Harbin rejuvenates classical music heritage

Zubin Mehta (right) conducting the Harbin Symphony Orchestra during rehearsal in the Chinese city.
Zubin Mehta (right) conducting the Harbin Symphony Orchestra during rehearsal in the Chinese city. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

HARBIN, CHINA • In winter, tourists flock to Harbin, in north-eastern China, for its world-renowned ice sculpture festival. But with summer in full bloom, the city is working overtime on behalf of a less publicised part of its heritage: classical music.

The arts - and especially classical music - flourished here throughout the early 20th century.

Nicknamed the St Petersburg of the East, Harbin was home to a thriving Jewish community that helped build a rich cultural scene, including China's first symphony orchestra, made up of mostly Russian musicians.

"Harbin is a modern city that has a deep tradition of music," deputy mayor Liu Shifa said recently in an interview.

"We want to rejuvenate this tradition so we can bring it to the next level."

Last Saturday, the annual Harbin Summer Music Festival began its 33rd edition, which will continue until Aug 20.

This summer, the city has also hosted the third Alice & Eleonore Schoenfeld International String Competition and two concerts conducted by Zubin Mehta, featuring the Harbin Symphony Orchestra and 15 members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

The festival line-up includes a cappella group Ball In The House from Boston, the Kodaly Quartet from Hungary and the Yinhe Siqin Mongolia Original Music Band.

With President Xi Jinping having called for a "cultural renaissance", Harbin, like a number of other second- and third-tier cities around China, has poured hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years into cultural infrastructure projects.

In the past two years alone, it has unveiled a gleaming concert hall, a 79,000 sq m opera house and a US$116-million (S$156-million) conservatory built in a neoclassical style. Giant sculptures of Chinese classical instruments and statues of famous Western composers dot the 490,000 sq m Harbin Music Park, which opened in 2012.

Crucially, reviving Harbin's musical tradition has also meant strengthening its ties to the city's Jewish past. That is one facet of a larger effort to promote tourism and strengthen economic bonds with countries such as Israel.

City officials have a "vision of building a cultural bridge with Israel", said Mehta, the long-time music director of the Israel Philharmonic. "So I came as a catalyst between the two sides."

In the packed audience during one of the conductor's concerts was Mr Liu, along with a delegation of local government officials.

"Interest in the Harbin Jewish community has gone up tremendously," said Mr Dan Ben-Canaan, director of the Sino-Israel Research and Study Center at Heilongjiang University in Harbin.

"Fifteen years ago, there was zero interest and zero acknowledgment of the community."

The Harbin Museum of Music's director Miao Di said: "The Jewish community made huge contributions to the establishment of Harbin's musical tradition.

"So many of China's top classical musicians in the early 20th century trained in Harbin or studied under teachers trained in Harbin."

After the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in the 1930s, however, the city's Jewish population began to decline as Jews fled.

By the mid-1950s, after World War II and the victory of the Chinese Communist Party, only a few hundred Jews remained.

Yet even after the departure of most of the city's foreigners, Harbin continued to devote resources to classical music. It established the summer music festival in 1958.

In 2010, the United Nations recognised Harbin as a Music City. Today, it is still common to see local musicians and bands serenading crowds on the popular Zhongyang Pedestrian Street in the summer.

"There's a different attitude towards the high arts in Harbin," said Dr Cai Jindong, a Stanford professor and frequent guest conductor with Chinese orchestras. "Every city in China is trying to find its niche and it's clear that Harbin discovered its one early."

Still, there is a long road ahead before Harbin can be considered a world-class musical city.

Major issues need to be addressed, such as how to create consistent quality programming for the new concert hall and grand theatre and how to recruit world-class faculty and students for a new conservatory that is competing with other, more established ones.

It does not help that the pool of talented musicians in China is shrinking as more musicians choose to study and play abroad.

"Look at the American orchestras; they are full of excellent Chinese musicians," Mehta said. "My advice is to call these musicians to at least come back and teach."

At least one Chinese musician, Mr Xue Suli, has heeded that call. Several years ago, Mr Xue, a violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, decided to take advantage of the growing interest in classical music in Harbin, his hometown.

The government quickly agreed to his proposal to host the Alice & Eleonore Schoenfeld International String Competition. From last month, Harbin hosted the competition for the second consecutive year, with the government providing the venues and paying for some of the competition's costs.

"In China, when you get the government's support, it's very strong," said Mr Xue, who is the artistic director of the competition.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2016, with the headline 'Harbin rejuvenates classical music heritage'. Print Edition | Subscribe