In November, I traveled to Shenzhen, China for a conference on the future of Chinese classical music. Sponsored by Volkswagen China’s cultural initiative—which, full disclosure, paid for my flights—the conference gathered orchestral conductors, managers and administrators to the top floor of Shenzhen’s “Talent Park,” a brand-new pavilion looking out onto the bay. As panelists spoke about ways to increase rehearsal efficiency, I met Yu Long, a Chinese conductor who studied composition in Berlin in the late 1980s, for an interview. Born in Shanghai, the city where classical music gained a foothold in modern China, the conductor has the brusque manner of a local politician. He is the artistic director of the China Philharmonic Orchestra, the music director of the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, and principal guest conductor at the Hong Kong Philharmonic. After our conversation, Yu joined Volkswagen China CEO Jochem Heizmann for a panel on the similarities between managing an automobile company and an orchestra. In fact, the two jobs seemed rather different, but both men agreed about the importance of listening.

VAN: You were the first person to conduct a complete performance of Wagner’s “Ring” in China. Did you experience the audience’s reaction?

Yu Long: They loved it. Of course, this was in Beijing, which has a special audience. Classical music is booming in many Chinese cities, and the musical life is very well developed, but Beijing audiences are still special—more open-minded than elsewhere. They have the capacity to embrace all different kinds of culture.

That “Ring,” I think it was in 2005, was a historical event. By the time “Götterdämmerung” finished, it was already midnight or 1 a.m., but there were still six standing ovations.

Are there other pieces that you’d like to do for the first time in China?

You know, in my life, I introduced most of the German work that came to China. I personally introduced the “Ring” cycle, “Tannhäuser,” “Rosenkavalier,” “Ariadne auf Naxos,” “Parsifal,” “Tristan und Isolde,” “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” “Guerrelieder,” “Elektra”… It’s always exciting.

I’ll find more interesting pieces and bring them here too. You know, in China music is very developed, but we still have a lot of work to do, to expose people to the repertoire. When I started the Beijing Musical Festival, we did mostly traditional works like “Carmen,” “La Bohème,” “Tosca” or whatever. After 10 years of the festival, we started to introduce more challenging works: mostly German repertoire. And five years ago, we started to introduce contemporary music to China as well.

Yu Long • Photo Yan Liang 
Yu Long • Photo Yan Liang 

In VAN, Lucy Cheung, a Chinese music journalist, wrote that Chinese audiences prefer to see famous Western orchestras when they come on tour, as opposed to local ensembles. Do you think that’s true?

No. Though it can depend on the local orchestra. At the closing gala of the Beijing Music Festival, we performed with the Hangzhou Philharmonic Orchestra and Yo-Yo Ma, and were received warmly by the audience.

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You initiated a commissioning project called COMPOSE 20:20. Who do you think are some of the most interesting young Chinese composers?

There are a lot. Zhao Lin recently composed a double concerto called “A Happy Excursion” for pipa, cello and orchestra, for us and Yo-Yo Ma. This year’s [Beijing Music Festival] also commissioned Fay Kueen Wang, who lives in New York, but is a Chinese composer, and Zhou Tian, who was nominated for a Grammy this year, and who’s an excellent composer.

The composers of the [’78 generation] are fairly well known in the West: Chen Qigang, Su Gong, Guo Wenjing, those composers. They are very special, and I’m so glad that China has this strong generation of composers. Now we’re also looking to the next generations, composers who were born in the ‘80s and even the ‘90s.

We support and encourage young composers. It’s not because we need pieces to perform; it’s because we really care about how this generation of artists is developing, and we care about their artistic work at this time in their life.

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They’re doing quite different things. I mean, most young Chinese composers use at least some Chinese elements.

It’s hard to criticize what is good or what is bad. The most important thing is to give them a chance, a free stage, and let them try their work.

What do you do when you’re premiering a new piece and you find that something isn’t working?

What do you mean, isn’t working?

Say the orchestration is flawed.

I haven’t had that experience yet. When we commission a composer, we mostly already know them. We meet and have discussions.

You know, even with the younger generation, if they are a composer, they are a composer. They know what they’re doing. In the orchestration, there’s nothing that doesn’t work. You can say you like it, or you don’t like it, or whatever, that happens, but the orchestration not working…I don’t have these kind of problems.

In Shanghai, we have young people’s composition workshops. We collaborate with the New York Philharmonic, and it’s for ages 13-15. I love to see this young, baby work come out. ¶

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… has been an editor at VAN since 2015. He’s the author of The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey: Delirium and Form (Boydell & Brewer), and his journalism has appeared in The Baffler, the New York...