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China Daily Global / 2021-05 / 14 / Page016

Music that moves mountains

By Chen Nan | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-05-14 00:00

Orchestra festival highlights determination of rural ensemble to popularize classical works, Chen Nan reports.

The National Center for the Performing Arts staged its annual China Orchestra Festival from April 8 to May 7, presenting 21 concerts, featuring 22 symphony orchestras from 14 provinces in the country.

The Sichuan Liangshan Mountain Symphony Orchestra made its debut performance at the NCPA on May 3, featuring music pieces by Chinese composers, such as Song and Dance on the Hill by Tang Qingshi, violin concerto The Butterfly Lovers by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang, as well as the symphonic suite Warm Mountains by Chang Yingzhong, Yang Xiaozhong, Yang Hua and Song Mingzhu.

Unlike many other symphony orchestras participating in the festival, the ensemble, which is based in the Daliangshan Mountain area of Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture in Xichang, Sichuan province, routinely holds outdoor concerts, with the mountain as a backdrop, rather than performing in concert halls.

Over the past eight years, as the only professional symphony orchestra in the region, the Sichuan Liangshan Mountain Symphony Orchestra, led by its conductor and musical director Tang Qingshi, has been defying challenges to bring classical music to the local people, who are mostly from the Yi ethnic group.

By offering free concerts every weekend, classical music has found an unlikely fan base in the Daliangshan Mountain area.

"The local people have lived in the mountainous area for generations and are far from urban centers. They grew up listening and singing folk songs in the local dialect," says Tang. "However, we are proud to see that a greater number of people are attending our concerts, and that some of them have even become classical music fans."

So far, the orchestra has performed nearly 600 concerts, which have attracted audiences totaling 600,000 people.

Yet, running such an orchestra in a mountainous area like Daliangshan is no easy task.

Tang graduated from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 1984 with a major in conducting, and worked with the symphony orchestra of Sichuan's Emei Film Group-one of the nation's seven film groups and the largest in Southwest China in the 1990s. He traveled to the Daliangshan Mountain area many times to record local folk songs, which allowed him to learn about the local culture.

In 2002, he was transferred to work at the Sichuan Symphony Orchestra and led the orchestra to perform in the Daliangshan Mountain area many times.

In 2010, Liu Kang, one of the directors of the Liangshan Song and Dance Troupe, initiated a series of classical music concerts, hoping to develop a local audience for the Western art form. In 2013, Tang was invited to head the newly founded Sichuan Liangshan Mountain Symphony Orchestra.

One of the biggest challenges for Tang, however, was a dearth of trained musicians.

"Recruiting orchestra members is still a problem for us today, though the situation is getting better, with locals gradually opening up to classical music," says Tang, adding that a professional symphony orchestra usually has about 80 musicians, but the Sichuan Liangshan Mountain Symphony Orchestra currently performs with just 50.

Rehearsals usually take place twice a day from Monday to Thursday. The weekly concert takes place on Friday, with each concert presenting a different repertoire. According to Tang, most of the musicians are in their 30s.

"The average pay range is from 6,000 yuan ($929.7) to 8,000 yuan, which is not a high enough level to attract young musicians. Thus, after recruiting new members, we train them by doing rehearsals and performing. The symphony orchestra is like a school for our new members," Tang says.

Another challenge the orchestra faces is selecting music programs that are "suitable" for local audiences. When Tang joined the symphony orchestra, he was told that local people were not familiar with classical music. He chose some of the most well-known pieces and presented them, in simple terms, before the concerts started. As well as adapting Western classical music, Tang also composes original music pieces that incorporate local folk music. For example, he composed the music piece, Song and Dance on the Hill, in 2015, which portrays the natural scenery of Daliangshan Mountain and borrows elements of local folk songs.

"In the beginning, the local people didn't understand what we wanted to do. With the hundreds of concerts we performed, however, people gradually began to show an interest in classical music,"Tang says.

Tang also teaches piano to local children, who, he says, will benefit from enjoying classical music their whole lives.

But despite the ongoing problems-the lack of resources and the limited funding-the orchestra is constantly growing and gaining recognition. Now, Tang has a wish that the symphony orchestra will one day have a concert hall in the Daliangshan Mountain area. He also wants to create a music school where local children and adults can learn music and how to play instruments.

"This is a passion. I really admire those musicians who have the simple wish to entertain local people with classical music, despite the challenges," says conductor Li Xincao, who works with the China National Symphony Orchestra."I want to perform with the musicians of Sichuan Liangshan Mountain Symphony Orchestra in the Daliangshan Mountain area and invite them to perform with musicians of the China National Symphony Orchestra."

Zhao Yi, a Beijing native, who learned to play the trombone at 8 years old, joined the Sichuan Liangshan Mountain Symphony Orchestra in 2015 after graduating with a major in computer science from the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China in Chengdu, Sichuan province.

"What attracted me to join the symphony orchestra was its conductor, Tang Qingshi, who has the passion to overcome difficulties the orchestra faces," says Zhao."The symphony orchestra has offered me a stage on which to perform, even though I am not academically trained.

"Here in the Daliangshan Mountain area, local people have a saying that they are able to sing from the moment they are born, referring to the local's love of music. They have a natural talent for it,"Zhao says. "While some people describe it (classical music) as Western music, we say it's not-it's an expression of ourselves."


Conductor and composer Tang Qingshi and the Sichuan Liangshan Mountain Symphony Orchestra perform at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing on May 3. Tang has devoted the past eight years to popularizing classical music among audiences of Daliangshan area, a mountainous area in Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture, Xichang, Southwest China's Sichuan province. CHINA DAILY



The Sichuan Liangshan Mountain Symphony Orchestra presents its debut performance in the capital on May 3 as part of the NCPA's annual China Orchestra Festival. CHINA DAILY



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