From Mao to Xian

Xinghai concert hall 01-2  large-2
Xinghai Concert Hall

In preparation for the tour, I read a number of books and watched films that might illuminate my trip.  Somehow, many of the contemporary writers I came across took me back to a turning point - one of many - in China's long history: the Cultural Revolution. Its goal for the arts: that they reflect the benefits of a socialist society. A single decade, 1966-1976, roughly, during which lives were turned upside-down and music, the main object of my attention, was transformed forever.

Through various methods, western music was pushed out of sight to favor more popular forms - while the Peking opera thrived, musicians specialized in western idiom found themselves either obliged to abandon their craft or face great suffering.  I'm not well read in this part of history, however it is plain to see that any type of art that was viewed as 'elitist' drew terrible and dangerous contempt. 

One of the sole positive aspects of this wind of change was that the State did send musicians out to the countryside to collect, record and catalogue folk songs for posterity. Composer Xian Xinghai was born outside of this terrible period for western-formed musicians, dying at the age of 40 in 1945. Still, one has to wonder what his fate would have become had he been around.  While he used themes close to his beloved land and people, he was a musician formed in the classical/western idiom, in fact the first Chinese student of the Paris Conservatoire.

Would his trade have been put to good use by the State?  All signs point to yes: during the assault of 1939 by the Japanese, for example, he composed a cantata dedicated to the call to arms against the invaders and even enjoyed visits with Mao Zedong. Xian's music, based on Chinese themes and idioms, was constructed using the western techniques that he possessed:  both worlds working together.

And so as I sat in the beautiful hall named after this most illustrious composer, as I admired the acoustic while we played Brahms, my mind wandered back to the days not so long ago when playing or being in the audience would have been taking an enormous risk.  It's a hard concept to reconcile with the huge ovation Pinchas got for the Bruch concerto.

Tonight, western music thrives and all can enjoy it.

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