Pacific Symphony keeps me positive about ties

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2018/3/29 20:53:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

When I learned that the Pacific Symphony plans to take a five-city tour in China in mid-May, I was a little bit worried for them.

Based in Costa Mesa, the art center of Orange County, California, the Pacific Symphony is indeed a pretty good musical institute. The 39-year-old orchestra is the largest to be formed in the US in the past half century.

The conductor Carl St. Clair, a protégé of Leonard Bernstein, is one of the longest tenured conductors in the US and is known for his passionate promotion of American composers. The symphony chose the repertoire carefully: masterworks by Mozart, Mussorgsky plus a few pieces of Bernstein to show its signature American flavor and to celebrate the upcoming 100th birthday of the American maestro, who died in 1990.

And they chose cities carefully as well: Shanghai, Beijing, plus second-tier cities like Chongqing, Hefei and Wuxi to serve broader audiences.

The classical music market in China is still growing strongly. According to the latest available data from the annual report on China's performance market produced by the China Association of Performing Arts, in 2016 China's audience for classical music concerts grew 14.65 percent from the previous year and concerts saw 85 percent of their seats filled.

The gains for the classical music market in China have been building over the past decade, spurred by the mushrooming number of concert halls and the 50 million youngsters studying instruments in the country. The average age of classical music audiences in China is also young. At the Shanghai Oriental Art Center, for example, the majority of patrons were below 40, a sharp contrast with the concert halls in the US where gray-haired seniors often make up the majority of the audience.

Competition among Western orchestras touring China has also been growing. Most major orchestras in the US and Europe have been to China, and they are visiting more frequently. For example, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the first American orchestra to visit China in 1973, has been coming back every year since 2012. According to the same report from the China Association of Performing Arts, almost every month in 2016, China welcomed at least one influential international orchestra. 

In January 2016, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra visited one after another, led by Zubin Mehta and Ricardo Muti.

Chinese audiences are becoming picky. Worldwide fame and stardom become a handy guide for them to make box office decisions. Sometimes even world-renowned orchestras face a lukewarm reaction.

All of this made me wonder whether the Pacific Orchestra, less known than many Western rivals in China, would be disappointed by its first international tour in 12 years. After talking to John Forsyte, the symphony president, and St. Clair, I realized my worries were unnecessary. They told me they are not aiming to elevate the international status of the symphony via this China trip. Rather they want to show respect to the home country of the Chinese Americans living in Orange County and build closer ties with this major pillar of their audience at home. 

Orange County has become a major destination for Chinese immigrants in recent years. The number of Chinese immigrants in Orange County has been accelerating in the last decade to about 10 percent of the total population. In the city of Irvine, the Chinese population almost makes up 20 percent.

Three years ago, with the help of a grant from the James Irvine Foundation's New California Arts Fund, the symphony started a comprehensive outreach to the Chinese community. Now its lunar new year concerts have become a coveted event in Orange County with tickets quickly selling out, and its free lantern festivals saw 4,000 attendees.

Strings for Generations, a program the symphony launched with Irvine Chinese School to teach Chinese families to play instruments and perform together, also went viral.

"This is a continuation of building long-lasting relationships with the Chinese community here," St. Clair told me about their China tour. "This is not just a one-time deal. This is the thing that's going to be in our DNA."

While I was writing this piece, a trade war between the US and China seemed imminent. If it happens, it would hurt both countries for sure. But St. Clair and his Pacific Symphony keep me positive that no matter what happens, the ties between American and Chinese people may have already been embedded in our DNAs.

The author is a New York-based journalist.


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