From Cutting-Edge To Baroque, China Fest Is Innovative

A highlight of the Beijing Music Festival’s 22nd edition was the mainland China premiere of a timely parable of human trafficking: Du Yun’s opera ‘Angel’s Bone,’ winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize. (Photos: Beijing Music Festival)

BEIJING — “Golden Week” is the name for the national holiday period held in the People’s Republic of China at the beginning of October. This year, it also signaled an earlier-than-usual start to the annual Beijing Music Festival (BMF) — the country’s largest and most extensive festival devoted to classical music.

BMF, which unfolds over the course of the month, is also spread out spatially. This year, in its 22nd edition, BMF took place in venues dispersed across this vast, sprawling, restlessly energetic city: from the Poly Theatre and the Forbidden City Concert Hall to an exhibition space in the lively nightlife district of Sanlitun and the enormous, egg-shaped National Centre for the Performing Arts (where the grand opening was held on October 9 for the first time in BMF history). It even extended to the Great Wall north of Beijing (specifically, the Wall’s Shuiguan section).

Michel van der Aa’s opera ‘Eight’ mixed live and virtual reality.

There, as a prelude to the festival proper, the most intrepid of audience members, supplied with mattresses, gathered for the immersive performance experience Sleep: Dream at the Great Wall by Max Richter. The German-born British composer was in attendance for this iteration of his epic, eight-hour work, which draws on neuroscience. Spanning from midnight to dawn, Sleep received its Asian premiere in this spectacular, timeless setting.

That sense of a one-of-a-kind “happening” is very much in keeping with the aesthetic being honed by this prestigious, sponsor-heavy festival under its new artistic director, Shuang Zou. BMF was founded in 1998 by Long Yu, who has become an all-pervasive presence in China’s highly active — and rapidly growing — classical music scene, as well as a major cultural ambassador abroad. In addition to his widespread commitments as a conductor — he helms the China Philharmonic Orchestra, the Shanghai Symphony, and the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra and also has a principal guest conductor role at the Hong Kong Philharmonic — the 55-year-old Yu is deeply committed to grooming the next generation.

In 2016 Yu appointed Shuang Zou to be BMF’s associate program director, and last year he entrusted her with the festival’s artistic leadership. (Yu remains connected to BMF as chairman of its artistic committee.) Zou’s programming choices for the 2019 BMF, which drew to a close on October 28, solidified the identity she is imprinting on this concert presenting organization. In particular, they emphasized her passionate commitment to contemporary music and to new ways of thinking about connections between China and the West.

Paris-based Opera Fuoco gave a semi-staged performance of Handel’s ‘Xerxes.’

“I very strongly would like to create a new context for the musical dialogue that takes place at BMF,” Zou explained in an interview I conducted during a rehearsal break for Du Yun’s opera Angel’s Bone — one of this year’s most memorable highlights. “Specifically, I would like the artists who come here to think of this as an international platform and not just a Chinese platform”: BMF not as a mere destination to export a finished cultural product, but as an actively creative center where new artistic ideas are incubated, informed by the energy of the Chinese audience.

With regard to the latter, Zou says she also aims to cultivate an openness to innovation while encouraging greater awareness of the legacy of classical music from the West. Both sides of the equation — tradition and innovation — are captured in the thematic title for the 2019 edition, Timeless Music into the Future. “We pay tribute to the timeless works and big names and to prestigious musicians,” Zou says. “But we are also looking into the future by setting these in new contexts. The idea is to encourage the audience to think not just about repertoire or coming to see an event with famous musicians, but to explore new expectations about what music can do, how it can be part of our lives.” Zou is a third-generation artist from a family that has produced several generations of composers. (Her father, Ye Zou, is a well-known film and opera composer from the first generation to emerge in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution and has worked closely with Long Yu as resident composer with the China Philharmonic.)

The production of Du Yun’s opera ‘Angel’s Bone’ was riveting from start to finish.

The hunger for Western classical music that has gripped Chinese audiences is widespread and — an especially promising aspect — attractive to large numbers of young people (clearly evident in every audience I observed). And it appears to be entering a new phase: This extraordinary phenomenon is not nearly as uniform as it is sometimes depicted to be in the West. Although the core 19th-century orchestral repertoire remains a fixation for many discovering classical music here, at BMF — whose audience is predominantly from the capital city — I saw evidence of an earnest desire to try other directions.

Zou was particularly delighted by the responses to the Dutch composer Michel van der Aa’s EIGHT, which BMF co-commissioned with the Holland Festival and other European partners and presented here in its Asian premiere. This hybrid opera/3D theater/virtual-reality experience (the composer calls it “mixed reality”) is conveyed via a headset of glasses and earphones, creating a unique, one-viewer-at-a-time encounter that fuses uncanny VR perceptions of vertiginous panoramas with an elliptical, touching storyline of a woman’s multiple identities over the course of a life. The visual sensations proved so mesmerizing that they nearly eclipsed the musical experience, but whenever I refocused on the latter, van der Aa’s fresh and poignant score was rewarding.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet was soloist in Aaron Zigman’s new piano concerto, ‘Tango Manos.’

Even more, the implications of this new music theater experience — intimate yet, at the same time, weirdly infinite as open narrative possibilities emerged — proved genuinely exciting. Part of what Zou calls BMF’s New Wave Unit — its most-avant-garde segment — EIGHT thoroughly exemplifies her fascination for cutting-edge music theater, state-of-the-art technology, and new modes of artist-audience interface. Zou herself spent formative years studying film and theater in London and has collaborated as a multimedia artist in numerous European productions. She cites the Holland and Manchester Festivals and English National Opera as providing models for some of the paths she is forging at BMF.

