An Interview with Jiatong Wu
In 2005, Simon Rattle went on a tour of East Asia with the Berlin Philharmonic and predicted that the future of classical music was in China. It remained unclear exactly what kind of future he had in mind. Was he most impressed by the huge market for CDs and merchandise, an unprecedented number of potential young listeners, the compositional talent, the opportunity to build up a lively musical culture? In any case, his prophecy caused a shudder of disbelief in Europe and North America. Exaggeration, paranoia and exoticism have mixed to create a strange, distorted view of classical music in China: 50 million Lang Langs are coming for our conservatory spots! “We all know the Chinese can imitate better than anybody else, they will be able to make a car as good as BMW and Volkswagen but cheaper,” Daniel Barenboim has said. “It’s better to send the Berlin Philharmonic to play Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 because [that is something] they can’t imitate. Neither the Beethoven nor the orchestra.”
In the meantime, Western orchestras routinely tour in China, and increasing numbers of Chinese orchestras and artists are coming to the West. Jiatong Wu has helped facilitate these exchanges since 1991, when he and his father founded the first private Chinese performing arts presenting agency. He has brought many European orchestras, opera, ballet and theater companies to China, and vice versa.
Recently, I met Wu at a chic rooftop bar in Berlin, overlooking the zoo. He had just arrived, from Athens, where the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe had given a guest performance. “It was amazing—Kunqu is totally unfamiliar to the Greeks, and there was no pre-concert talk, no speaker, nothing except the subtitles,” he told me. “But the people understood it anyway. Even though, on stage, there was just one table, two chairs and two performers.” Wu studied in Munich and Vienna and speaks fluent German with the inflection of those southern capitals. He had a meeting with the Berlin Festival in the afternoon and was flying to Beijing the same evening. Below the bar, Jiao Qing and Meng Meng, Berlin’s latest panda diplomacy acquisitions, projected Chinese soft power. Wu ordered a glass of white wine.
VAN: You founded your agency in 1991. It seems to me that Western orchestras have only really started touring in China over the last 10 years, do you think that’s true?
Jiatong Wu: Yes, that’s because private citizens have only been allowed to conduct international exchanges since 2005. You used to need to buy a license and find a government agency you could work with, even to apply for permission for the performance with the Culture Ministry. It was expensive, and there were so many regulations that your hands and feet were basically tied. Besides, at that time, there wasn’t really a classical music scene in China. In 1991 there was only one classical music venue in Beijing, the Concert Hall. They put on 10 concerts per year. If you wanted to rent the hall, you had to pay a ton of money for the cleaning people first, because everything was so dusty [laughs].
Are you able to hire whoever you want now, or are there still restrictions?
You still need permission, but it’s usually not a problem, especially for classical music. There was a situation with Björk—she sang “Free Tibet” as an encore at one concert. CNN and the BBC were filming, she got a ton of free publicity out of it, but what happened next? It was capricious and irresponsible, and that can be deadly for a promoter. Luckily I haven’t been put in that position yet [laughs].
What about theater? In the last two years you’ve been bringing productions from the Theatertreffen in Berlin, which are often political and provocative.
Well, we do have to translate the scripts into Chinese and hand them in. But as long as they’re not shouting “Down with the Communists” or something, it’s fine. By bringing those pieces, we want to show Chinese directors what theater is like in Germany. Germany has 400 new productions a year. We have little new theater, and the work that is done hardly reflects on our society, our history. But theater is supposed to make us think. This year we brought a production from Karlsruhe about the ways that theater companies collaborated with the Nazis. We could learn a lot from the Germans about how to reflect on our own history. We tend to think, “Look to the future, not the past, it’s for the best,” which is simply wrong.
You mentioned that there was hardly a classical music scene in China in the early ‘90s. What is the scene like now?
We’re not quite as far as we’d like to be, but a lot has changed, definitely. We have the hardware—there are beautiful concert halls everywhere. But our leadership needs to realize that high culture costs money. Building a hall isn’t enough. It’s like saying to Mr. Barenboim, “Here you go, we renovated the Berlin State Opera for $500 million, now get to work.” In China, we have 70 orchestras, and all of their budgets combined are about as much as the Berlin Philharmonic’s. Not to say that we don’t spend money on culture—we do, and plenty of it. But there’s often a lack of knowledge about what’s good and what isn’t.
Can European orchestras make a profit by touring in China?
