Tonight I experienced one of the possible billion encounters which could be called a true “Taipei moment”: walking down the street, weaving through fortune tellers and shoe sellers, and dim sum corner kings, I heard a strain of Beethoven. It was the “Für Elise,” stringing electronically along like a children’s toy from (what else?) a huge yellow garbage truck doing its 10 p.m. rounds. As I stood there watching a happy group of merchants help load up the trash before they donned pink helmets and sped away on their scooters, I thought a bit about the meaning of Beethoven in Taiwan.
In a country where Beethoven was never mothballed by Jiang Qing, where Lin Biao never tried to kill the head of state, where the parts for the Seventh Symphony did not need the pressure of Soviet tanks resulting in Henry Kissinger’s appearance which in turn led Zhou Enlai to release the parts to the Shanghai Symphony, this kind of encounter is commonplace.
A few minutes later, I was awash in an immaculately-recorded Mozart symphony, merely by virtue of seeking out some baked goods, rifling through a program of cultural events for the month of July in Taipei that almost — almost — made me think that this city is about as vibrant in terms of classical music as Berlin. (Unfortunately for Asia, in the free agent battle that really matters, Daniel Barenboim has chosen to remain in der Hauptstadt.) As I parsed through the program’s biographies of the various guest artists, enjoying the fact that all the Korean violinists coming to play recitals provide their names in glorious hanja, making them difficult to separate from the Chinese and Taiwanese artists, I had a thought:
Is it possible that little Taiwan and doubly large, yet still relatively small, South Korea are cultural superpowers?
The South Korean government started a Hallyu (Korea-Wave) Research Institute in 2002 and is wondering if that wasn’t a bit arrogant and premature, but why not? And why not recognize (as I am only barely beginning to) that state investment in, and individual achievement in, classical music is a significant element in the measuring of cultural power. If you’re exporting classical music, in colloquial terms, you’re kicking ass. It indicates economic strength, high levels of education, and cultivated (perhaps even multilingual and well-traveled) citizens: a culture, in short, of achievement.
As I tore a taro bun into little purple bits as Mozart perforated my ears and I realized how many Beethoven sonatas were going to resound in Taipei this month, before the lady who owned the shop reminded me that I should watch out for bandits in Beijing, I wondered again to myself: is China a cultural superpower? Is it even a classical music superpower?
The New York Times says probably not, but they’re working on it. Kurt Sassmannshaus, artistic director of the Great Wall Music Festival in Beijing, says “maybe.” And me? Who am I? What the hell, say I, let’s listen to some Tchaikovsky!
But before we do that, note just a couple of more things: China is sprouting symphony orchestras, and performing halls, in prodigious abundance. (Yes, not just prodigiously or abundantly, but in prodigious and adjective-heavy abundance.) The arms race may not be completely over (Taiwan media have embedded reporters at the RIMPAC drills near Hawaii, even as Huanqiu Shibao hyperventilates from Beijing), but if only Orange Country Republicans got so excited about the ass-whuppin’ the United States is receiving in terms of cultural investment, we might actually be able to keep concert halls open in the United States and not get so exercised when a single company loses $5.6 million US dollars on a single immense iteration of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. (That’s L.A., folks, not the fantastic and economically saavy Ring cycle in my hometown Seattle.)
So, to Guiyang:
I learned about the existence of the Guiyang Symphony via its principal cellist, Charles Brooks, who I ran into on YouTube when trying to figure out how to fix my own bow hand in the last movement of the Schumann Cello Concerto. (Yes! Schumann 200th birth anniversary! Go, feel the love in Düsseldorf and enjoy the Ruhr valley in this mighty year of 2010! Recognize the magnetic beauty of Clara Wieck! Get into those Haushaltbücher! Remember how beautiful everything was before Kafka wrote “Der Strafkolonie” and the war destroyed everyone’s hearts, such that Alban Berg had to knock out Wozzeck! Think deeply on the key of A minor, and the reason why widows would burn unpublished works! Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann!)
Well, please excuse that rude interruption. Bound to happen every so often. Blame it on the taro and the fact that I have become completely besotted with cheap pomegranate juice and readily available Mozart g-minor symphonies.
Anyway, this Guiyang symphony orchestra is based in Guizhou province (what would Li Zongren say? really, what would he say?) and was founded only in 2009. The players are young, and the string players are all playing on really substandard axes, which is why, in spite of their decent techniques, the cello section does not sound like the luscious Cleveland Orchestra or the Berlin Philharmonic. You can buy an orchestra, but until the individual players can afford instruments that run about $50,000 USD a piece, you’re not going to approach even rebuilding orchestras like the San Antonio Symphony.
But, in any case, a new orchestra and a new hall is nothing to sniff at. And if they sound this good in 2009, how will they sound in 2109? Anyone who thinks Chinese classical musicians in China represent just the thin edge of new money and a shallow culture of Westernization in a country engaging in acts of brazen human rights violations and charging West under a banner of ethnonationalism and environmental catastrophe only needs to read the first ninety pages (of the last 1200 pages of volume 4, of the total 5000 pages) of the Gustav Mahler biography written by Henry-Louis le Grange to realize that 100 years ago, American orchestras were doing about the same. (And, like China, were about 40-50 years out from their own civil war!) Using passages from Wharton’s The Age of Innocence as well as copious music reviews from the time and reading that is wider than any spelunking I can ever claim to have done, le Grange describes the classical music scene in New York City exactly 100 years ago as a vivid and wild melangé of new money, new institutions, social climbers, touring orchestras, big budgets built on big egos, and fresh ideas brazenly imported from abroad and appropriated for the native transplanting. Which reminds me in some important ways of China today, but with Jiang Zemin as the primary patron rather than Andrew Carnegie. (Fortunately for all of us, Jiang Zemin can recite the Gettysburg Address, in English, from memory, which should help you to get rid of those lingering ideas that deep down, he is a creepy guy who is probably frozen in a compound under Mao’s sarcophagus when he isn’t at flute recitals, People’s Congresses, and international sporting events in Beijing.)
Sorry for all that extraneous information, dear and intelligent readers. Now, I will silence my keyboard. Let’s just listen to Tchaikovsky, the man who edged out onto the stage of Carnegie Hall in the late 1880s, much like American movers and shakers today wander out into the klieg lights of Beijing, or Guiyang, and wonder what the hell it all means. But in the end it’s just about 12 cellos, and a young guy trying to pull some sound out: