On a bullet train out of Shanghai, a nuclear family catches my eye. The father, weather-beaten and wearing an ill-fitting suit, is clearly a working man. His wife, younger and city sleek, is dressed to impress. Their son, an only child, is four or five years old.
Curious, I get talking and discover they are from a northern city, near the Russian border. What were they doing in Shanghai? Entering the boy in a piano competition.
The number of children learning to play the piano in China varies from 40 to 60 million, depending on who you ask. Walk through a tower-block residential area in Shanghai at five in the afternoon and you can hear the clangour of many hands playing scales.
The piano boom is widely ascribed in the West to the global success of two Chinese soloists, Lang Lang and Yundi Li. Lang Lang, darling of a dozen luxury brands, is probably the highest-earning classical musician on earth, even during the year he has taken off to recover from painful tendonitis. Yundi, winner of the 2000 Warsaw Chopin Competition, focuses more on his domestic base, cultivating a teen army of followers across the vast country with uncompromising recitals of pure Beethoven. There is real enmity between the two stars, ever since Lang Lang got Yundi bumped from his record label. In China, Lang Lang is seen as an establishment figure, Yundi as a dreamy poet.
Neither, though, was the trigger for China’s piano mania, an epidemic so compulsive that four out of five of the world’s pianos are now made in China. The man who first got China’s fingers moving was the silky French entertainer Richard Clayderman, a Liberace-style merchant of melancholy kitsch who burst upon the Chinese in the mid-1980s with his signature tunes ‘Ballade pour Adeline’ and ‘Les feuilles mortes’. Some 800 million viewers watched his first China TV appearance in 1987. His ‘Ballade’ rings out from church towers. His tours are sell-outs. Chinese mothers shut their eyes at night, praying that their little prince will be the next Richard Clayderman.
‘What did you play at the competition?’ I ask the kid on the train. He mumbles some foreign name.
‘Ah, Für Elise!’ I exclaim, singing the opening bars of Beethoven’s ditty.
‘Stop!’ commands the child. ‘You sang a wrong note.’
Over my protests, he instructs: ‘Before you make music, always prepare thoroughly.’
Musical education in China is nothing if not thorough. Children perform at their best, or else. Lang Lang once told me that his father left him alone in a room with suicide pills after he failed to gain entry to the Beijing Conservatory. He was nine years old. In a one-child society, each child gets only one chance.
Still, the opportunities are increasing. Every time I visit, I hear of new orchestras. It’s a competitive field. If a town of ten million people gets a regional ensemble, the next town demands equal rights and the Communist party duly provides. If Beijing has a violin competition, Shanghai must have one, too. Conductors speak of significant rises in quality. The best orchestras — in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, leavened by a dozen or more European players — are approaching world class.
The man with his finger on the baton is Long Yu, 53, an elusive character who is music director of the China Philharmonic, the Shanghai Symphony and the Guangzhou Symphony, as well as head of the Beijing Music Festival and principal guest conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic. Long Yu’s major achievement has been to found a Shanghai Orchestra Academy where Chinese teens receive the finishing touch to their professional training from visiting members of the New York Philharmonic.
And this is where the Chinese revolution comes close to home. Shanghai grads have been winning seats in orchestras across the US and Europe. The next wave of Chinese players will be coming from our own colleges, royal and ancient and underused.
Every ranking music conservatory is now marketing in China, peddling its pedigree for dear life. Demand for tertiary music education is falling in developed countries as students seek more lucrative occupations. To keep colleges alive, deans and directors fly to China twice a year to recruit paying students. One US dean has great success describing his college as the oldest in America; the Chinese respect vintage objects. Others flourish scholarships, full or partial. The Germans, as ever, go one better. Faced with maintaining 80 Hochschulen für Musik that they cannot hope to fill with their own citizens, Germany now offers universal free tuition to Chinese students.
The outcome is inevitable. Five years from now, the new intake in our orchestras will consist mostly of Chinese graduates, winning places on merit, ambition and meticulous preparation. The character of our music making is about to change, perhaps for the better. The future of orchestras is assured. The future is China.