Student Orchestras Tour China, Luring A Vast Talent Pool

The Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra will tour China with conductor Victor Yampolsky.
(Photo by Elliot Mandel)
By Kyle MacMillan

EVANSTON, Ill. — When the Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra departs March 25 for its first trip abroad, the three-concert China tour will enrich the musicianship of the 87 student participants and likely broaden their world view.

But this cross-hemisphere voyage is designed to do more than just provide immediate educational benefits. It allows the university to plant its flag on a continent that has become critical in terms of building international prestige and attracting future students.

The Oberlin Orchestra performed in Beijing in 2011. (Photo by Daniel Schloss)

“It’s to bring face-to-face the high level of the musical talent of our students and make it known to the individuals there,” said Toni-Marie Montgomery, dean of Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music.

Asia – primarily China – has become the new competitive arena for America’s top music schools as they jostle for elite talent and academic support, and musical tours like the one planned by Northwestern are becoming more important. Montgomery pointed to similar treks that other members of Seven Springs, a loose association of eleven of this country’s most prestigious conservatories and music schools, have taken in recent years, and she didn’t want Northwestern to get left behind.

The Oberlin (Ohio) Conservatory of Music’s orchestra traveled to China in 2005-06 and 2010-11, and two of its chamber ensembles have visited as well. “The tours work on two fronts,” said Andrea Kalyn, dean of the conservatory. “We choose the locations not just for their educational value but also because we want prospective students to know about Oberlin and hear firsthand what our students play like – what the education results in.”

With China leading the way, Asia is quickly becoming the largest classical music center in the world. Western classical music was banned in China during the Cultural Revolution, but interest escalated quickly following the reopening of the Central Conservatory of Beijing in 1978. The Wilson Quarterly, a scholarly magazine, reported that some 36 million Chinese children were studying piano in 2012, six times the number of their counterparts in the United States. And those numbers have no doubt risen since, with some of the best young Chinese musicians seeking advanced training in the U.S.

In addition, the Chinese government has poured millions of dollars into sleek new opera houses and concert halls across the country. Among them is the Paul Andreu-designed National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, which opened in 2007. Known as “The Egg” or “The Giant Egg” because of its ellipsoid dome of titanium and glass, it includes a 2,416-seat opera house and 2,017-seat concert hall.

According to a 2017 article by Norman Lebrecht in London’s Spectator, Richard Clayderman, a Liberace-like pops virtuoso, helped ignite China’s love of the piano in the 1980s with tunes like “Ballade pour Adeline” and “Les feuilles mortes.” Some 800 million viewers watched Clayderman’s first Chinese television appearance in 1987. Recently, young, enormously talented and charismatic pianists like Lang Lang, one of the most famous classical artists in the world, and Yuja Wang, who is not afraid to capitalize on her sex appeal alongside her dazzling virtuosity, have further whetted China’s appetite for classical music.

Given this enormous zeal and China’s ability to put huge financial resources behind it, it is hardly surprising that American music schools and conservatories are eagerly bidding for attention and students. Christopher Mossey, senior managing director of Juilliard Global Ventures (an arm of New York’s Juilliard School), believes there is plenty of room for everyone to find a toehold. “There’s a kind of Wild West feeling to culture there right now,” he said. “There’s an enormous thirst for high-quality concerts in China, and I don’t see it as a zero-sum game. Juilliard can have its presence in China, and other schools can make inroads there, too.”

Groundbreaking for The Tianjin Juilliard School, which opens in 2019.

Northwestern’s president, Morton Schapiro, travels regularly to China to visit alumni and donors. Montgomery suggested that one of these outreach trips include performances by the school’s symphony orchestra. “I thought it would complement the president’s travels, but also address a priority for us in the Bienen School, which is recruiting international students,” she said, noting the school has recently received grants for additional international scholarships.

Schapiro agreed to the idea, and a one-week tour with concerts in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong was organized. The school’s Alumni Relations and Development Office found an anonymous donor who is paying for the students’ airfare, lodging, meals, and transportation within China. Each of the three performances will be preceded by a V.I.P. dinner and followed by an alumni reception — all geared to getting maximum exposure for the orchestra and school.

But as important as the broader marketing and public-relations benefits are for Northwestern, the China tour will also have a direct impact on the students taking part. Northwestern’s director of orchestras, Victor Yampolsky, who will conduct the three tour concerts, said the trip will build the orchestra’s esprit de corps and teach the students what it is like to perform one program multiple times, something it does not normally do in its home hall.

