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Posts Tagged ‘China’

Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu
The Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu

What would you do if the tools you use to do your job cost you a half-million dollars?

This is the quandry that working musicians face. Responsive, sweet-toned instruments have never been cheap. Even 20 or 30 years ago, a good midrange historical violin would easily have cost an orchestra player a year or two’s worth of salary.

Since then, prices have soared. In 2006, a Stradivarius violin sold at auction for over US$3.5 million. This year (2010) a Chicago dealer is offering a Guarneri del Gesu once owned by composer Henri Vieuxtemps. The asking price: an eye-popping US$18 million.

Even for soloists of international stature, these instruments are simply out of reach.

The problem is that fine musical instruments are increasingly seen not as vehicles for musical expression, but as investments. They are slipping away from musicians and falling into private investors’ collections.

Thoughtful musicians treasure the living art from history’s great instrument workshops. They play them daily. They become one with these instruments. They share their art with us.

But increasingly, these artists are shut out. Many of those who didn’t or couldn’t buy – maybe I should say "invest" – in the 1980s or before may now never own an historical instrument.

What to do? For many, a modern instrument is the only answer. Fortunately, outstanding instruments are made in 21st century workshops all over the world, including right here in the US. And increasingly, students and those just beginning a career are turning to the world’s low-cost manufacturing center for help. Look inside the instrument, and the words “made in China” are on the label.

WKSU’s arts reporter Vivian Goodman recently spoke with musicians and instrument makers about the situation. Here’s her take on the story.

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Further reading:

The Mona Lisa of Violins in The Guardian

A Modern Strad in WKSU Classical

A Nation of Pianos and Pianists in WKSU Classical

Lang Lang (Photo: La Scena Musicale)

Young star pianist Lang Lang is unquestionably a distinctive artist. In another way, though, he represents the evolving musical culture of his homeland. China is now the home of the world’s most active piano manufacturer — and as many as 80 million piano students (see A Nation of Pianos and Pianists).

Fundamental tenets of Confucian philosophy emphasize the importance of education and success, acceptance and recognition of authority, and service to one’s neighborhood and country. These principles remain influential in many Asian nations, including China. Families often make enormous personal and financial sacrifices to ensure that their children achieve these goals.

Lang Lang’s book Journey of a Thousand Miles tells the story of his family’s efforts to help him develop his artistry and career. He’ll visit Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cleveland Wednesday (8 October 2008) at 7pm to discuss Journey and autograph copies. For more information, ring up Joseph-Beth at 216 691-7000.

Further reading:

A Nation of Pianos and Pianists in WKSU Classical

Classical Music in China: A Closer Look in WKSU Classical

Journey of a Thousand Miles at Powell’s Books

Playing With Flying Keys at Barnes and Noble

Lang Lang’s website

Long Yu conducts China Philharmonic (Photo: that the Cultural Revolution is history and classical music is no longer banned as cultural pollution, it seems to be growing apace in China. Recently I noted here that China is home to the world’s largest piano manufacturer — and that it sells most of its instruments in its own nation. American conductor Lorin Maazel is one of many Western musicians who have suggested that Chinese audiences may give a real boost to classical music.

Meanwhile, US writers continue to fret over the greying of classical music audiences in our own land, despite the fact that their predictions of classical music’s imminent death never seem to quite pan out.

Some of these writers mutter darkly that if they were wrong about classical music being moribund, it’s only because it’s in the process of moving half way round the world. They point to the estimates of 100 million Chinese conservatory students and note that, worldwide, orchestras are performing more works of Chinese composers and engaging more Chinese-born soloists.

If you are not free yourself, how can you interpret music freely?

       – A Chinese music critic

In the 7 July issue of The New Yorker, Alex Ross takes a closer look at the Chinese classical music juggernaut and concludes that all is not quite what it appears to be.

(As an aside, violist Wing Ho, mentioned in the New Yorker article, studied in Northeast Ohio, at the Kent State School of Music and Oberlin Conservatory.)

