BEIJING — China’s National Center for the Performing Arts has a way of holding one’s gaze as it floats on the local skyline, a giant titanium dome hovering in a pool of water. Its look is futuristic, its scale enormous. And it is only one of a wide array of concert halls, opera houses, and other cultural centers that have sprouted up across China in the last 15 years, as part of a construction boom unparalleled in the modern history of the art form.
In classical music, architecture may not exactly be destiny, but it sometimes feels close. Halls and the orchestras that reside within them tend over the years to resemble each other. There is, for instance, no symbol more illustrative of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s history and present-day ethos than Symphony Hall itself, the very cauldron in which its sound has been forged.
So what exactly can China’s new crop of concert halls tell us about the state of classical music in that country? Certainly from the street, the facades are gleaming and brilliant. So too, often, is the view of China’s entire classical scene as pictured from the United States, where we often hear reports of new audiences, zealously cheered Western orchestras, and the tens of millions of Chinese children studying piano or violin. How easy it is for anyone concerned about those perennially graying and shrinking American audiences to project onto China their own hopes and dreams for the art form’s future.
All of this said, unfortunately, the view from inside China’s concert halls today has a far less consistent gleam. After a week of covering the BSO’s recent tour of China, seeing and hearing a handful of the country’s newly built venues, and speaking with the administrators, musicians, and government officials who make their lives within them, one emerges with a more complex set of impressions. What the country has achieved already in this realm is astonishing, and the most encouraging aspect is the sheer energy, curiosity, and openness of Chinese audiences. But let’s be clear: China’s classical music scene is not coming to the rescue anytime soon. It is too busy and bogged down by the hectic, messy, and sometimes dissonant work of becoming itself.
The example of Beijing’s NCPA, at the heart of the country’s newly erected performing arts infrastructure, is illuminating on many levels. Designed by the French architect Paul Andreu, renowned for his airports in Europe and far beyond, the Center stretches a staggering 2.4 million square feet, its mass of suavely rounded titanium suggesting some kind of sci-fi-meets-classical-music fantasy. Surely when Wagner’s gods take a jaunt from Valhalla to Tiananmen Square, this is their flying saucer.
Within the dome are three performance spaces: an opera house, a concert hall, and a smaller theater often used for Peking opera. The lobbies are on the scale of China itself, so vast they seem designed to hold every last piano student in the country. The architectural historian Victoria Newhouse, in her 2012 book “Site and Sound,” found the space “more reminiscent of a transportation hub than of a cultural center.” The labyrinth of corridors backstage connecting the three halls, rehearsal space, and administrative offices is also so complex that even local Beijing musicians speak of getting lost. And perhaps most surprisingly, the acoustics of the 2,000-seat concert hall, where the BSO opened its recent tour, are rather dry and unflattering.
Still, the place holds a certain fascination as a window into the country’s performing arts world. Most of the staff running it seems at first blush to be remarkably young, and, curiously, almost no one I met had actual experience as a musician. My first night in China, I attended a group dinner at the NCPA hosted by Patrick Ren, a director of programming, a youthful man wearing a crisp blue suit and designer eyewear. Trained in computer science and information management, he has spent most of his career working for the Chinese government in various capacities, including a posting at the country’s embassy in Damascus, and another on the organizing committee of the 2008 Olympics, where he worked closely with the director Zhang Yimou. He speaks English comfortably, and between courses quoted, with just a hint of hesitancy, from Matthew Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy.”
Two days later I met Chen Ping, president of the NCPA, a government bureaucrat in his 60s, and a man who formerly served as a party chief in the large Dongcheng district of Beijing. He appeared to speak not a word of English, but was intent on explaining to me, in long and emphatically delivered paragraphs, the full list of the visiting Western orchestras that had performed at his venue, rattling off names like accomplished line-items on a five-year plan. As conveyed through a translator, the list seemed to include just about every top-tier ensemble in Europe and America. I tried to broaden the discussion, asking him multiple times about the deeper meanings of China’s embrace of Western classical music in China. He replied with a friendly expression, and more lists.
A gulf far larger than the NCPA’s enormous reflecting pool would seem to separate the mentalities and world views of Ren and Chen. And indeed, veteran observers here note a larger disconnect between a new generation of nimble, relatively Westernized administrators and the old-school unreconstructed government bureaucrats above them still holding the levers of power.
“It’s always been like that,” a Beijing-based arts administrator named Tu Song, who studied clarinet in Boston with the BSO’s William Hudgins, later told me. “The Chinese people started to go abroad 100 years ago, but look who has been in charge of the country? It’s none of those people.”
Tu added, “The only thing that has changed in China these days is the material [conditions], what you can see on the streets, the buildings. The hardware is now different, but the software has never changed.”
Interestingly, Chen’s list of prestigious Western ensembles that have visited the NCPA — and his determination to keep them coming — is linked to a more controversial and politicized aspect of the Center’s mandate. Despite the facility’s enormous size, not one of Beijing’s four top orchestras has a home there. The China Philharmonic, regarded as one of the country’s best, must rent its own rehearsal and performance space.
