Maestro Yu, you started your music career in China back in 1992. What was your vision then, and how much has the industry changed after almost 30 years?
Back in 1992, I was still very young. I returned to China from Europe with the vision to help build a platform for local music development. So in 1998, I founded the Beijing Music Festival, and in 2000, I co-founded the China Philharmonic Orchestra.
The motivation behind this was very simple – my team and I wanted to build more professional music institutions that could help young people, students and audiences appreciate music. It was clear to us back then that China already had many young musicians and music students, and all the cities were very much willing to support music education and coaching.
Fortunately, after almost 30 years, our music institutions are now producing works of very high standard not only in Beijing, but in many other cities as well. At the time when we first started in 1997/98, there were only around 20 orchestras in China. Recently we received a report that shows that there are now around 80 symphony orchestras of various sizes in mainland China.
I am sure these positive changes came about because of your efforts, especially for the Beijing Music Festival (BMF) which has now become an internationally renowned musical event featuring some of the best music from China and around the world. When you first started the BMF, did you already have this vision in mind, or was it an incremental process that led you to where you are today?
I don’t know if it’s right to say this – it is the Asian mentality to think that for everything we do, we should take one step at a time and slowly get better at it. We are very humble and careful, and we believe that step by step we will reach somewhere. But don’t forget this: if you don’t set a goal of a very high standard from the beginning, you won’t be able to achieve something great just by taking step after step.
The 23rd Beijing Music Festival
With the theme “The Music Must Go On” in reference to the COVID-19 pandemic which shuttered many live performances worldwide, BMF presented music both online and offline. Programmes included 240 hours of non-stop livestream over the course of 10 days, playing 2,000 pieces of music. Image source: Beijing Music Festival
In the past 20 years, the most important advice I have given to others is to not make any excuse that will compromise the development of your professional skills. You should not say, “Because I’m still far from being a professional, I should just take one step at a time.” In my music dictionary, there are only four words – right, wrong, good and bad. There is no grey area. If you’re not doing things right, then you must be doing things wrongly; if you’re not doing good work, then you must be doing bad work. Don’t give any excuse for not doing the right or good things.
That is why before we begin anything, it is important to ask ourselves, “What is the target or standard that I want to reach for?” Then we need to discipline ourselves and do whatever it takes to achieve that standard. We must take things very seriously from the very beginning, otherwise we are wasting the resources of our society and our country.
After almost 30 years, on a scale of 1 to 10 – with 10 being exactly your dream destination – where do you think you are now?
I never give myself a number – I think it is very hard to measure achievements this way. Instead, I think it is for others to assess what my team and I have achieved in the past 30 years, because what we have done is already on the table and everyone can see that.
But if you were to ask me, I think that within the past 30 years, our work has truly achieved international standards, and that’s because we knew what we wanted to do right from the beginning. We didn’t do this for ourselves, but for music in China. I can proudly say that I didn’t waste time. I contributed all my energy and passion to the industry – that’s what I could and needed to do.
I understand that you have stepped down from your role as the Artistic Director of the BMF, and passed the baton to a younger talent, Ms Zou Shuang, who has been doing an impressive job. Do you see yourself as a pioneer – someone who built a legacy that will benefit the generations to come?
I believe that any role within any institution cannot be held forever by the same person. The world is constantly evolving and moving forward, that is why I always believe that as time goes by, new, young people will do a better job than me. Isn’t this what life is about – to hand over the torch from one generation to the next?
What I hope we can do is to trust that young people can do better than us and to support them as they step up to the front line. I’m very glad that Ms Zou Shuang, who has assumed the leadership role in the BMF, has proven herself with some really remarkable achievements. Of course, sometimes young people lack work and life experience, but didn’t we all start out the same way? Yet we learned and fought along the way and we achieved results eventually. So we should give young people all the trust and support they need. I believe if we can do that, our society will progress in a very healthy way.
Let’s talk about the role of technology in the music industry. We are now witnessing a change in music-making around the world, with many recorded videos of performances to replace live music. Do you see this as a fundamental evolution in music-making and listening, or is it just a temporary response to COVID-19?
