Twelve tiny violinists marched on stage to entertain visitors from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. They were obviously rising stars in the musical constellation because at 9 or 10 they were already enrolled at the Shanaghai Conservatory, the Juilliard of the Orient. Boys put how to string, and the girls, fiddles under their arms, burst into song: Do, a dear, a femal deer. Re, a drop of golden sun. Mi, a name I call myself. Fa, a long, long way to run ...
A very long way indeed. After China's 30-year blackout on American movies, and decades without Western song of any sort, sounds of the West are making a welcome return. The familiar tune based on the musical scale is already a hit among children. And the precocious students at the conservatory turned the ditty into a marvelous set of variations that they executed with awesome precision.
And this is the music school virtually shuttered until two years ago by the Cultural Revolution. Professors literally buried their collections of foreign music to protect it from Red Guards. No new students were admitted for a decade and such recitals as were permitted served up grim fare of revolutionary junk music.
If the swift comeback here is any sort of guide to the rest of Deng Xiaoping's (Teng Hsiao-ping's) plans for modernizing China, the world should be on notice: Seiji Ozawa, the Boston conductor, predicted after auditioning young Chinese here and in Peking's even bigger conservatory that they'll be winning world music competitions within five years. One 11-year-old cellist in training in the Shanghai Conservatory's primary school (there's also a high school in addition to the college-level main school) was pronounced by Ozawa to be a world-class performer already.
Ozawa brought his orchestra here for a concert series celebrating the inauguration of diplomatic relations between China and the United States. Other orchestras have performed in China before, including the Philadelphia and Vienna in 1973, but this tour broke precedent by matching formal concerts (one in Shanghai and three in Peking) with extensive teaching of Chinese musicians and students.
The 103-member orchestra spent one afternoon auditioning the various departments that make up this conservatory of 163 students and 370 faculty. The next afternoon the orchestra's principal players conducted master classes on each instrument.
Ozawa himself rehearsed the Shanghai and Peking orchestras, coaching them unreservedly with a mixture of lecture (through an interpreter) and vigorous pantomine. Chinese music is so personal and delicate that he found it hard to get the fullness of sound and force of expression required for, say, Beethoven, out of Chinese musicians. So when the Shanghai Philharmonic produced a limp version of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony (the powerful "Pathetique"), Ozawa popped out his belly and pounded it with his fists to convey the fullness he wanted.
Ozawa doubts if the music of China will seriously affect the new music of the West. For one thing, "Chinese music is so personal -- it's just not an international language. Take the sound of the erh-hu (a two-stringed instrument with a little box for a sounding board and an almost nassal tone). The erh-hu is like crying to yourself down by a river. You don't think of crying to yourself with a piano."
For another, practically a generation of creative talent has been lost to the recent turmoil. There aren't composers and conductors to find a new direction.
More profound Oriental impact in Ozawa's view will come from the influx of talent from China. "The best students in Shanghai and Peking are as good as any students at Juilliard or the Paris Conservatory," he said.
But, in the meantime, Chinese ears are definitely cocked westward. The background music in Shanghai Airport's departure lounge included, appropriately enough, "Auld Lang Syne." And the only number rating two different versions during an hour of music on a Peking radio the other night turned cut to be none other than "Do Re Mi." Rodgers and Hammerstein truly have China humming.