There are two ways. If you’re the Vienna Philharmonic or the Berlin Philharmonic, then the brand is strong enough to convince sponsors to get involved; advertising is easier, and you’ll get enough people coming who can pay $350 for a ticket. Or, you’re a no-name orchestra, and you play an accessible program, like film music, in second or third tier cities, and for super cheap. Then you can make money.
Do you need local fixers to fill the halls?
If you go on tour with Lang Lang or Yuja Wang it’s not a problem. The Warsaw Philharmonic was touring with Yundi Li, and the halls were sold out. But without a big name, it’s hard. Better to tour with someone like Anne-Sophie Mutter, Rudolf Buchbinder, Mischa Maisky…
Is it still true that German orchestras are expected to play the Austrian-German repertoire: Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms?
Horizons have expanded in the last several years. I always try to bring something new—especially when it’s a good orchestra. It’s good to challenge people.
What does “new” mean in this case?
Stravinsky, for example, which we did with Valery Gergiev in Shanghai. Valery asked me what kind of program I’d like, and I said, “Do something Russian, but something new.” He suggested Stravinsky. With names like the Mariinsky and Gergiev, the branding is strong enough that it flies.
How has your audience changed?
Our first tour was with a string quartet from Vienna. They played an arrangement of the “Radetzky March.” The audience was so thrilled, they freaked out. We also brought the Strauss Festival Orchestra to China many times, they’ve played over 100 concerts and started a national waltz craze.
Two or three years ago, a lady came up to me and said, “Mr. Wu, I’d like to give you something.” She pulled a concert ticket out of her bag, from 1996, with the Bruckner Orchester Linz. She told me that she had bought the ticket because she thought a Bruckner orchestra would play Bruckner. At the time, we’d had conversations: “Oh man, no one knows Bruckner here, if we do Bruckner Six or Seven, people are going to walk out.” At the time they played Mozart, I think, and a Bruckner overture. A shame, but there was no other way.
Can you play Bruckner today?
Yeah, today we could do an entire Bruckner cycle. We did the “Ring” in 2010 in Shanghai, with the opera from Cologne. We were worried then too: “Yikes, the ‘Ring’…we’re going to bring in 400 Germans and get 10 or 12 gigantic containers through customs? It won’t be worth it.” It was September in Shanghai, when the Expo happens, the city was packed and all the hotels were full, and we needed to reserve the hall for three weeks. It killed us. But in the end it was packed. I know officials who have no knowledge of classical music; they sat through 16 hours of the “Ring.” It was very impressive. The audience is really developing very quickly.
Who makes up these audiences?
I’d say it’s about 20 to 30 percent older people, 70 percent young people. I guess that’s because the over-60s, who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, had little education or opportunities to get to know the music. That generation simply got lost. People who are 50 now experienced the opening, but they’re busy making money, working for a better life. They don’t have time to go to concerts or the theater. My generation, people who are in their 40s now, was the first to get interested in classical music. My children will grow up with it. These days everyone gets a violin, every household owns a piano.
Who are the artists who still need to go to China?
It’s mostly older ones who’ve never been to China. Alfred Brendel, Sokolov, who doesn’t like to travel, Kissin…
Are there artists who committed faux pas in China and who people are reluctant to invite back?
Yes, sure. At one concert with Anne-Sophie Mutter in Shanghai, someone took a picture, with the flash on. She stopped playing and told him to leave. That didn’t go over well in China at all. A lot of people said that they understand the guy did something wrong, but stopping in the middle of a concert was not OK. The manager told me after the concert how relieved he was that the guy actually left. What would’ve happened if he’d refused?
That kind of thing happens often enough. When you go to China you have to be flexible. As a presenter, we try to prepare the audience for the concerts as best we can: we explain that you don’t clap in classical music, avoid talking or taking pictures. All the halls make announcements about behavior now. But there are always people who don’t listen, whether it’s their first time, they’re from the country…you just have to deal with it and be tolerant.
In soccer, clubs have started going to China in the summers for exhibition tours, which help them sell merchandise. These tours are not exactly popular with the players, who are jet lagged and wishing they were on vacation. Is there a similar mood with orchestral musicians?
26 years ago, most of the musicians were excited to get to know the country. China was an adventure. Now, many have already been multiple times, so it’s more about business. No one goes for a modest fee anymore. But I do think the people we invite enjoy coming.
What was the biggest organizational breakdown you’ve had?
