Smog is making me cough and I feel my eyelids smart and redden. High-rises are swaddled in a soupy haze and locals scuttle about their day, huddled against the cold, faces down. Has Beijing done nothing to improve pollution since I last lived there three years ago? This is a city that changes fast. There are the same old scruffy nail bars and lamb hot pot restaurants, the windows smudged with steam from boiling vats of oil and meat. But in the ancient hutongs or alleyways there is also a smattering of Scandinavian-style design stores. Hidden around the back of one is a tranquil café, at odds with the dirt and dust outside, classical music wafting into chilly air. Here are the locals you never see on the street: men in elegant cashmere coats, scarfs slung around their necks; women propping Louis Vuitton bags against long, poised legs. I stop for a hot chocolate and avocado cheese cake; it costs nearly twenty dollars.
‘There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake,’ Mao Zedong said. Under the ‘Great Leader’, during the tumultuous tragic years of the Cultural Revolution, classical Western music was particularly despised as ‘bourgeois’. Instruments were smashed, concertos ripped up, and conductors punished, sometimes with death. When facing execution for tearing up Mao’s Little Red Book, Lu Hongen, conductor of the Shanghai Symphony, said to his cellmate. ‘Visit Austria, home of music. Go to Beethoven’s tomb and lay a bouquet of flowers. Tell him his disciple is in China.’ Would Lu laugh or cry if he went to Guangzhou now? I’ve taken the long train ride south to see the very first Youth Music Culture Guangdong (YMCG) in action, the pet project of Chinese-American superstar Yo-Yo Ma and the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra. It’s early in the year but there is unseasonal heat as hundreds of earnest young musicians gather to learn from artists of the Silk Road Ensemble. Among the educators is symphony conductor Michael Stern. When his father, violinist Isaac Stern, made history by touring China in 1979, just three years after Mao’s death, he found not one playable piano left in Shanghai. His son has arrived in a new era: China is now the largest piano producer in the world, and the largest consumer too with some forty million students learning to play. Beethoven, it seems, is not short of disciples.
Yo-Yo Ma, a believer in art for art’s sake, relishes the redemptive qualities of creation. I ask him why here, why now? Why China? ‘When the flood gates open there’s this moment of receptivity. There’s a small window in this society where you can do so much,’ he says. He looks down at his hands, adjusts his shirtsleeves rolled half way up his arms. ‘I think if that window closes it’s going to be harder to start things, to create habits, cultural habits. For me, it’s planting seeds that we may not see the resultsof for twenty, thirty years.’
‘I want you to have enough courage to stand up,’ Yo-Yo Ma later tells a room of shy young musicians, bent over their instruments, anxious to do well and to please. ‘Who’ll be the first victim?’
Fostering innovation in China, a country hindered by an educational system that encourages rote learning and discourages asking questions, is not always easy. Some classical musicians have broken through: concert pianist and child prodigy Lang Lang is a celebrity here, commanding sell-out concerts and legions of fans. But Long Yu, the man who has helped spearhead China’s classical music renaissance (he is artistic director and chief conductor of the China Philharmonic Orchestra and music director of the Shanghai Symphony) wants more. ‘Asian parents, they force the kids to learn instruments not to introduce arts to them but they want to train them to become a star, the next Lang Lang, or to add some points when they apply to university. But this is totally wrong,’ he insists. ‘We don’t need only one or two champions. We need a new generation to understand creativity.’ Some are rising to the challenge. Back in an improvisation workshop, under the cold glare of classroom lamps, a plump girl in a yellow frilly dress shakes her hips, forgetting the glasses that fall down her nose, while a percussionist taps out an addictive beat. Yo-Yo Ma is happy. His charges are starting to stand up, no longer victims. As he confides with a grin, there is a little known secret: ‘You can practise imagination’.