June 16, 2010 / 9:16 AM / 9 years ago

Chinese conductor on past hurdles, future hopes

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Hoping to raise its profile, the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra last week named Chinese musician Muhai Tang as its chief conductor for the 2010-11 season.

In an interview Tang, who also serves as the artistic director of the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra and Zurich Chamber Orchestra, as well as first guest conductor at Hamburg Symphony Orchestra, discusses how the Cultural Revolution played a role in his musical career, the obstacles he faced early on as a Chinese conductor and the future for Chinese composers.

Q. Belgrade is not the center of world music and as a city is still outside the music mainstream. You have conducted orchestras in Berlin, in Helsinki, in Queensland (Australia) and Zurich. Why then did you choose Belgrade?

A. “It is my general character, it is also my philosophy: I would like to contact totally different people, totally different cultures....

I never play my music only for the elegant people, they are highly educated. Music really should go to street workers ....important is whether my music can touch normal people’s hearts, it doesn’t matter where.

You can work with a world famous orchestra, but if they don’t give you everything, they are lazy, or they are thinking you are Chinese, come on, how can a Chinese teach us?...I don’t feel I am the happiest, even if I am at a world famous place.”

Q. Have you faced instances when people say ‘You are Chinese, what do you know about Western classical music?’

A. “Of course, as I was very young starting in Europe, I came just with a scholarship...just a young Chinese and I had to start everything myself. Even after I finished my study and conducted the Berlin Philharmonic...you could feel these musicians just say, ‘oh, we are helping a young Chinese.’”

Q. You grew up in difficult times in China. What impact did that have on the way you approach music and the way you approach conducting?

A. “I just loved music and I started to compose. For me, until 20 years old, the most important thing was composing, because they can leave something for history, some paper, and I didn’t like interpreters, because I felt that they are stupid. I was young then.... But during the Cultural Revolution, many, many conductors could not conduct. They were mostly criticized by our government or Red Guards or whatever. They had big political problems. Then I had to jump for certain conducting, to lead an orchestra in the conservatory.”

Q. Do you still compose?

A. “Unfortunately there is no time anymore. I am so busy, just not enough time. And I don’t want to lose my life like Mahler, conducting, composing, and finally dying.”

Q. If Beethoven was the greatest composer of the 19th century and Stravinsky of the 20th century, who fills that role in the 21st century?

A. “That’s more difficult to say. We have to see not only one or two pieces any more, we have to see a complete life from them. I hope even a Chinese composer can win that glory. I see already in that some hope....I say why Chinese? Because first I am a Chinese and I am proud of that and secondly in this earth every five people speak Chinese and the Chinese (had) so many tragedies in their lives...and the hardest life and the tragedy make great art.”

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