A classic conundrum

By Raymond Zhou ( China Daily ) Updated: 2009-07-10 09:51:07

A classic conundrum

The boom in classical music in China is a myth.

Now, I've said it. And it is not easy. When outsiders say bad things about you, you tend to protest and find excuses. When they say nice things you tend to go happily along - even if what they say is widely exaggerated.

Such is the case of classical music in China.

The first time I realized the gap in perception between the Western notion of the Chinese market for classical music and what I knew from within was when I interviewed Renee Fleming. The American soprano mentioned something like "the huge market for Western opera", but I could count no more than a dozen local productions in all of China's cities over the years. That is equivalent to what a city like Chicago would produce in one season. Huge market? What market?

Then I stumbled upon articles in The New York Times and other prestigious publications. The rosy pictures they painted would set the heart palpitating for any impresario in this business. Send your divas and piano geniuses to China. There are tens of millions who cannot wait to experience their high art.

This is similar to the China craze orchestrated by Wall Street. It is a bubble based on wide-eyed optimism or outright fallacy.

I don't know who is evangelizing for the good times. It could be someone irrationally exuberant, or someone so ignorant that one set of numbers has completely fooled him.

China has 38 million young kids learning to play the piano - according to Cai Jindong, music director of the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, as quoted by The New York Times. This I can believe. Just look around. It seems every parent is sending his or her youngster to an after-school music program.

But this doesn't mean we have 38 million who can appreciate Chopin or Liszt. If you care to ask the parent or the kid, you'll find out the most likely raison d'etre is not music appreciation, but to gain extra points in the all-important college entrance exam. And I seriously doubt how many of these 38 million can get as far as playing a recognizable Fur Elise, the Beethoven piece often heard at dinner parties to showcase children's talents and gain immediate applause for the proud parents.

In a sense, this kind of music education yields the same bragging rights as the old-fashioned touting of material wealth ("Hey, my dad drives a Mercedes! Yours still rides a rickety bike."). It is an asset for show-offs in a face-conscious society.

Of course, out of the 38 million, there may be a couple of potential Lang Langs. But one Lang Lang as a role model does not imply 1 million can understand his art, just that 1 million would like to have his kind of fame and fortune.

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