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In China, he builds bridges with music

Yu Long, conductor of the China Philharmonic Orchestra, reaches across an old cultural divide.

By Nancy PellegriniContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / May 16, 2008

Diplomat: Yu Long, conductor of China Philharmonic Orchestra, played this month for Pope Benedict XVI.

courtesy of beijing music festival arts foundation

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Beijing

The New York Philharmonic may have played Pyongyang, but they're not the only ones using the tip of the orchestra to break diplomatic ice. On May 7, Conductor Yu Long and the China Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO) traveled to Vatican City to play a special concert for Pope Benedict XVI, signaling a thaw in the frosty relations that have prevailed since the Holy See broke relations with China in 1951, two years after the Communist takeover.

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Maestro Yu, founder of the CPO and the Beijing Music Festival (BMF) and essentially a one-man epicenter of China's classical music scene, has long blurred the line between politics and religion. For Mozart's 250th birthday in 2006, Yu organized the first public concert in a Chinese cathedral; in the same venue a year later, he played Mozart's "Requiem," arguably the most religious work ever written. Yu is quick to deny any political obstacles, but observers applauded the nod toward the "spiritual side" of music.

Cynics may say this tour is an attempt to deflect recent worldwide protests against China and assuage Chinese nationalism. While both Vati­can and Chinese authorities refuse to comment on the scheduling specifics, Yu feels the event speaks for itself. He spoke to the Monitor about the tour and what it means. Some excerpts:

You say this is more important than the New York Philharmonic going to North Korea. Why?

Until last month, the United States and North Korea hadn't had an official relationship for 50 years. China hasn't had any official contact with the Vatican for over 50 years either, and now we've broken the ice. It's not about politics, but it shows both sides are communicating. And it shows the openness of China.

How does it show China's openness?

We're performing there, isn't that enough? The second thing is that the program is the Mozart "Requiem," a religious piece that really suits the atmosphere. Everyone loves Mozart's music, and the Pope himself is a Mozart expert. But the point of this tour [which also presented Chinese music, including the folk song "Jasmine Flower"] is also to show that Chinese orchestras, Chinese musicians, and many Chinese people understand world culture and have very high standards. That's important. I think a lot of Western people see only one side of China.

How much is Western classical music a part of everyday life in China?

China is very active in classical music, and the young people are thirsty to learn international culture, which is good. China's only been open for 30 years, and there have been a lot of changes, especially for my generation. We were born in the '60s, we grew up in the '70s, we went abroad in the '80s, and came back in the '90s. But I don't think we [merely] took Western culture back, we took the best culture, from East and West. People on the Internet talk about too much Western cultural influence in China, but I don't take it as Western culture or Eastern culture: Culture belongs to the world.

When you choose pieces for the CPO or BMF, are you ever concerned about audience reactions to your choices?

I don't care. Someone has to be a guide to show people the best music, and if I were worried about pleasing everyone, I would never find my way out. We are responsible for the next generation; if the only thing Chinese are concerned about is economic development, that's a problem for the future. We need to care about cultural development, too.

Why did you hold both Mozart concerts in the Wangfujing Cathedral?

Why not? Mozart's "Requiem" suits a church much better than a theater, and a memorial for Mozart's 250th birthday made more sense in a church. I didn't see any reason why we couldn't do a memorial concert in a church, and no one challenged me. I'm not a Catholic, I'm not a Communist – I'm a musician.

China has been portrayed negatively in the international press lately because of the Tibet protests. Do you think this concert will help change the world's impression of China?

At the very least, it's a strong message that the China Philharmonic Orchestra is allowed to play in the Vatican, and that the Vatican is allowing us to play there: It shows both sides have an open attitude. As a leader of an orchestra, it's a great honor to give a concert for the Holy Father, especially the Mozart "Requiem." Music is a language without boundaries of culture or religion. It can help us understand each other, and, I hope, send a message of peace and love.

What's next? Can anything top this?

No one can say they've done everything, not even Toscanini or von Karajan. I'm not a politician, I'm a musician. But I hope anything that I did or what I'm going to do can help society, especially the next generation. Everyone has a duty to work toward an ideal. I hope this concert can make a historic mark on both sides.

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