Classical music and media in China 2

As promised, more on Alex’s New Yorker piece. I was heartened to see someone else seeking out some of the same people in China I find interesting (Alex and I have been the only Western journalists granted interviews with composer Chen Qigang, the music director of the Olympic opening ceremony, recently of Boosey & Hawkes) and picking up on the naked nexus of Culture, Politics and Money that is today’s China. Not that this intersection doesn’t occur elsewhere in the world, but other places have a bit more decorum. In China, the components scream out in capital letters.

Not only did I see items I’d first reported cropping up in The New Yorker (Alex graciously acknowledged me later on his blog), but also fresh stuff that Alex dug up reappearing a few days later in Mark Swed’s review of Lang Lang in the Los Angeles Times. At least the content was still valid. Usually, the second time someone quotes something about China it’s already out of date.

Which brings me to one particular phrase that keeps coming back to haunt me: that China is the sole remaining growth market for classical music. I’ve made that statement a handful of times and I’ve read it under dozens of other bylines, usually as part of some sweeping generalization. Alex, for his part, had “serious doubts about China’s putative lock on the musical future” but admired the “chaotically rich” soundscape of Beijing, which only goes to show how hard it is to make a sensible statement about China in a single paragraph. (At least Alex has enough space in the magazine to befit his optimistic ears and skeptical wits.)

I first used that line in the Financial Times, where explaining “growth market” would be like explaining “tonality” in Gramophone. I still stand that original assessment, but I realize it needs more clarification. Technically, “growth market” refers to an increase in demand for something over time, but most of us in the West have a rather domesticated concept of the term.

In the broader context, growth markets are where, instead of a measly 4 percent a year, you can double your investment (or, conversely, lose it all). Growth markets often don’t take American Express. Growth markets probably don’t even have flushing toilets. China is a growth market precisely because it has so much room to grow.

This is what makes reviewing concerts in China a challenge: How to be fair both to China and to readers in the West? The average performance level in Beijing or Shanghai – making allowances for a few truly outstanding events – is nowhere near as consistent as New York or London. And yet, people appear on stage night after night doing the very things that got many of their parents thrown in prison.

In China, a “growth market” means that a concert is often not just a concert; any given event can still be a pioneering model for other presenters to build on.

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