“As a Chinese person, it took me some time to learn about the new music that was happening in the West,” Zou recalls. “We here need to understand how our cultural heritage is encouraging us to discover new music. It takes time to get people to understand this. With Long Yu we have agreed that the important thing is to create a context for dialogue through repertoire and through different ways of looking at this repertoire to make people more curious.”

Conductor Huang Yi, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and composer Aaron Zigman.

That of course entails considerable risk-taking of a sort not usually associated with a major government-subsidized festival. Perhaps the biggest risk this year was the mainland China premiere of Angel’s Bone (which was presented last year for the first time in Asia at the Hong Kong Arts Festival), given two performances at BMF. Du Yun’s opera, which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prizer for music, sets a libretto by Royce Vavrek that involves the topical issue of human trafficking. A dark parable of injured angels who are abused by their human “caretakers,” Angel’s Bone inspired Du Yun to write a remarkably potent score that felt more pathbreaking than ever on the large Poly Theatre stage. The production, staged by Michael McQuilken with Julian Wachner as music director, was riveting from start to finish — indeed an emotionally shattering experience that likely caught quite a few audience members off-guard.

“The members of the new generation being nurtured abroad are looking for a voice within themselves,” Shuang Zou remarks. “I don’t think of artists like Du Yun as American or Chinese, though she is very Chinese at heart. We are now past that generation where we need to speak about our identity all the time.”

Opera Fuoco, led by founder Michael Stern: The Western Baroque is still novel in China.

Still, there was considerable pride that the opera had earned a Pulitzer and that the Shanghai-born Du Yun, who is based in New York, has come back to China to share the experience. (BMF had co-commissioned the fairy-tale opera Madame White Snake in 2010 from Zhou Long, who became the first China-born composer to win the Pulitzer.)

A decidedly more comfortable new work was the centerpiece of the China Philharmonic’s open-air concert on October 14 at the legendary Shouhuang Gate in Jingshan Park (under an almost-full moon): Tango Manos, a piano concerto that BMF commissioned from the prolific film composer Aaron Zigman and that was stylishly introduced by Jean-Yves Thibaudet, with the outstandingly talented young conductor Huang Yi (another Long Yu protégé) on the podium. Elaborating on various tangos, Zigman crafted an appealing and well-received concerto that shared the program with other commissioned pieces by two contemporary Chinese composers (Last Sacrifice by Zhou Long and a large concert suite from Xiaogang Ye’s 2010 opera Song of Farewell, also a BMF commission).

‘Tales of Hoffmann,’ staged by and for youngsters, marked Offenbach’s 200th.

But “new music” experiences can also come from unexpected directions — including the past. The Western Baroque remains for many Chinese music enthusiasts novel enough to represent an avant-garde of its own. So much repertoire that Westerners take for granted has not even been performed yet in China: thus the Paris-based period-instrument company Opera Fuoco presented the Chinese premiere of Handel’s Xerxes in a semi-staged performance led by its founder David Stern (whose famous father played a key role in an earlier phase of introducing Western classical music to China). The occasion was advertised as marking the “260th anniversary of Handel’s death” — one of several such composer anniversary “hooks” used across the festival. (The 200th of Offenbach’s birth was another, for a genuinely inspired children’s version — made for and performed by youngsters — of Tales of Hoffmann.)

The young cast was uniformly wonderful, conveying the wit as well as the beauty of Handel’s opera. Though the audience thinned noticeably through the course of the evening, I sensed that was not to be interpreted as rejection but as dipping in to try out a new sound. (With subtitles only in English, I wondered how the plot’s convoluted round-robin of misallied affections came across.) Song Tu, BMF’s longterm program director, told me that Handel, like Angel’s Bone or EIGHT, was also a matter of discovery for the audience. “It’s like Peking duck: there are so many different ways to make it,” he said. “The Chinese audience is learning that about classical music as well — that it can discover it in different ways.”

Broadcasting the 2019 Beijing Music Festival.

In this city of incredible layers and contradictions, where such a rich and colorful past brushes up against the most imaginative contemporary architecture, it seems altogether fitting that BMF has been pursuing these parallel tracks of taken-for-granted repertoire and new commissions, of monumental, extravagant productions — this is where the first Chinese Ring cycle was presented (in 2005) — coupled with intimate, high-tech discoveries.

Another important venture launched at the 2019 festival encapsulated both the “timeless” and the “future-oriented” impulses. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra, under Vladimir Ashkenazy’s baton, embarked on its new three-year residency at BMF with an exquisitely played pairing of Vaughan Williams (featuring the poetically refined bass-baritone Shenyang in the rarely heard Songs of Travel) and Shostakovich works for chamber orchestra. But the relationship is not to be limited to cultural “imports.” Rather, genuine mutuality is the model, with the MCO players learning to play new works by Chinese composers. In a similar vein, it was announced that BMF will begin a three-year partnership with Paris Opéra Comique (from 2020 to 2022), to culminate in a co-production of Zhou Long’s Madame White Snake.

“Ultimately,” says Shuang Zou, “it’s about creating more dialogue, and with that to make people more curious about different forms of new music so that they want to keep discovering.”

Thomas May is a writer, critic, educator, and translator. He is the English-language editor for the Lucerne Festival and contributes to the New York Times, the Seattle Times, and Musical America, along with other publications. He blogs about the arts at