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