Visiting conductor performs music once considered a crime in China

Maestro Muhai Tang is leading the Beijing Symphony Orchestra in a program of Chinese and Western orchestral music at Toronto's Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, the first time the BSO has performed in Canada, followed by a concert in Washington.

Muhai Tang leads Beijing Symphony Orchestra for symphony's first performance in Canada

Conductor Muhai Tang of the Beijing Symphony Orchestra rehearses at the Sony Centre in Toronto on Thursday. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Maestro Muhai Tang knows how lucky he is to conduct orchestras all over the world.

"I was one of the luckiest, honestly," he says. "Many people have tried their whole life and don't have the opportunity to conduct a top orchestra. I did right away at the beginning of my career."

Tang arrived in Toronto to lead the Beijing Symphony Orchestra Thursday evening at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts in a program of Chinese and Western orchestral music — the first time the BSO has performed in Canada, followed by a concert in Washington.

Today, Tang's focus is on new and lesser-known orchestras for the opportunity they give him to expand public awareness of Chinese orchestral music, through the Belgrade Philharmonic as well as three Chinese companies, the Tianjin Opera and Orchestra, the Shanghai Philharmonic and the Zhenjiang Symphony Orchestra.

But Tang's first major orchestra was the Berlin Philharmonic. He never planned to become a conductor. "It just followed naturally," he says. As a protege of legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan, Tang had already been handling a baton for years, conducting a school orchestra in Beijing as a student.

A dark chapter in China's history

That early opportunity to conduct came when China was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution. The school orchestra's repertoire consisted entirely of military songs or music composed by the Communist Party to honour Chairman Mao. And while that early training paved the way for Tang to become an internationally acclaimed conductor, there were other prices to pay during that dark chapter of China's history, from 1966 to 1976.

His father, Tang Xiaodan, one of China's most famous film directors, was imprisoned for his work. He was lucky to be released six months later. More than a million other Chinese died in prison labour camps and mob violence that continued for more than three years — the beginning of an entire decade of social and political chaos — a time when family ties, cultural traditions and learning were all under attack.

A high price to pay

Perhaps the highest price for the young Muhai Tang, though, was the ban on all Western music. It was a time when playing Beethoven or Bach was a crime, not taken lightly.

As a child, Tang, whose earliest musical love was composition, was immersed in Western classical music, studying with some of the best musicians in Beijing, learning to play both piano and violin.

Halfway through the Cultural Revolution, when China opened its schools again and he was encouraged to lead the orchestra in musical propaganda, he remembers picking up the violin at home to play the opening bars of Beethoven's Spring Sonata and his mother bursting into the room, terrified that the neighbours would hear.

There were spies everywhere and neighbours accused one another of working against the Communist Party.

In China, official discussion of that dark period is rare.  But Tang speaks eloquently about the impact on his relationship with classical music.

'Music is like my belief'

"For me, I have to love my music secretly," says Tang. The secrecy only intensified his love for it. "It's like I have to have it. Without that music in my life, there is no goal."

Growing up in communist China, Tang says he had no religious beliefs, unless you include music. "Music is like my belief," says Tung. "I follow that, I die for that."

Today, music is also the foundation of many of Tang's friendships around the world. Here in Toronto, opera singer Mary Liu sweeps into the room in the middle of our interview, to pick Tang up for dinner with her friends — a rare opportunity for Chinese-Canadian musicians to meet China's most famous conductor.

It doesn't take long before Tang and Liu are debating the concert they hope to perform together some day. Liu, a soprano trained in the Italian bel canto style, wants to sing Mozart's Exultate Jubilate; Tang wants her to sing Gustav Mahler's Song of the Earth, but Liu's not sure the contralto range is right for her.

But the one thing they have always agreed on — the program will also include Chinese orchestral music, just as Tang does in his Canadian concerts with the Beijing Symphony Orchestra. It's one of the things Tang treasures about Liu as a singer: although many Chinese singers specialize in traditional Chinese folk music and others in the classical Western repertoire, Liu is one of the few singers trained in both schools.

"We belong to China," says Tang.  "She can live in Canada, I can live in Europe. But our soul, our blood, is Chinese."

'Canada should open the door too to the Orient'

Tang sees himself as a bridge between the musical traditions of the East and West.

"Work on the bridge is very important," says Tang. "Our door was open 30 years ago.  Now Canada should open the door too to the Orient."

He laughs, but he means it.

Tang says Chinese people no longer feel that the music of giants like Beethoven, Mozart and Bach belongs to the West.

"It belongs also to us," he says. "That's something that belongs to the whole human being, if you understand it."

About the Author

Mary Wiens

Journalist/ Producer | Metro Morning

Mary Wiens is a veteran broadcaster and a regular on Metro Morning. Her wide-ranging beat includes stories that are sometimes tragic, often funny, occasionally profound and always human. Work that is often honoured with RTDNA awards (The Association of Electronic Journalists). One of her favourite places - Yonge Street. "It's the heart and soul of Toronto," says Wiens. "Toronto's Main Street!"