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Musical Diplomacy with China

Published 15 Dec 2015

This year’s annual Christmas party at Glover Cottages was a bit different from normal. Three string players from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra played Vivaldi’s La Folia,[1] and Rory Jeffes, the Orchestra’s Managing Director discussed the Orchestra’s role in promoting soft power in China.

In 2009, the SSO, with its then resident conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, made its first ever visit to China. But the tour was hurried and left only a tenuous impression. So Jeffes and his colleagues decided to develop a lasting strategy to add weight to future visits – indeed, to turn the SSO into Australia’s leading orchestra in the Asia-Pacific region by 2030.

Why music and why China? For one thing, at its sixth plenary session, the 17th Central Committee decided in 2011 to promote culture as the centre of China’s domestic and foreign policy for five years. For another, sixty to 100 million Chinese children learn a western musical instrument, and nine out of 10 children at leading Chinese schools learn either the piano or violin. Third, Australian-connected foreign companies seeking to enhance their cultural profile in their business dealings in China were becoming aware of the SSO’s growing musical reputation in China. As much as anything else, this had been built on the resounding success of the Orchestra’s fourth major tour in 2014, during which it gave concerts in seven cities in 12 days including a sold-out performance at Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts – the ‘Giant Egg’.

These business interests were also aware of the fact that the SSO had also negotiated a memorandum of understanding with Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts, had signed another MOU with the Shanghai Orchestra Academy, and was beginning to bring to Sydney young Chinese students for a performance residencies.

With astute vision, Rory Jeffes deliberately set out to leverage the Orchestra’s musical contacts in China to add a cultural dimension to Australian-associated commercial interests. As he elaborated at Glover Cottages, clients now include the property developer Greenland, Crown Resorts, Tianda Pharmaceuticals and Credit Suisse. The President of the property developer Greenland came to Sydney as part of a Shanghai delegation in 2013 and the SSO gave them a private concert in the Sydney Opera House. Crown Resorts built a program of hospitality around the Orchestra’s 2014 tour in China, encouraging a huge uptake of the concert tickets on offer. Tianda Pharmaceuticals hosted a post-concert event with the Australian Embassy in Beijing following the Orchestra’s October 2014 performance at the NCPA. And the global financial services firm Credit Suisse supported the Orchestra’s gala performances at the Opera House, financed talented young Chinese musicians to undertake paid mentorships with the Orchestra, and organised a ‘culinary concerto’ with the award-winning chef Peter Gilmore tailoring a menu to a program of music created by the SSO and performed by its emerging artists.

There is no reason why the SSO cannot attract more commercial companies to join its musical bandwagon. But several observations are appropriate.

The first is that the SSO is only one of several Australian musical groups forging links with China. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra has a significant track record of tours and mentoring , not just in China, but in Japan and South Korea. So does the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Australian Youth Orchestra. Other Australian orchestras and chamber music groups have made less-frequent but nevertheless effective concert tours into North Asia.

Second, China plays host to a very wide assortment of western classical orchestras, particularly from Europe and the United States. When the political climate permits, Japanese and Korean orchestras and performers also compete for performance space in the Chinese market. The result is that the playlists of western performers in concert halls of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are full from one year to another. Meanwhile acoustically perfect concert halls are being constructed in provincial capitals across China’s vastness, with many western orchestras vying for the privilege of performing there. It will take flexibility and imagination of the kind demonstrated by Rory Jeffes and the SSO to allow Australian performers to keep their profile and not be submerged in the rush.

My third point concerns Rory Jeffes’ optimistic portrayal of Australian classical western musical culture enhancing bilateral commercial activities. So it does – to a point. But we should be cautious: a cultural observer could have mistakenly believed that a series of concerts by the London Symphony Orchestra across Nazi Germany in the 1930s would have augured well for peace in their time. But Hitler’s machinations calculated otherwise. Likewise, Beijing could suddenly interrupt Chinese-Australian musical consanguinity if provoked. A Falun Gong demonstration in Sydney, enlargement of the US Marine contingent in Darwin, or a naval clash over contested islands in the South China Sea, could all conceivably do that.

Fourth, Australian symphony orchestras in the past have been owned and sponsored by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation – one in each state capital. That ended in the early 1990s, and the very continuation of these orchestras has depended largely on their success in attracting commercial sponsors. Rory Jeffes and his colleagues in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra have astutely leveraged an emerging Chinese love of western classical music into revenue by engaging selected profit-driven companies eager to add cultural lustre to their brands in China. Other Australian orchestras are doing the same thing to a greater or less extent.

One can only wish them success in continuing the process, and in remaining competitive with other countries with comparable musical tradition and expertise. But a word of caution. In Murray Lerner’s celebrated 1981 documentary film From Mao to Mozart, Isaac Stern gives master classes to budding Chinese violinists. It is a heart-warming if somewhat patronising film. Given the rise of Chinese (and Japanese and Korean) musicianship, such a film could not be made today. The world stage is crowded with musical prodigies from all these countries, and more are being produced. Will the professional cachet of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra continue to attract Chinese audiences and sponsors as it does today? The musical future in North Asia will be fascinating as it unfolds.

Richard Broinowski, president of AIIA NSW, is himself a violinist who practised his own form of musical diplomacy by forming string groups with local musicians in some of the Asian countries to which he was accredited.

[1] Alexander Norton, first violin, Emma Jezek, second violin and David Campbell, double bass


Report by Richard Broinowski, president of AIIA NSW