Meanwhile, to keep its concert offerings robust, the NCPA receives 30 percent of its annual budget from the government, but it is one of the very few halls to do so. Most others struggle. According to several insiders I spoke with, the government’s larger willingness to build such spectacular new facilities without a commitment to funding their continued operation is a major problem. Newly built halls sometimes sit for a period unused, without even the funds necessary to open. And once they do, not only attracting audiences but keeping them coming back can be extremely difficult.
Attendance figures are hard to obtain, but Newhouse reports that at the Hangzhou Grand Theatre, seating capacity has been at an average of 50 percent. And at the stunning Guangzhou Opera House, designed by the Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, only 70 percent of the seats were sold for the first 280 performances.
“Where do you think an instant Boston Symphony subscription audience would come from?” Wray Armstrong, a Canadian-born arts manager based in Beijing, asked me in a phone interview. “Every city that starts [with Western classical music] is essentially starting from zero.” He explained that much of the disconnect between the lavish construction budgets and meager programming funds stemmed from deep misconceptions about the art form’s commercial viability — a belief that ticket sales themselves should sustain these halls. He also pointed out that Chinese tax code offers no incentive for private arts philanthropy. “And there is no tradition of giving,” he added, “because we went straight from the Emperor, through a few complicated republics, into the Communist era.”
After the BSO’s performances in Beijing, the orchestra traveled to Shanghai, where it set up shop at another sleekly futuristic venue, the Shanghai Oriental Art Center, designed, rather improbably, by the same French architect that built the NCPA. Shanghai appears to have gotten the better deal from Andreu, with a hall that is more approachable in scale, and slightly more acceptable — though still far from ideal — in its acoustics.
During my visit, however, the buzz among Shanghai’s musical insiders was centered roughly 6 miles to the west, in the elegant low-rise neighborhoods of the former French Concession, where the finishing touches were being placed on China’s newest venue, the Shanghai Symphony Concert Hall, set to open this fall. I was given a tour by the orchestra’s president, Chen Guangxian. Designed by the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki with the renowned acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, the hall is, refreshingly, more understated than its two older siblings, with seemingly less to prove. It also promises to have acoustics worthy of the city’s cultural aspirations.
“In China, there has been no real concert hall design, only the design of ‘grand theaters,’ where the government will often bring in acousticians too late,” Chen told me, standing in the lobby of the new building, its ceiling a striking midnight blue. “This is the first hall in China where the acoustics were [addressed] before the architectural design.”
Inside, the hall boasts dedicated space for educational outreach, and a 1,200-seat concert auditorium with a stage built in part with pine from Hokkaido, Japan, prized for its resonance. Even with construction still underway, it seemed like a space destined for serious listening. It was also striking how quickly lessons appeared to have been learned from the other recently built concert halls, and not only in the acoustics department. Most notably, this will be the first hall in all of China to be self-managed by its resident orchestra, the Shanghai Symphony. “That is a beautiful thing,” Tu told me.
Among the other concerns circulating in these newly erected musical corridors is the future of native folk and classical traditions. The vogue for learning Western instruments like piano and violin may well be siphoning interest away from China’s own music, according to Wu Man, a Chinese pipa virtuoso based in California. Wu recently returned to perform in Beijing and Shanghai, meeting with colleagues at the conservatories in both cities. She confirmed that numbers of students applying to study traditional instruments are declining. “There is now an image of traditional music — that it’s so old, like it’s my grandmother’s or grandfather’s music,” she told me. “But here is this new thing, the violin or the piano — so cool!”
On her recent visit, while passing through the Shanghai airport, a security officer mistook Wu’s pipa for another traditional instrument, the erhu — an error no one had ever made in all of her years of traveling through China. (The two instruments look about as similar as a violin and a guitar.) Wu did not take this to be an encouraging sign.
But ultimately the biggest challenge here, as China’s cultural leap forward has coincided with its massive economic expansion, may be the disentangling of art and commerce. Back at the NCPA, as audience members filed in through surreally tight security to attend the BSO’s first performance, Patrick Wen sat in a small lobby cafe, surveying the crowd. He leaned in and spoke quietly above the background hum of the throng.
“People’s awareness of what art is all about here, its social meaning, still needs to be changed,” he said. “I would really hope that in the future, art, including classical music and dance, can be recognized as a great way of spreading sweetness and light, and not as a commercial business. With an orchestra, you have 100 musicians. They are not supposed to be sitting on stage to drive the GDP of the country, or to create 100 job opportunities. They are supposed to play great music, to tell people what the world is all about, what life is all about.”
“That’s the true social meaning of classical music, theaters, and other forms of great art,” he continued. “That may seem simple, but it takes time for more people to change their ideology. It’s difficult, especially when this country has 1.3 billion people.” He laughed with a hint of weariness, and added: “So much of this is new. We are really just getting started.”