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Exclusive: How Yundi’s superbrand is recharging China’s piano fever

Haylie Ecker, a London-trained violinist who played in the Bond quartet, has just got caught up in Yundi Li’s China Dream tour. Here is her report, front and back stage, exclusive to Slipped Disc. 
Diagnosed as ‘Piano Fever’, taking China by storm, over 40 million Chinese children are learning to play the piano. Some suspect the number is as high as 80 million. Professor Liang Maochun of Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music says, “The ‘fever’ is not just hitting Hong Kong, Beijing or Shanghai, it’s even in smaller cities and towns. Families who can afford a piano will buy one.”
The two big cats, Lang Lang and Yundi, are rock stars to the Chinese youth, giving the piano a properly hip and aspirational image. Lang Lang boasts lucrative endorsements for Adidas shoes and has branded his own line of Lang Lang Steinway baby grand pianos. Sichuan-born Yundi advertises for Rolex, collaborates with pop stars, and is the “image ambassador” to Super Boys – China’s answer to Pop Idol with a viewership of around one billion. Yundi says, “They want to hold me up as an example of what Chinese children can achieve, so I play for them, to show that the dream is not so far off. With talent and hard work, your dream can come true. “
Last night, Yundi performed his CHINA Dream Tour concert at HK Cultural Centre’s Concert Hall. The concert was sponsored by the new coconut water drink JAX COCO, a fashionable brand who also sponsor the likes of Elton John and Ibiza’s iconic Pacha. We arrived at the venue an hour before Yundi’s concert for an exclusive JAX COCO cocktail party, for highly ranked Chinese Government Officials and Chinese A-List movie stars. It was supremely difficult to get through the crowds.

The entire HK Cultural Centre’s foyer space, staircases included, was heaving with Chinese mainland families. The atmosphere was tangibly thick with excitement. From collective chattering of which I was only able to decipher buzz words like “Yundi” and “Jax Coco” thick with Chinese accent, to mayhem for hundreds of people to get a photo next to one of many billboard size images of Yundi in the foyer spaces?! It was pure craziness. I looked at my husband…. we were first-hand experiencing “piano fever” and it was electric!
Yundi’s CHINA DREAM is also sponsored by YMCA China, raising money for his home province of Sichuan, which has experienced multiple natural disasters since 2008. The money raised by donation ticket-sales from Yundi’s concert provide funds for work in Sichuan. No less impressively, donations from “CHINA DREAM’ provided hundreds of free tickets to low-income families who were able to enjoy the performance of a world-class musician, encouraging these children not to give up pursuing their ideals due to financial difficulties. This altruistic endeavour created a vibe in the hall that I find hard to put into words. I felt like we were a part of a very special night with a performance that reached straight to the core. From the moment Yundi walked on to stage, he was awe-inspiring. And I felt like life memories were being made, never to be forgotten. I looked around and thought, I wouldn’t be surprised if the next Yundi or Lang Lang was sitting metres from me.
Yundi’s repertoire was highbrow and his whole being was serious. He played a few Chopin Polonaises and three Beethoven Sonatas: The Appassionata, The Moonlight, and The Pathetique. We first saw him walk on stage with a regal gate only stopping at his Steinway to solemnly look at his audience with a piercing gaze, to then sit at a lone piano on a huge empty stage surrounded by 2019 seats, to then play the most pure, unaffected and polished interpretations. There was no unnecessary flicking of the hair or swaying gestures at his stool. He was technically glistening perfection with interpretations so rich in depth I drifted off to another world. It was a performance we in The Western World would assume to be inaccessible to the masses, but Yundi walked off stage to the most rapturous applause I’d imagine Liszt would’ve received in a bygone era. The icing on top of the cake came later…. After briefly chatting to him backstage, he along with his parents, humbly slipped into a stealth blacked-out people-carrier hidden away indoors, and as the garage doors opened, we could hear screaming fans of children more One Direction than classical. It was all around exciting music to my ears.
yundi haylieyundi haylie2Having spent a decade in Bond pondering, “Where is the future of classical music?” after last night, I think it’s in China. I atmospherically tapped into what felt like a ferocious hunger for culture. The audience was more youth than aged, and they appeared to be hanging off of Yundi’s every musical turn of phrase. It was what I’ve read about as “Piano Fever” and it was contagious! Except it’s supposed to be his CHINA DREAM tour.
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  1. Rgiarola says:

    I won’t consider any artistic perspective on my comment, but just market perspectives. China seems to be an interesting lab to western world, since classical music is there for some time and more recently conducted with approach such L2 and this one by Yundi. On the other hand, Pop/rock artists started to arrive in China at least frequently just after 2010 with Dylan, Eagles, A. Lavigne, Linkin Park, Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Roger Waters, Deep Purple, Sonic Youth, Usher, Beyonce, Norah Jones, and the Black Eyed Peas ( Please, Don’t remind me about some exception such Jean Michael Jarre on 1982 – I’m not talking about exceptions) . Nevertheless even stars like U2, Coldplay and Lady Gaga weren’t there yet. There is a huge chance that classical music won’t be considered by young audiences as something for old, gallant, rich and maybe snob people, because since the beginning the edge of the behavior between it and other musical genres won’t look like so big.

