Chinese conductor Long Yu sees new bridges with West

NEW YORK (AFP) - China's leading conductor, Long Yu, has set a goal of expanding his orchestra's exposure to the world. But as he spends time in the West, he has also found another mission - showcasing the diversity of Chinese music.

"People know very little about Chinese music, actually, even people who talk a lot about the elements that Debussy used from the Far East," Yu said before conducting his premiere subscription series with the New York Philharmonic.

"Most people see what happens as like a Chinatown culture," exotic and compartmentalised, he said.

Yu on Feb 24 will return to the New York Philharmonic to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The concert will feature Yo-Yo Ma on cello for the first US performance of modern Chinese composer Zhao Lin's Duo, which also highlights the sheng - a bamboo reed instrument common in Chinese operas.

Yu, who is music director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, said he hoped to shine a greater spotlight both on contemporary Chinese composers and the music of the country's large minority populations.

"I want to give people a discovery tour of the musical life of China," Yu said.

Yu, who has led Chinese New Year concerts in New York since the annual galas started in 2012, has put a top priority on raising the international profile of his orchestra and of Chinese musicians.

He last year led the Beijing-based China Philharmonic Orchestra in its debut at the BBC Proms at Royal Albert Hall and recently was honoured by France as a Chevalier dans L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

In September, an inaugural class of 22 young Chinese musicians began training with New York Philharmonic performers in an initiative called the Shanghai Orchestra Academy.

Yu, who last year turned 50, said he wanted his legacy to include education of Chinese musicians who often did not have the resources to train overseas or even to see top-quality performances.

"If we can give them a chance to study with top musicians in the world, particularly from the New York Philharmonic, it is a luxury and a service to the young generation," he said.

In one key difference from most Western conservatories, Yu's initiative trains musicians for careers in orchestras rather than honing soloists' skills.

Yu, however, played down cultural differences between Chinese and Western musicians, saying that the main gap was in training.

But one key divergence lies in history. While Western-style classical music has enjoyed a following in China for more than a century, the Cultural Revolution starting in the 1960s sought to eradicate any art not seen as extolling the communist system.

Yu - whose grandfather, Ding Shande, was a prominent composer who died in 1955 - felt the Cultural Revolution first-hand as a child.

"For almost eight or 10 years, we could not in public openly discuss doing classical music. It was quite a difficult time. Our whole classical music life really started 30 years ago," he said.

A tall man with a sturdy build, Yu offered a vigorous but firm lead to the New York Philharmonic for Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. The audience, however, was most enraptured by violin soloist Maxim Vengerov whose intense performance was his first at the Philharmonic in more than eight years.

For the subscription debut that closed Saturday, Yu also conducted the Philharmonic in the Fifth Symphony of Shostakovich - a composer well-acquainted with the struggles of navigating communist politics.

Yu himself has pushed the envelope on political boundaries. He helped bring to mainland China the National Symphony of Taiwan - which Beijing considers a renegade province - and conducted the China Philharmonic in Rome in a performance attended by then pope Benedict XIV, even though Beijing has no diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

With much talk in the West about how China will rise, Yu believes that, in music, his country will have a major presence.

"Probably in the future, China will become one of the largest classical music markets," he said.