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Is Chicago the most Chinese of world orchestras?

Our Shanghai correspondent Rudolph Tang has been studying the makeup of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, ahead of its visit to his country. Here is an English version of his report for local media. Vienna Philharmonic members, please read with care.

Musicians either of Chinese origin or of Chinese descendants prevail in the world of orchestras. There are strong or notable presence of them in Zurich Opera Orchestra, New York Phil, Munich Phil, Bavarian Radio SO, Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester, LA Phil, SFS etc. But none can match the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Out of the 12 Chinese musicians in the CSO, 11 will appear in the forthcoming China tour at the end of this month, led by Robert Chen, the concertmaster. In China, Taiwanese are also considered Chinese. To them, it’s a trip home.

Nine musicians work in the string section, one in the woodwind, one in the percussion. Students from the east excel at strings, as violinist Rong-Yan Tang noted, they are able to endure hardship. Ms Tang, a protegee of Isaac Stern when she played in a summer camp after going abroad in 1993, joined CSO in 2003.


She and Ms Yuan-Qing Yu shared the same tutor while studying at the middle school affiliated to the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. A few years senior, Ms Yu joined CSO in 1995 and now is the assistant concertmaster.

Mr Chang Li-kuo is undoutedly the most senior of all. He was appointed assistant principal viola by Sir Georg Solti in 1988. He has been a father figure to many Chinese orchestra musicians abroad. A close friend of Daniel Barenboim, he facilitated the Chinese biography of Daniel Barenboim published a decade ago. He also toured with West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with Daniel to China two years ago as a special consultant.

chang (1)

The peak of Mr Chang’s career in China came in 2009 with CSO’s China tour in 2009 with Bernard Haitink. He wrote a public letter to the then mayor of Shanghai, Mr Han Zheng, praising the good audience behaviour. The mayor blessed him with a return letter. Together they appeared on the local newspaper.That brought Mr Chang instant fame reaching far beyong the music world.

Ms Weijing Wang, the viola player, joined CSO in July 2012. She vividly recalls her curtain audition. Most of the contestants after the second round were Asian. She was lucky enough to be accepted into the orchestra. “This will be my first trip to China after I came to the US for further study in 2004″, she said:”My parents live in Shanghai. They bought 18 tickets, some for friends. They will come and cheer me up at Shanghai Oriental Arts Centre. I can’t wait to see them.”


The 2013 CSO China tour will cover Shanghai, Beijing and Tianjin. After the tour some Chinese musicians will go home to celebrate the Chinese New Year which falls on February 9th. Welcome home!

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  1. ruben greenberg says:

    We should all welcome the globalisation of Western Classical music. Protectionism has no place in the world of culture. Classical music is also strongly catching on in Latin Ameria. Countries like Colombia and Costa Rica have first-rate orchestras, which wasn’t the case in the past. In addition to this, their musicians play with tremendous gusto; something that is often lost in our European countries.

  2. Vienna Resident says:

    I wonder how the Chinese would feel if Europeans/Americans were to learn to play the traditional Chinese music and then perform it worldwide as the “authentic” way of playing it?

    • Vienna Resident,

      I think they would quite welcome it. Are you implying that there is an inherently “unauthentic” or “Chinese” way of playing classical music?

      • Vienna Resident says:

        Music of any society is a product of the cultural values, traditions and history of that particular country. One can certainly attempt to learn to play well, but hardly become a recognized authority of that field. Having lived many years in Asia, North America and Europe, I was immersed in the cultural differences and approach to music of these societies. I agree that the Chinese would most likely welcome it if their music would be appreciated more in the Western world.

        • Well then shame for all those Americans, Armenians, Spaniards… etc who would try to even interpret Beethoven adequately! After all, their cultures are so far removed from 19th Century Vienna that by your measure, their performances will never measure up to a full-blooded Austrian who by virtue of their blood have an automatic advantage!

          I suppose you outright reject interpretations by artists like Zubin Mehta and Seiji Ozawa based on their ethnicity.

          I’m personally a product of a mix of cultures, and was exposed to hearing Mozart and Beethoven at home at a very young age. Neither of my parents are musicians. The music I heard nonetheless moved me, inspired me, made me cry, made me laugh, and became such a part of me that I just about had no choice but to become a classical musician. Your telling me that this music which has become an integral part of my life being not authentic offends and saddens me greatly.

    • Nosey Parker says:

      @Vienna Resident: It would depend on how well they did it, no?

  3. “as violinist Rong-Yan Tang noted, they are able to endure hardship.”
    To be honest, I find that offensive. Classical music was developed in Europe over hundreds of years. We can’t be such weaklings as to have done that. Furthermore, if you notice, all of these Far Eastern musicians want to play the violin and nothing else. Take your list of 12 musicians in the Chicago Symphony – and only one in the winds and one in the percussion!
    This is a skewed appreciation of the depth of European classical music, which depends on the full orchestra. I can’t help feeling that they’re attracted by the glamor of the violin, without a real appreciation of its full extent.

  4. “Mr Chang Li-kuo is undoutedly the most senior of all. He was appointed assistant principal viola by Sir Georg Solti in 1988.”