  2. This is clearly a PR article. Insincere, uncritical, completely one-sided and doesn’t tell us anything more than what the organisers and related parties wanted to make us believe. Very disappointed by Ms Ecker.

    • Nothing to do with PR. It’s a sincere artist’s personal response the the experience.

    • Elizabeth Day says:

      I’m sorry, I can’t take your comment seriously ConorG as you clearly haven’t been able to read the piece in its’ entirety. When you do (or indeed, if you are able to) you will find a deeply empathetic and lovely writer engaging and resonding with the music she is listening to, expressing enthusiasm about bringing it to a wider audience and making the truly interesting point that the future of classical music could like in China. I’m not sure what more you could want from an article!
      I think there is a general misconception that all journalistic features must be entirely objective and uncritical, but that’s only the case if you’re reporting a piece of news not if, like Ms Ecker, you are sharing an opinion and making a traditionally high-brow topic accessible for the general reader.
      I really enjoyed this piece and look forward to reading more on the topic.

    • Not all review articles have to be critical. Obviously Haylie felt it was an inspirational experience.
      Some reviewers make criticisms even when there’s none to be made or only very minor issues to be noted; some reviewers criticise as an exercise to make themselves sound more superior or knowledgeable. Does it make ConorG feel even more superior because he’s a critic of a reviewer?!
      After all, a review is only a personal opinion no matter how objective one tries to make it sound. And only someone w Haylie’s beautiful personality would be able to see and convey the positive experience for what it was.
      From what I hear from others who were there, it was sensational, moving and memorable event. So well done Yundi, for what you do, and Haylie, for reviewing it as what it was. We need more positive feedback to encourage ventures like these!

  3. Whilst it might be clear to one that this is a “PR article” it is not I. My interpretation was a fun piece that brought to my attention for the first time Yundi. As an outsider to the music world I read this and could feel Haylie’s enthusiasm for both the music and it’s broader meaning to the world of music.

    I say the musically minded children of the future are going to prosper with such vibrant role models as Yundi and Haylie.

    I look forward to being enlightened more via future articles.

  4. Hey Connor! Please call me Haylie:). Just for the record, I’m by no way affiliated with any of the sponsors or organisations responsible for arranging Yundi’s concert. And I’m definitely not in PR:)). This concert, with all its hundreds of free tickets given to underprivileged families with musically gifted children, would not have been possible without the sponsors mentioned. This also includes the pianist Yundi, who played for no fee. That’s awesome, no? I think this truly captures the true essence of what music is about, don’t you? Spreading the love! xxx

    • @stevogodsell haylie is a straight forward person … and btw wonderful musician … she says what she feels. i liked her writing and whilst supportive of an artist she admires, i didn’t feel it was PR … just genuinely enthusiastic. :)

    • Allegretta says:

      Thanks a lot Haylie. I can really feel your sincerity and enthusiasm. It’s encouraging reading your article, especially when you think that the mass media in China is NOT that friendly to Yundi these days. Some Chinese crititics in classical music just cannot bear to see anything positive about Yundi, and here in the comment above someone just showed the hositility.

  5. Thank you, Haylie! It’s great to hear stories like this. I particularly like the fact that highly-ranked government officials and A-list movie stars were in the same audience as 100s of low-income families. I think we should also heed the message that great music is accessible to all. As Marcel Proust wrote: ” Music is perhaps the sole example of what might have been … the communication of souls.”

  6. Porscha Fermanis says:

    It’s a sad world we live in when genuine enthusiasm is presumed to be PR hype! Quite apart from anything else, this article has a serious message about the future of classical music for a generation raised on spotify and iTunes. It also raises the interesting possibility that one of the world’s biggest consumer markets might save classical music from its current crisis. If what it takes is endorsements by Adidas and Jax Coco then so be it! Isn’t elitism, or at least perceived elitism, one of the things that classical music must shed to survive?

  7. Farizeh Salahuddin says:

    Your article makes me want to join the piano fever.

  8. I think Haylie’s action is remarkable. Using her talent and connections to promote classical musique, real and passionate artists, all that for a charitable cause is just amazing. Well done Haylie and please continue to spread your love classical musique. A

  9. Jane Hsiung says:

    I’m Yundi’s fan from China, a 21-year-old junior majoring in accounting.
    Thanks for Haylie’s report, I can imagine how exciting it was.
    And thanks Yundi a lot. It’s Yundi who shows me the charm of classical music and makes me fall in love with it. Classical music replace the Pop songs in my ipod, I buy CDs and go to concert hall to enjoy music once or twice per month, I learn history of Western Music form books and watch Yale’s open course “Listening to Music” by Professor Craig Wright on the web. Yundi changes my life!
    The same things happen in many youth here, we are crazy about his wonderful performance, lots of girls and boys even begin to learn piano!
    My mum bought me a violin as a gift for my 19th birthday, I used to spend a hour per day on practicing, but now it’s more than two hours. This is also because of Yundi : )

  10. I’m a new fan of Yundi.
    This world is good but incomplete. Only Yundi’s music can make me feel peaceful.
    Yundi shows me the charm of classical music and makes me fall in love with it.

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