Further reading:

Symphony of Millions: Taking stock of the Chinese music boom in The New Yorker

A Nation of Pianos and Pianists in WKSU Classical

Pearl River's Factory in Guangzhou, ChinaWhen I was in the early grades, more years ago than I care to discuss, music was still an integral part of elementary education (at least in my district). We piped out This Old Man and The Itsy-Bitsy Spider to the pounding chords of a wheezy, ill-tuned upright piano. Thus, I wasn’t surprised to learn almost 20 years later that music education students at Kent State University were offered a class which included the rudiments of accompanying kids at the keyboard.

At about the same time, or perhaps a few years earlier, I read that the elementary school instrument of choice in China was the accordion, not the piano.

That wasn’t too difficult to believe. Accordions are relatively cheap. A new small vertical piano good enough for practice and casual playing will set you back a few thousand dollars. A modest accordion is perhaps one-tenth that amount.

Accordions are obviously much more portable than the smallest spinet. They may not be more portable than a cheap electronic keyboard, but for some people the accordion’s sound might well be preferable to the tinny plinks that many portable keyboards emit from their undersized transistor-radio speakers. Accordions also have the advantage that a teacher playing one can keep an eye on the class clown — which isn’t so easy for a teacher planted on a bench behind a tall upright piano.

That was then, this is now. Except for a staged concert, my web search didn’t turn up a single mention of the accordion in Chinese classrooms. The nation that produced pianist Lang Lang now produces his instrument, and in rather astonishing quantities.

For years, China has manufactured most of the world’s toys and electronic gadgets. Today, it also has the world’s most active piano manufacturer. The Pearl River Piano Factory, one of the first to export pianos to the US, built 100,000 pianos last year. To put that in perspective, only 95,000 pianos of all types, makes, and origins were sold in the US in 2005.

So where are they all going? Certainly many of Pearl River’s instruments ended up in our own music stores, wearing familiar American, European, or even Japanese names on the fallboard, and low numbers on the price tags. But eighty percent of the pianos from Pearl River and other Chinese manufacturers never board a container ship. They are sold at home.

China is possessed by some kind of piano fever. As piano sales trail off in the States, they explode in China. Piano shops and studios line the main streets of the cities.

This is the flowering of a demand that has long existed. Even 20 years ago, when Chinese pianos were scarce, buyers would quite literally queue up when a shipment arrived. Once, the piano represented western decadence. Today, under China’s authoritarian capitalism, there are many times more instruments, more dealers, and more consumers.

More pianos means more pianists. It’s estimated that at least 30 million Chinese children are studying piano; some sources put the number as high as 80 million. Their parents are motivated by stringent childbearing restrictions and deep-seated Confucian traditions placing a high value on education. They will make sure the children study, practice, and succeed.

If the pattern followed by the Japanese (and more recently Korean) piano manufacturers holds with the Chinese, we’ll see a change over the next decade or two. The Chinese instruments in the music stores will no longer hide their origins behind famous American and European names. Pearl River and such competitors as Taishan and Saganhaft will proudly stencil their own names on the fallboards. Indeed, this is already starting to happen. Where it will leave the non-Asian piano builders remains to be seen.

And what of those 80 million piano students? Believe me, we will hear from them. Lang Lang and Li Yundi are just the beginning.

Further reading:

Keyboard Moment in China’s Cultural Evolution in The Australian

It Takes a Nation of Maestros in New Statesman

Anne-Sophie Mutter (Photo: Deutsche Welle)Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter is on tour in Asia, performing Bach and Vivaldi with Norway’s Trondheim Soloists. On Sunday (25 May) she played a concert at Shanghai’s Oriental Arts Center, and she plans to donate the fee to earthquake disaster relief through the Red Cross. Worldwide, Red Cross and Red Crescent societies are supporting the Chinese Red Cross in providing aid to victims of the Sichuan earthquake. More than 35,000 Chinese Red Cross staff and volunteers have been working with rescue and medical teams to distribute tents, food, water, clothes and medicine.

Mutter’s tour has already moved on to Taiwan. From there she’ll fly to Seoul, Hong Kong, Osaka, and Tokyo, eventually landing back in Europe for a gig in London.


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