Their great leap forward

They are the first Chinese men and women allowed to study Western classical music after Mao’s decade-long Cultural Revolution, composers and musicians who have come to be known as Beijing Central Conservatory’s “Class of 1978,” named for the year they entered the school.

Their memories of the preceding period in which their families were shattered and their educations truncated include breaking into Red Guard storehouses of forbidden records, books and musical scores, and listening to Western pop music smuggled in by children of diplomats. When they were finally allowed to apply for admission and study, the experience was hardly open and free.

Composer Chen Qigang, 58, who made headlines last year as music director of the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, recalls that “Suddenly, the government told you, ‘Yes, now you can go for entrance exams; the schools have reopened. . . .’ It was very fierce competition, only the best people got in. . . .

“The schools had to recover from the old teaching system, which is the Russian system -- even classical Western music was considered anti-Revolution; it was forbidden,” says Liu Sola, 54, a composer, performer and writer who created a popular book on her conservatory experiences and whose compositions include elements of American rock, pop and jazz. “So after 10 years, the teachers could teach classical techniques, but they were afraid to go too far. . . . We couldn’t hear 20th century music. We couldn’t find the scores of Bartok and Stravinsky and Schubert.”

Three of the class of ’78 -- Qigang, Liu and Tan Dun, prominent composers with international reputations -- will have work featured in “Ancient Paths, Modern Voices: A Festival Celebrating Chinese Culture,” a West Coast offshoot of Carnegie Hall’s New York festival. It will be presented next Sunday through Nov. 24 by Segerstrom Center for the Arts and Philharmonic Society of Orange County.


Qigang and Liu spoke to The Times from Beijing about their musical life during and after the Cultural Revolution. Tan, whose composition “Out of Peking Opera (Violin Concerto No. 1)” will be performed during the festival by violinist Cho-Liang Lin, accompanied by the Colburn Orchestra, was unavailable for comment. Los Angeles audiences may remember Tan for his “Water Passion After St. Matthew.” Performed at Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2005, the work called for 17 translucent, illuminated, amplified water bowls used as percussion instruments.

Many of their peers were the children of China’s creative, urban and intellectual families. They were banned from higher education because the pursuits and values of their parents were seen as a threat to the proletarian ideals of Mao Tse-tung, chairman of the Communist Party of China.

“It’s a very simple story -- for 10 years, young people who wanted to go to school, who wanted to study, didn’t have the chance,” Qigang said.

On top of being barred from study, these children of the elite were often forcibly separated from their parents and relocated to the countryside for reeducation.

Liu and Qigang were separated from their families during the Cultural Revolution; Liu was raised in Beijing by a former nanny while her father was sent to a prison for high officials and her mother, a political writer, was sent to a labor camp in the mountains. Because her parents had already been sent away, she rebelled by listening to Western pop music (brought in by friends from the families of diplomats) and dressed in “hippie” clothes. “I wasn’t afraid of anything because my parents were already in jail, there was nothing they could do to me,” she says. Banned reading materials and music could be found via underground bookshops. “You could always find a way,” Liu says.

Qigang’s family was split up and sent to various locations in the countryside; as a middle school student, he was able to continue playing clarinet in a youth ensemble, but only a limited range of government-sanctioned compositions were allowed to be played.

“I was 17; I was not old enough to take care of myself, but I had to,” Qigang says. “Looking back, this was a very valuable experience.”

He recalled the origins of the music kept under lock and key as unsuitable for hearing. “The Red Guard raided the homes of music teachers and took all the scores and books and records and locked them up in rooms,” he said.

Being denied entry to the music conservatory for a decade only whetted the composers’ appetite for knowledge when the institution’s doors finally opened, Qigang says.

It was perhaps that insatiable hunger that propelled them to international prominence: Tan Dun, 52, is perhaps best known to U.S. audiences for his Academy Award-winning score for Ang Lee’s film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Liu says that some musicians in the so-called Class of 1978 prefer to be known as the Class of 1977 because they were admitted in 1977, although they were unable to start classes until 1978 because the building that was to house them was being renovated. “They care about this because 1977 is symbolic of the first generation to get into the university,” she says.

Liu, who will take part in the Nov. 5 seminar “Designing China” at the Orange County Museum of Art, adds that musicians entering the Central Conservatory did not necessarily find the freedom of musical study they craved.

”... After the Cultural Revolution, emotionally, classical music was not enough for us. Our life experiences were too extreme,” Liu said. She wrote of her frustration in the novella “You Have No Choice.”

It was a very difficult time, a very cruel time,” Qigang says. ". . My family in this sense was lucky because no one went crazy, no one couldn’t bear it, no one committed suicide.

“But yes, you can hear it in my music. Because it is always very melancholy.”

While times have changed in China, Qigang discovered that the government could continue to influence his artistic choices during the Olympics. The composer was called upon to comment on the controversial decision to have pretty Lin Miaoke, 9, lip-sync “I Sing for My Country” as the Chinese flag entered the national stadium to the voice of 7-year-old Yang Peiyi, who was yanked from appearing on camera at the last minute because she had crooked teeth.

Presenting a “flawless” child was “for the national interest,” Qigang told CCTV then. Now, he says through a translator: “Our idea was, whoever sings it would be on camera -- but you must understand, the artist has very little power, so eventually it came out a different way.”

Would Qigang have preferred to see Yang on camera? “This I don’t say,” he replies. “The entire working process, there is documentation




‘Ancient Paths, Modern Voices: A Festival Celebrating Chinese Culture’

Oct. 11-Nov. 24 highlights

Oct. 11-Jan. 10: Video Work by Gao Shiqiang and Chen Qiulin: Orange County Museum of Art. $12.

Oct. 15-Nov. 7: Christian Dior Presents Photographs by Quentin Shih. South Coast Plaza, Jewel Court. Free. (800) 782-8888

Oct. 16 and 17, 8 p.m.: Quanzhou Marionette Theater. Orange County Performing Arts Center (OCPAC). $35, $50.

Oct. 17, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Oct. 18, noon-4 p.m: Ping Pong Diplomacy Rematch: South Coast Plaza and the Richard Nixon Foundation host competitions for collegiate athletes, youth and the public. South Coast Plaza. Free.

Oct. 27, 8 p.m.: Musical Journeys Through China, hosted by pipa virtuoso Wu Man. OCPAC. $35, $50.

Oct. 29, 8 p.m.: The Colburn Orchestra with Cho-Liang Lin, violin. OCPAC. $35-$250.

Nov. 3, 7 p.m.: Lang Lang and Friends. OCPAC. $30-$195.

Nov. 5, 7 p.m.: “Designing China” panel discussion: Orange County Museum of Art. Free, RSVP required at (949) 553-2422.

Nov. 24, 8 p.m.: Shanghai Symphony with Yuja Wang, piano. OCPAC. Tickets $35-$250.

Information: (949) 553-2422 or /chinafestival/