This is a very interesting question. I think we all appreciate technological advancement in many ways. For example, Zoom enables us to see each other face-to-face in this interview although we are in different parts of the world. New technologies are even used to perform complex surgeries in hospitals. But as far as live performances are concerned, I don’t think they can be replaced by technology just yet.
Live concerts and performances have their own unique ways of touching people’s hearts and enabling people to feel the passion of the performers within the same space of a concert hall. The full experience that a live performance offers is not something that can be completely replicated by existing technology yet, be it through live streaming or recording. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with these technologies, in fact they are good alternatives for us especially during this COVID-19 period when no one can attend a live concert. But the truth is, they can only be a temporary replacement at best. Why? Because watching remotely with technology is like watching Pavarotti’s neck – it is there but you never really see it!
But this does not mean that it will remain this way forever. In fact, I strongly believe in the endless possibilities that come with the rapid progress of technology. Who knows – one day, with the advent of virtual reality (VR) technology or something even better, we can truly experience the full range of emotions involved in sitting through a live performance without having to be present in the performance hall physically. Such technology is not here yet, but I believe it is coming.
Let’s move on to another very important topic which is also very close to your heart, and that’s music education. What are the one or two things you would like to share with us about music education?
Music education is very important, and its importance does not lie in how many musicians we produce, but in how we help young people develop their imagination.
I believe that creativity comes from imagination, and imagination comes best from music education. We often think that music education is all about training someone to become a skilful player. But for me, I don’t expect every young person to become a performing musician, but I do expect every young man and woman to become someone who can contribute to society and the world. Unfortunately, especially in Asia, we have too many tiger moms and dads who have too many practical reasons for training their kids musically, and that tends to make children dislike music. Can you imagine that some children under ten years old have to practice for eight hours daily? We don’t need that! We don’t have to train everyone to become a professional pianist. There are many other things that our children can do, whether it’s becoming a doctor, a painter or a manager.
My point is, whatever it is that they decide to do, if they receive some music education, they are on the right path to a better education.
Let me give you an example. I work with many young people at the youth orchestra. Some of them told me that their dream is to become a professional musician; some said they want to do something else but music is their interest. What I noticed is that many of those who actually do not want to become professional musician are actually good players who can express themselves more freely through music than those who set their eyes on becoming a professional musician. It is not an official survey, but it is a very telling observation.
Photo: Pan Shiyi
You have spent your career in a music ecosystem that comprises different elements, ranging from education to artistic direction to performance. Your experience provides great lessons for so many people. Could you share with us which aspect of music you think we should focus on in the next 20 years?
What I truly wish is that we can give young people more space to develop, not just in China, but all around the world. The bottom line is that we should never expect everyone to excel in the same field. We don’t need everyone to become an investment banker or a musician. So we should provide young people with a more conducive environment to learn what they want, help them build their imagination and confidence, keeping in mind that everyone is endowed with different talents. Allow them to discover what they can do best and support them along the way.
Compared to forcing them to do what they have no passion for, this would allow them to contribute much more to society.
Having said that, I think it will be long before we can achieve this, especially in Asian societies. It requires a deep mindset change, especially among parents, to stop dictating what children should do, but to allow them instead to have their own fantasies. When everyone is free to discover their own interests and develop their unique talents, the world will become a richer and more colourful place. I think this is a much healthier way to develop our world. This is my dream.
MAESTRO YU LONG
Maestro Yu Long is the Music Director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the China Philharmonic Orchestra, and Music Director of the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra. Hailed as the “most powerful figure in China’s classical music scene” by the New York Times, Maestro Yu is also the Founder of the Beijing Music Festival and was its Artistic Director from 1998 to 2018. Over the years, he has conducted a highly acclaimed list of orchestras and opera houses across the world, including the New York Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and many more. Maestro Yu’s vision is focused on introducing China’s growing audiences to key Western repertoire. To date, Maestro Yu has won multiple renowned awards, including the 2002 Arts Patronage Award of the Montblanc Cultural Foundation and France’s highest honour of merit, the Légion d’Honneur in 2014.