Feb 22, 2013 12:59 PM

Ocean Melodies


On a bitter cold night in late December, I climbed the stairs of the Great Hall of the People, passed through the airport-style security, traipsed across the vast expanse of marble and red carpet, presented my ticket to one of the many uniformly tall, short-haired, fit, and unsmiling male ushers (who definitely have other day jobs), and entered the main hall to attend what has become a hallowed tradition in contemporary China: the New Year's Concert.

The New Year's concert, indeed, is part and parcel of the ever-increasing popularity of symphonic orchestra music in China. This particular event was attended by close to 10,000 people (my seat was at a desk used by members of the National People's Congress) and emceed by two CCTV personalities. In keeping with the scale of both venue and audience, the orchestra was nearly doubled in size, formed by temporarily merging dozens of musicians from the Russian National Orchestra (then touring China) with the China National Orchestra. Intimacy and musicality are elusive in an event such as this, but the concert was nonetheless of interest thanks to the somewhat curious nature of its sponsor – the Bureau of the Oceans – and the decision to perform only ocean-themed music.

The evening began with the CCTV presenters reading from the 18th Party Congress pronouncement regarding China's determination to become a maritime power. (The female presenter wore a blue gown, to emphasize the oceanic theme, as did all female soloists.) The concert then opened with what is perhaps the best-known ocean themed symphonic work, Debussy's "La Mer," followed by "Xisha – My Beloved Homeland" and "Making Nets By the Sea" (both film songs); Tchaikovsky's "The Tempest;" an ocean-themed selection from Rimsky-Korsakoff's "Scheherazade;" and Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman" overture. At the end of the concert, the announcers returned to assure the audience that the ocean was nothing more than "China's blue-colored territory" and becoming a maritime power was an inevitable part of the nation's "revival."

"We will go straight to the sea," they declared, "and never look back!"

I listened to the rousing (non-oceanic) encores (Zheng Lu's "Pleasant News from Beijing" and the Strauss stalwart "Radetzky March") and dutifully filed out of the theater along with everyone else – except I could not help but look back. Indeed, the event immediately brought to mind the long, intriguing – and still ongoing - PRC practice of harnessing the power of Western classical music to support domestic political goals.

This history, in fact, pre-dates the People's Republic – from the late 1800s onward, leading reformers, educators, and revolutionaries have used Western classical music to promote their respective agendas. But it is primarily since 1949 that individual Western composers and their works have played a significant role in China's politics.

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