Olympic fever has hit London and classical music is not immune. In fact, it’s center stage as the Beijing Symphony Orchestra brought the Olympic spirit with them to London in a gala concert with London Philharmonic Orchestra on Sunday. Percussionist Li Biao was in the thick of it.
“I played in the closing ceremony of the 2008 [Olympics]. I think for every Chinese [person] it was a very proud moment. Of course, I never thought I could play in the London Olympics,” said Li Biao, who is an internationally respected percussionist, professor at Beijing Central Conservatory of Music, and the Berlin Academy of Music. “This time I was invited by the Beijing Symphony to play this concert in London and I think it’s really considerate.”
The collaboration was prompted by the Beijing Symphony and a previous relationship between the two orchestras. In 1973, The London Philharmonic was the first Western orchestra to play in China after the Cultural Revolution. However, the orchestra didn't play in China again for 30 years.
“The idea of doing a joint concert with us originated because on New Year’s Eve in 2003, we did a concert together in The Great Hall of the People in Beijing,” said LPO Artistic Director Timothy Walker. “I think, because Beijing had the 2008 Olympics, they wanted a presence of being in London during this Olympics in a cultural way as well as a sporting way. So the proposal came to us from the Beijing Symphony Orchestra, would it be possible to do this joint concert, and we readily agreed.”
“The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven was commissioned by the [London-based] Royal Philharmonic Society, in 1821, so there a strong link with Britain,” said Walker. “The Ode to Joy is the national anthem of the European Union. So, it’s a very important piece of music for Britain which is part of the European Union. Beyond that, the words of the German poet [Friedrich] Schiller, which is the text for the song, is a very significant expression of the brotherhood of man throughout the world. So, it’s a piece that symbolizes the linking of peoples from all different countries and races.”
The Musical Internationalist
Li Biao, who played a concerto by Guo Wenjing on the concert’s first half is part of that linking. The Beijing Symphony’s first ever artist-in-residence, Li was the first Chinese percussionist to graduate from the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow and completed another master’s degree at the Munich Conservatory of Music. As a symbol of internationalism, a Chinese percussionist trained in China, Russia, and Germany is pure gold.
Li Biao laughs at the thought of himself as a young man, product of the Cultural Revolution, beginning his lifelong percussion studies. “First, the percussion family is very large because there are so many instruments. Even now, I cannot tell [you] how many percussion instruments there are. I need to practice — if I knew that, maybe I wouldn't want to learn percussion from the first moment,” Li confesses. “Of course when I started, when I began learning classical percussion instruments, at the time in China they didn't have enough instruments. [Sometimes] they didn't have instruments at all. It was 35 years ago, so it was a very hard time for students who wanted to learn classical music.”
As a symbol of internationalism, a Chinese percussionist trained in China, Russia, and Germany is pure gold.
“I think Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is one of the greatest art works in history,” says Li, reflecting on the concert’s main work. “Of course, the Olympics is a very great moment and we have to play something like Beethoven's No. 9. If they see that there’s a story, if some great moment happened, they play almost always Beethoven No. 9. For me, personally, this is the greatest symphony.”
However, the night's crowning achievement was possibly not Beethoven’s at all. For Walker, the concert represents a present-day realization of international unity right in his own orchestra.
“I think the most rewarding aspect will be our players sitting alongside the Chinese players on the platform. It's a really integrated collaboration, so I think that will be wonderful,” said Walker. “We also have one Chinese member in our own orchestra [first violin, Yang Zhang], so she's obviously very excited about this collaboration. And she's very important for us because she is our musical translator. I'll be very pleased to see her personal satisfaction in this collaboration.”
“It is my pleasure to do the concert — London Philharmonic [and BSO] together,” said Li. “I think it’s not only the music, I think even more the friendship between the two orchestras — I think it’s wonderful.”