This year we invited the Gürzenich-Orchester from Cologne, with the violinist Vilde Frang. She didn’t get her visa because there was political tension between Norway and China. A good number of tickets had been sold, everything was announced, the orchestra was about to board their flight. We had to call the ambassador and say, “Please, it’s not Vilde Frang’s fault.” Luckily, after involving the mayor, the embassy, and the Foreign Ministry, everything worked out. But it’s not always like that.
So when you have issues, they’re mostly political or diplomatic ones?
Yeah, visas are often an issue. You need to apply for one in your home country, but musicians often work internationally and they can’t always go home to apply for a visa. And then it’s a work visa, not a tourist visa, which makes the whole process harder. These things continue to give us headaches.
When musicians go on tour, they like to bring lists of requirements and needs with them. What are some of the vanities you’ve experienced from classical musicians?
That’s part of the job, too. Vengerov always wanted his fish salad. Buchbinder wants a J&B on ice after a concert, which is a totally legitimate request and adds to his charm.
Many people say that China is the future of classical music. Why do you think that is?
The future is in Europe. This is where the music is from and it’s not going to die. But in China a huge market has come up out of nothing, so many young people are growing up with classical music, and they’ll still like it in 30 years. It’s like an addiction, once you like it, then for life. I hope that China doesn’t close itself off again, that the exchange continues.
Still, people keep writing stories about classical music in China that worry about the millions of kids studying piano…
That’s true, but it applies to other areas as well. When China was a poor country, people would said that the Chinese were lazy. And now we’re an economic power, and people see us as a threat.
Are the stereotypes annoying?
Yeah, people talk about the “future of classical music” in China, but very few actually know what’s going on there. I’ll show you a picture [he gets out his smartphone]. This choir is from a village in Kunming, on the border to Myanmar. They’re farmers, they don’t go to school. But they’re singing Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy” in German. Why? 100 years ago, German missionaries came and started this tradition.
These stories need to be told. Beethoven would be so proud! Are we supposed to criticize them for imitating? As long as you realize how much work Chinese people put into something like that—it can be naive, even bad—but as long as they care, it’s legitimate and worth supporting.
I get the impression that when Chinese orchestras tour in Europe, they tend to receive negative reviews from local music critics, is that true?
Completely, but that’s normal. If a German Peking opera company went to Beijing, I wonder what the Chinese critics would write. “OK, almost as good as us” would probably be the best possible compliment. I think it’s important to value that Chinese people are taking a Western tradition and trying to do it well. Why can’t a Chinese orchestra—in which many of the musicians have studied in Europe, and work just as hard as everyone else—why shouldn’t they be able to play Beethoven or Brahms well? If a German doing Peking opera sings out of tune, should we complain about him, or rather say, “Great, why don’t you come to China, I’ll introduce you to a teacher?” Criticizing is too easy.
Might there be racism behind the criticism?
“Racism” might be going a bit too far, but some reviews are definitely unfair. Look: the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra was at the Lucerne Festival recently, they played Shostakovich Five, and they got standing ovations. It was a warm reception, very open-minded. I’d never claim that we play better than the Mariinsky or the Lucerne Festival Orchestra—you can’t compare the two. But the concert was completely sold out, and it was the first time in its 80-year history that a Chinese orchestra was invited to the Lucerne Festival. It’s not just about quality, it’s about the message: “Hi China, nice that you’re here.” Then I don’t care whether the critics are racist or not, whether the review is good or not.
Do you think Chinese orchestras will ever reach the same status in Europe as European groups?
I don’t think so. And vice versa: no matter how well you sing Peking opera, you’re never going to match the original [laughs]. But there will always be a dialogue.
It’s noticeable that, although there are very many talented, well-educated Asian musicians out there, few of them have become huge classical music stars.
Very few, yes.
Why do you think that is?
I think it has less to do with the West and more to do with the way we’re raised. Lang Lang and Yuja Wang are exceptions, they’re both extreme tough, with strong wills, and they fought their way through. The way Lang Lang was tormented—most people wouldn’t get through that and end up stronger. No matter how good you are technically, it ruins you psychologically. It’s inhuman. A child can’t develop normally when the father is beating him and forcing him to play the piano. It’s as wrong in China as it is in the West. Music should be played out of love. You know, I bought a piano for my son, and I told him, “Your dad is a classical music promoter. Try to learn a little bit from the masters. This is uncle Lang Lang, this is uncle Yundi Li, that is Uncle Buchbinder.” But it doesn’t give him joy, he doesn’t want to practice. Should I beat him, just so that he turns into Lang Lang Two? That’s no way to raise a kid. ¶