    Only in 1988? If you think about it, that’s actually really bad for a country which has had large numbers of immigrants from East Asia since the mid-19th century. Many of which build large parts of its infrastructure, often under slave-like conditions. Of course, “immigrants” may not be the best term to use since actual immigration of Asians into the US was severely restricted on racial grounds for many decades. Few Chinese women were allowed in, after all, the Chinese were supposed to work, and then hopefully go back where they came from, not settle down and reproduce! But even those of their children who were born in the US could not become citizens for a long time since they had not been born “free and white”.

    People born in China could not become US citizens until 1943 (!), those born in Japan not until 1952 (!!). We all know about the treatment of Japanese, both “enemy aliens” and those who actually were US citizens (by birth, not by naturalization) during WWII. But the other facts are not widely known.
    So there is a lot of unprocessed and generally undiscussed historical background here.

    I think this is an excellent opportunity to prove those wrong who have recently alleged that this blog and many of its participants have a strong anti-German/Austrian bias and discuss this complex and important subject for a change. I look forward in particular to Mr Osborne’s (who is American) erudite comments and detailed statistics about this subject.

    • Michael Endres says:

      “So there is a lot of unprocessed and generally undiscussed historical background here.”

      I recently pointed out with a link to a reputable source ( not an anonymous blogger ) about the extremely low numbers regarding black classical musicians in US orchestras.
      Apart from being insulted for making “crude” and “misappropriate” comments by Mr. Osborne,who–quelle surprise- for once did not come up with any figures , there was no discussion following

      It didn’t follow the gospel,and neither does the treatment of Asians pre 1950 in the US.
      A far nicer and heart warming story is that the CSO now has 11 Asian players. That proves that the US
      is doing fine ,isn’t it ? So lets go back to the VPO then….


  5. hastosingit says:

    The reason there are 12 chinese players in the CSO is that they have good schooling, they have learned starting at a young age musical theory, solfege, dictate, all techical books and notions that some children in USA don t know even after musical college.
    I am not chinese, but I am one of the players from the ” eastern block” and I share the same type of music education as my chinese collegues, which is so important for an accomplished player.
    The chinese string education is the result of the jewish musicians emigrating from Russia or Poland to Shanghai, between the 2 WW, when they didn t have the funds or the family to help them get to America. In Shanghai they formed a great orchestra, they had students who studied thereafter in Moscow and who returned to China where the level got better and better . There is no myth about it, just pure proper training.
    It is a pity that musical education in USA and notably in cities like Chicago lacks funding and consideration.There are a lot of talented children around who could become future CSO players, but that won t happen as long as there are no music schools.

  6. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    One could argue that everyone in the Chicago Symphony (and other top ranking ensembles world-wide) had the talent, the education, the opportunity, and yes even the luck, to reach their coveted chair. I would argue that this is no more or less true for the musicans of Chinese or any other origin in that orchestra. And perhaps some of them had their final musical education in some of the great conservatories outside of China, especially those in the USA and perhaps a few are even American-born of Chinese parents. That the Chicago Symphony has a diverse membership is a credit to that organization and their audition process.

    The point about the diminishing musical opportunities in public and private schools of major American cities is well-taken but i think that China is not yet in a position to give lessons to other countries concerning the equality, the quality, and the quantity of opportunities for performing artists.

  7. There is insufficient sense to a person in China tabulating a Vienna organization for alleged racist practices. What are they going to say, “We know you are hiring your own people for your own orchestra?” This is approaching absurd levels.

    As if China has a record in any way reasonable about basic human rights, or the political policies that adequately consider important international concerns, things a lot more important than orchestras. China is now by far the main gross air polluter on Earth, especially since it committed to another 475 coal-burning power plants about five years ago, but since America has borrowed so much money from them they are calling the editorial shots within American news reporting. We used to see graphs in the paper all the time; these showed the US and China neck-and-neck in gross polluting; now that we owe them money, we see no more graphs, and this is completely consistent with Chinese preferences concerning “statistics.” Just in time for the Chinese to surpass all other polluters. (The official Chinese policy is to hold responsibility according to per capita pollution; therefore, it points its finger at the US as the worst. But gross levels are gross levels and those are what are affecting Mother Earth.)

    It is especially odious for such criticism to be coming from China, where the government closely regulates what it calls “statistics.” The Chinese government received a major shock some decades ago, when it allowed the US to take its census; they found that from statistics alone, it could be determined what people in different regions of the country were eating, including each other, so, after an embarrassment like that, no more free use of “statistics” in China. Now statistics are being used to condemn Western orchestras? The “justice” here is quite underwhelming.

    Saying Chinese musicians “prevail” sounds a lot like saying “we’re coming to your town, get out of our way.” It is another kind of attack on people having the kind of club they want to have.

    How much sense can it be thought to make to say “You don’t want us there because we’re different,” when that is precisely the point of an organization created out of its social community? This is an unreasonable attack on a group of people going about quite normal civilized activities.

    Such attacks are crude and rude, and it is completely out of line to say someone is “xenophobic” or “racist” because they want their group to reflect their community.

    Within decades of being called to the moral carpet for eating each other, the Chinese now “prevail” in Classical performance? Again, there is altogether too little concern here for larger community.

    In fact, the call for more Chinese musicians is racist.

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