By Duncan Gordon
The leafy streets of Shenzhen in spring provided the perfect location to host the 2017 Belt and Road Shenzhen International Music Festival. The city is used to newcomers: more than 95 percent of Shenzhen residents are migrants. 720 artists from 30 countries descended on south China’s city of innovation and energy, to perform together and showcase different musical styles from around the world.
Xi Jinping first put forward the idea of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013 as a policy of development through economic and cultural integration to produce win-win outcomes for all the countries involved. Han Wang Xi, Director of the Information Office of the Shenzhen Municipal Government, and Secretary General of the organizing committee of the music festival, said that Shenzhen and China wish to promote the exchange of cultures.
Han says that the idea of hosting an international music event in Shenzhen “was rooted in my heart for years.” The support from the national government provided the impetus to make the dream a reality. “The variety of artists and musical styles we have assembled here in Shenzhen make this festival a truly extraordinary performance,” he said.
As the sun set on the wide boulevards of Shenzhen on Saturday 25 March, excitement was building for the opening concert of the music festival. While the musicians were busy making final preparations backstage or solemnly performing pre-concert rituals, the lucky ticket holders were ordering taxis to the state of the art Shenzhen Concert Hall, designed by avant-garde Japanese architect Arata Isozaki. Outside the hall, in the angular shadows cut across the patio by the venue’s audacious design, audience members and VIPs mingled, dressed to the nines for one of the top events in Shenzhen’s cultural calendar. The warm spring air was spiked with anticipation.
The Belt and Road International Music Festival Orchestra took the stage to warm applause, followed by conductor Hu Yongyan. After a spritely rendition of Dvorak’s “Carnival Overture”, the stage was set for the deep, booming notes of the solo baritone. The audience sat in awe as the Mongolian Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar filled the auditorium with his colossal voice.
That towering performance hooked the listeners, who were then treated to a suona (traditional Chinese horn) concerto by Zhang Qianyuan, the only solo Chinese instrument performance in the opening concert. Mezzo-soprano, Indian sitar, and tenor items then followed. A cross-cultural duet of the Chinese Opera classic “The White-Haired Girl Aria Tying the Red Ribbon” captivated the audience, as the chemistry between the soprano Katherine Whyte from Canada and the baritone Yang Yang from China brought the piece to life. Whyte also received a fantastic reception for her flawless Chinese singing. Two energetic displays by a solo bass-baritone and a piano solo led into a rousing choral finale of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. The piece, famously used as the European Union’s anthem, is often regarded as a symbol of unity; a fitting conclusion to the opening concert.
Music is a language
The paths that wind up the hill in Lianhuashan Park are overhung by lychee and mango trees. The fresh aroma and verdant green vegetation are almost enough to convince visitors that they are hiking in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia, were it not for glimpses of Shenzhen’s gleaming skyscrapers protruding between the trees. On the summit of the hill, among the crowds basking in the comfortable weather and taking in the views of Shenzhen’s futuristic skyline were Alexander Burggasser and Christian Birnbaum, two violinists from the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, who were taking advantage of some downtime before their concert by exploring the city. Both musicians were excited about the prospect of playing at the acoustically outstanding Shenzhen Poly Theatre the following night. Discussing the importance of the Belt and Road International Music Festival, Burggasser mused, “Music allows people to think positively about things, both emotionally and intellectually. Understanding any kind of art starts a process of refining your thinking and that is a good thing however you look at it.” Birnbaum concurred that music can have a positive effect on exchanges between different cultures, saying, “Music is a language which everybody understands and gives you a power which encourages you to improve your life and the lives of people around you.”
Chief Executive of the music festival, Han Wang Xi, is a firm believer in the power of culture to bring people from different countries closer together. “International events like this can help us to learn from each other and share our different understandings of art, culture and life,” enthused Han. He added, “At a time when the world faces many problems, music grants us the opportunity to cross borders peacefully.”
If the venue for Saturday’s opening concert was striking, the location for the Vienna Symphony Orchestra’s Monday night concert was otherworldly. Designed like a water droplet, the Shenzhen Poly Theatre is an unmistakably twenty-first century venue at which to watch an orchestra with over one hundred years of history. They do say opposites attract. When the theatre opened in 2007, general manager Zeng Ruoming claimed that the sound of tearing a piece of paper on the stage could be heard in any of the venue’s 1,500 seats. It was in this setting that the Vienna Symphony Orchestra played some of Beethoven’s best known symphonies and a selection of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. The audience showed their appreciation enthusiastically throughout the show and encouraged conductor Philippe Jordan to perform a double-encore.
The concerts featuring music from China, Belt and Road countries, and beyond continue into April. Han Wang Xi believes that cooperation is crucial to the Belt and Road Initiative; “The Belt and Road is not a solo by China, but a symphony of all the countries involved.” It is a policy that can bring win-win solutions to all participants, if they work together. Han argues that cultural events like the international music festival can “open our minds” to new ideas and allow us to work together more effectively.
The festival is one of many important cultural events in Shenzhen this year, including the Shenzhen China Dance Open in July and the China Cup International Regatta in October. With a subtropical climate, nearby beaches and some of the best air quality of any major eastern city in China, it is not hard to see why Shenzhen is chosen as the host venue for so many events. For Han Wang Xi, it is the music that really makes Shenzhen the place that it is. “This city is different to other cities in China. It is full of young people and innovation. We are the city of music.”