For the orchestra’s two members who are from continental China, it will be a homecoming. But for the rest, Yampolsky said, it will be an “exotic trip” to a country with a population of nearly 1.4 billion – more than four times that of the United States. “They will see cities much larger than any American cities,” he said. “They will see people who don’t look or don’t talk at all like they do. They will see signs of culture which is not 250 years old but 5,000 years old. I call it an eye-opener, and very memorable.”

Michael Haithcock, who led the 80-member University of Michigan Symphony Band on a China tour in 2011, has a good idea of what the Northwestern students are likely to experience. “One of the things we learned most profoundly in our journey was that people are people,” he said. “They have different environments and experiences, but the core of humanity is what we really saw. Beyond whatever musical experiences they got, that was overriding benefit.”

The band’s trip, which consisted of 12 concerts in 21 days, was funded by the Chinese government. It came about in part because of the school’s significant ties with universities in China, especially in the arena of automobile technology. The venture marked the 50th anniversary of a State Department-sponsored, 16-week tour across the Soviet Union the Symphony Band undertook in 1961 at the height of the Cold War. “Those students,” he said, “still communicate with me their memories and the impact that it had and all that they learned.”

The University of Michigan Symphony Band performing in Shanghai in 2011.

As China’s place in the world, especially its role in the classical realm, continues to expand, its students will probably have even higher visibility at America’s leading music schools, and academic ties between the countries will only increase.

To that end, the Juilliard School, which in 1987 became the first American school to send a musical ensemble to Asia, will open its first-ever satellite campus in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin in 2019. The renowned architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which oversaw Juilliard’s New York expansion in 2006-09, has designed the new school, which will eventually boast a faculty of 42, to be drawn largely from outside China. It will offer graduate degrees, along with pre-college curriculum and open-enrollment courses for amateurs and beginning music students.

Planning for the new school, which is a joint venture with the Tianjin Conservatory of Music and Tianjin Innovative Financial Investment Co., began in 2011. At first, Juilliard investigated opening such a venture in South Korea, but when regulations there proved unwieldy, attention turned to China. After working out the financial arrangements and satisfying regulations, Juilliard broke ground on the project in June.

“There is an immense pool of talent in China,” Mossey said, “and some of them are making their way to Juilliard in New York, but not all of them. Having a beachhead in Asia gives Juilliard access to that talent in ways that it can’t have all the time in New York.”

Although Northwestern’s Bienen School might not be ready to open a branch in China, its symphony orchestra’s upcoming trip to that ancient country is nonetheless a big step toward cementing a better relationship with China.

“It is a very tall order for me,” said Yampolsky, who has conducted in Taiwan and South Korea, but not China. “It is really a humongous event for our orchestra, for our Bienen School of Music, and for Northwestern University as a whole.”

Tour program connections: Mahler and Bernstein

In choosing a program for the Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra’s three-concert China tour, conductor Victor Yampolsky selected two works that would showcase the ensemble but also had special connections to him and Chicago.

The line-up’s centerpiece will be Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, which capitalizes on the school’s strong history of brass training tied to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s long esteemed brass sections.

“Since I know my orchestra,” Yampolsky said, “I can tell you there is no better piece to highlight their talents, because we have outstanding brass and we have first-class woodwind soloists and a tremendous strength of percussion. The strings are also coming up quite nicely.”

For the shorter first half, the conductor decided to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein with his kinetic Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.

Victor Yampolsky conducting the Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra. (Mandel)

The Northwestern maestro has his own close connection to Bernstein. Yampolsky was a violinist in the Moscow Philharmonic when he decided to emigrate from the Soviet Union with his family and settle in the United States. An interim stop was Rome, where he had to audition for major conductors so he could get necessary letters of recommendation for the visa he needed.

Conductor Zubin Mehta intervened, but Yampolsky need further assistance. He turned to Bernstein, who happened to be conducting in Rome at the time. Bernstein secured him a scholarship to the Berkshire Music Center (now the Tanglewood Music Center), a summer academy for emerging professional musicians associated with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

“The whole process of me getting to the United States was organized by Bernstein,” Yampolsky said. “He simply called his good friend from Massachusetts, Sen. Teddy Kennedy, and asked him to send a telex to the American embassy in Rome and make sure they sent me without delay.”

Two weeks after arriving at the Berkshire Music Center, Yampolsky auditioned for the Boston Symphony; he became a member of its violin section in 1973. Two years later, he was appointed principal second violin.

Programming Symphonic Dances, Yampolsky said, is a way of repaying his debt to Bernstein.

Kyle MacMillan served as the classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music, and Early Music America.