Enriching Exchange: San Francisco and Shanghai Conservatories Deepen Ties
January 26, 2010
Violinist Yin Bin Qian wanted to study abroad after graduating from the prestigious Shanghai Conservatory of Music, the oldest Western-oriented music school in China. He applied to graduate school at Yale, the Eastman School of Music, USC, and other American colleges. But after hearing violinist Wei He perform at the Shanghai Conservatory last year, Qian set his sights on the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where He is on the faculty.
“He’s amazing. Wei is the big reason I came here,” says Qian, 23, who’s now studying with He and partaking of San Francisco’s rich musical life.
Qian is one of many Shanghai Conservatory of Music students who’ve found a hospitable home at the San Francisco Conservatory since the early 1980s, after China adopted a more open policy toward the West. San Francisco and Shanghai forged a sister-city relationship in 1980. The next year, a group of gifted Shanghai students came to study at the conservatory, among them Weigang Li, the first violinist of the renowned Shanghai Quartet, and Chunming Mo, a longtime violinist with the San Francisco Symphony.
The San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which wants to heighten its international presence — particularly in China, where classical music is booming — will cement its relationship with the Shanghai Conservatory at a Shanghai Celebration Concert on Feb. 8. It’s one of dozens of Shanghai-focused events taking place in San Francisco in the coming months, toasting the 30th anniversary of the sister-city relationship.
Qian, He, Mo and other artists associated with the Shanghai or San Francisco schools (or both) will perform new compositions by professors and students at the Shanghai Conservatory. American audiences have never heard most of this music. The renowned mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao, a Shanghai alumna who began her career at San Francisco Opera, is also on the bill, singing a set of American songs by San Francisco Conservatory faculty member David Garner, by composition students, and by Gordon Getty. (The original idea to have her sing a new piece from Shanghai didn’t come to fruition.)
Raising the Stakes “With our move to Civic Center, we would like to put ourselves center stage globally,” says He, a graduate of the Sichuan Conservatory of Music in his hometown of Chengdu who came to the San Francisco Conservatory in the mid-1990s to study with Camilla Wicks. Strengthening the bond with Shanghai “is one really good way to do that.”
Instrumental, so to speak, in creating this collaborative concert, He is a member of the new Bridge Chamber Virtuosi trio, which features two San Francisco Symphony players: cellist Amos Yang and associate principal violist Yun-Jie “Jay” Liu, another Shanghai Conservatory graduate. Joined by Mo and others, they’ll perform a new work for string sextet by Chen Qiangbin, one of the Shanghai faculty composers who will be here, plus a string quartet by a student named Liang Xiaoyue.
For the last six years, musicians and administrators from the San Francisco Conservatory have made annual visits to Shanghai and other Chinese conservatories. Pianist Mack McCray and violinist Axel Strauss gave recitals and master classes. For the past two years, He has gone with Conservatory President Colin Murdoch and Associate Vice-President for Advancement Alex Brose. These relationship-building trips have resulted in a steadily increasing flow of Chinese students coming here. Of the 400 students at the Conservatory, 45 hail from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Eight are from Shanghai, the biggest, most dynamic, and cosmopolitan city in China (as well as the site of the 2010 World Expo, which is expected to draw some 70 million people).
“Everybody wants to come to San Francisco,” He says. “It’s such a nice place. And convenient — a nine-hour direct flight,” he adds with a laugh. “When China had just opened up, the first group sent by the government to study in America, the best students at the Shanghai Conservatory, came here. That made a huge impact for the San Francisco Conservatory presence in Shanghai.”
Founded in 1927 by educator Cai Yuanpei and pianist and composer Xiao Youmei, both of whom had studied in Leipzig, the Shanghai Conservatory teaches Western and traditional Chinese music. A number of European-Jewish musicians fleeing the Nazis relocated to Shanghai and joined the conservatory faculty in the 1930s and ’40s. Many young musicians enter the conservatory as elementary school students, getting their academic education along with musical training. According to a conservatory publication, the institution has always “placed special emphasis on skill training and comprehensive musicianship, mindful at the same time of the country’s tradition and situation.”
Strong Foundations Qian, the violinist, speaks highly of the disciplined training he received at the Shanghai Conservatory. Studying here, he says, “I’ve learned something different: the musicality. They’re both really good music schools. I think this is a good chance for all of us to learn from each other.”
For Mo and He, studying in San Francisco opened them up to chamber music and ensemble playing. “I hate to generalize about things too much,” says He, but until a few years ago, “people in Chinese conservatories were more focused on solo practice, geared toward winning solo competitions.” That’s changed somewhat, adds He, who thinks American students — some of whom are unwilling to put the time into practicing scales and other essential basics — can learn from the focus, discipline, and work ethic of their Chinese colleagues.
So far, the exchange has only gone one way; no San Francisco Conservatory students have traveled to Shanghai to study. But Brose hopes to change that. As part of the Shanghai Celebration concert, the president of the Shanghai Conservatory, Xu Shuya — whose 13-minute soundscape for 11 instruments, called San, will receive its U.S. premiere — will sign an official sister-institution agreement with Murdoch. The Shanghai Conservatory already has such agreements with Juilliard, USC, and the Manhattan School of Music.
“It will be major for us — our first agreement of this kind,” says Brose, sitting in his new office at the conservatory’s Oak Street campus, a far grander place than the Spanish-style building on 19th Avenue at Ortega that it occupied until 2006. A tall, affable man with curly blond locks and black-framed glasses, Brose spend part of his childhood in Hong Kong and speaks Mandarin.
“I would very much like to create a study-abroad program for undergraduates here,” he says, “with two or three a year going to study for a semester in Shanghai.” After studying Chinese here for a year, they’d go there to “study Western music, take lessons, plus study Chinese music, language, and culture.”
Qian and other Shanghai students, including pianist Serena Han Qian Zhu, who’s also performing on Feb. 8, receive generous scholarships from the conservatory. Having them here “benefits the school tremendously,” Brose says. “Culturally, for our American students and other international students, to have such a Chinese presence here is really important in terms of global understanding.” And this kind of collaboration, he adds, will help prepare students to compete on the international stage.
“When you go to see a classical music concert in China, it’s like going to a rock concert. There’s so much excitement about classical music. Lang Lang has completely changed the map. There are 30 million pianists in China. It’s unbelievable. ... We want to be at the forefront of classical music around the world. And it’s going to take strategic relationships like this to make it happen.”
Jesse Hamlin has written for The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications over the past 30 years on a wide range of music and art, covering jazz musicians and symphonic conductors, sculptors, poets, and architects. He has also written for The New York Times, Art & Auction and Columbia magazines, as well as liner notes for CDs by Stan Getz and Cal Tjader.