Baroque in Beijing: Alive and Well

June 30, 2018

André Lash earned the Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the Eastman School of Music and earlier degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Pittsburg (Kansas) State University. He is currently lecturer in organ at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is a Fellow of the American Guild of Organists.

The presence of two American organists as recitalists and lecturers at the Beijing Baroque Music Festival in November 2017 can be seen as significant, not only in extending to the organ the ongoing musical interchange between China and the United States but also in demonstrating the ascendant importance of the organ in the People’s Republic of China. The history of the organ in China is a checkered one: the pan pipe and the sheng (mouth organ), predecessors to the modern organ, are known to have existed during the Yin dynasty (1401–1121 B.C.), and modern organs were first introduced in China during the 1600s.1 During years of relative isolation in the twentieth century Chinese organ culture waned almost completely.

From the 1980s onward, however, organs (mainly from European builders) began to reappear in the major cities of Beijing and Shanghai, and today a revival of interest in organs for concert halls can be noticed. The emergence of some exceptionally fine instruments, growing audience curiosity about them, and increased knowledge about Baroque music exist especially in China’s capital city Beijing. In Beijing, a leading spokesperson for the organ and a proponent of stylistic Baroque music performance is Professor Fanxiu Shen of the Central Conservatory of Music.

Born in Beijing, Professor Shen earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Capital Normal University there, studying piano with Meiying Huang, Pingguo Zhao, Aifang Li, and Guangren Zhou. Immediately following her undergraduate studies she entered the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst in Vienna, Austria, where she studied harpsichord with Gordon Murray and organ with Rudolf Scholz, eventually earning a Master of Arts degree.

During her harpsichord studies she had become impressed with the power and variety of sounds available on the organ, leading her to spend increased time with that instrument. Following the completion of the master’s degree she spent several years touring Austria and central Europe as the cembalist for various Baroque ensembles and became firmly committed to the promotion of Baroque music. In more recent years she has played organ and harpsichord concerts in Russia, Japan, South Korea, Germany, and Poland.

Upon her return to Beijing in the early 1990s and her appointment to the faculty of the Central Conservatory of Music, Shen began to oversee the acquisition of harpsichords and to introduce Chinese students to some of the basic tenets of Baroque interpretation. Little by little she also began to make known the riches of the organ repertoire, particularly the Germanic literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Through the conservatory, she has been able to offer for the first time in China a group of courses in Baroque chamber music topics: Performance of Organ, Performance of Harpsichord, and Harpsichord with Orchestra. 

For many years Beijing has had an extensive series of music festivals and competitions involving Western musical traditions, both all-inclusive and for specific instruments. The unprecedented presentation in Beijing of Baroque masterclasses by the eminent British conductor Christopher Hogwood in 2010 as part of that year’s Beijing Music Festival signaled a major breakthrough for Baroque music in the city.

Because of the interest generated at that time and the increasing demand for her courses at the conservatory, the Beijing International Baroque Music Festival was established in 2011, with Professor Shen as founder and artistic director. This festival, held every two years, has brought together an increasing number of persons from both the conservatory and the wider Beijing musical community. A triumph for the “King of Instruments” came with the fourth such festival, held November 16–26, 2017, in which the organ was featured for the first time. In this festival appeared not only performances of Baroque music for both organ and harpsichord but also organ-oriented chamber music of all style periods—featuring composers such as Mozart, Telemann, and Handel, as well as Rheinberger, Mollicone, and Michael Baker—and lectures on various topics pertinent to Baroque organ literature, such as the relationship of string and keyboard articulation in the Baroque period (presented to string students by the visiting organists), the history of American organ music, and Iberian Baroque organ music. For the first time at one of the Baroque festivals, the major organ concerts were held not at the conservatory but at the Concert Hall in Beijing’s dazzling National Center for the Performing Arts, which features a Johannes Klais instrument of four manuals, 113 ranks, with twin consoles—one with mechanical action embedded in the case high above the stage and a duplicate console with electric action stored beneath the stage and completely moveable when raised by mechanized lift.

Ticket sales and audience sizes were stunning—the concert hall seats just over 2,000 persons, and each of the organ concerts was almost completely sold out! Besides Professor Shen, these concerts featured three foreign artists: Dariusz Bakowski-Kois from Poland, and Douglas Cleveland and André Lash of the United States. In addition to concerts in the major venue, Douglas Cleveland also performed at the conservatory’s middle school branch, which boasts its own three-manual mechanical action instrument by Kenneth Jones of Ireland. A highlight of the festival was the performance at the conservatory of all six of the Brandenburg concerti of J. S. Bach by a combined student-faculty orchestra with Fanxiu Shen leading from the harpsichord.

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The following information is a summary of materials combined from an interview with Professor Shen during breaks in the festival and answers from a questionnaire submitted after the close of the festival.

 

How did your interest in Baroque music begin?

During my youth and early piano studies little was known in China concerning Baroque performance practice. During my time in Europe I was able to hear and experience excellent performances of Baroque works different from anything I had heard before. It was only natural that upon my return to China I would bring this expertise with me.

 

What about the presence of the organ in China?

When I was young there were no organs in China—at least no working organs. My first experience with the organ was during my studies in Austria. Although I was already becoming well trained as a harpsichordist, I was fascinated by the variety of sound and the sheer power of the organ. As with Baroque music in general, I wanted to introduce Chinese people to this fascinating instrument.

 

Concerning the Beijing International Baroque Music Festival, how did you become involved and how have you seen it grow?

The presence of the harpsichord and the courses that I started teaching at Central Conservatory of Music acted as a catalyst for greater interest in Baroque music, and my training in Europe gave me the tools to equip interested musicians with some needed interpretive skills. But this year [2017] has been exceptionally exciting because although I had given almost one hundred recitals myself in the National Center for the Performing Arts, this year is the very first time that the organ has been used for any of our music festivals here in Beijing, marking a significant turning point for the organ not only in Beijing but for all of China. Some organs also exist in Shanghai, but the National Center for the Performing Arts is a magnet for Chinese musical activity, and the use of the organ in that venue heralds the entry of organ into the mainstream of music within China. In addition, because the organ is still new to most Chinese people they are very curious about it: they are fascinated by all of the unusual and varied sounds and the organ’s power, and the appreciation for this can be seen from their attendance at our concerts during the festival.

 

What are your hopes and dreams for the future of the Beijing International Baroque Music Festival?

That it will grow! Now that the organ has become a part of the festival I hope that we will be able to include more artists from Europe and the United States and that we will attract even more attendees from within China. I also hope that we will continue to maintain our connection with the NCPA; the strong ticket sales in our first cooperative venture are quite encouraging.

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Based on Professor Shen’s observations and her enormous enthusiasm and energy, the great success of the Fourth Beijing International Baroque Music Festival bodes well for the future of the organ in China. It will be interesting for all of us in the West to follow the growth of organ performance, organ pedagogy, and organ composition in this country during the years to come.

Notes

1. Clacklinevalleyolives.com.au, accessed March 26, 2018.

 

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