China’s youngest symphony orchestra sets new standard for symphony performance

June 13 15:00 2024

A performance by Wuxi Symphony Orchestra

On Jan 1, with the triumphant notes of Wuxi Overture ringing in the New Year at the Wuxi Grand Theatre, the Wuxi Symphony Orchestra made its official debut.

Founded in June 2023, the Wuxi Symphony is the newest and youngest symphony orchestra in China. Teaming up with top musicians from home and abroad, it launched its debut performance with a new composition that vibrantly reflects Wuxi’s ethos as a Jiangnan water town and a historical city in East China’s Jiangsu province.

“Our symphony orchestra premiered with a totally original work (Wuxi Overture), which could be an initiative among orchestras around the world, and that is what we want to let the world hear — the voice of Wuxi,” said Lin Daye, the orchestra’s artistic director and chief conductor.

Wuxi is an ancient cultural city that embodies the essence of the culture of Jiangnan, the region south of the Yangtze River estuary. In this regard, the city has a prerequisite for establishing a symphony orchestra, Lin said, adding: “Although symphony orchestras were introduced from the West several hundred years ago, I believe that over the years, symphonic music has become a universal language around the world. Ever since symphonic music came to China, it has combined with our Eastern culture to create our unique symphonic language.”

Focusing on more original works and combining Chinese elements in their creation is the key consensus among the Wuxi Symphony, said Li Shaosheng, the orchestra’s music director and composer of the Wuxi Overture.

“Today’s Chinese young people have a good understanding of the world,” Li said. “The Wuxi Symphony is new, but it can also showcase the youthful vigor of China’s new generation. Through this, we can present the voice of China’s young people to the world, exhibiting the confidence of the Chinese people and the impressive artistic charm of a younger generation of Chinese orchestras. This is not only an expression of the new charm of the nation, but also a testament to the artistic potential of the younger generation in China.”

As a representative of young composers, Li is dedicated to injecting Chinese culture in his creation.

“The development of Chinese symphony orchestras is a process of localizing foreign culture, which means that we do not have as many classic compositions at our disposal,” Li said.

For the Wuxi Symphony, Li said the tutoring team would emphasize traditional Chinese culture and even philosophy to help more foreign members in the orchestra gain a further understanding of and be nourished by Chinese culture.

The orchestra currently has more than 60 members, including some from Italy, Spain, the United States and Japan, with an average age of 28.

Joseph Chen, who is a 26-year-old Chinese American, serves as a trombone player in the Wuxi Symphony. Chen joined the orchestra in late 2023. He completed his music bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Missouri-Kansas City from 2016-21. During college, the young man worked as a substitute in the Kansas City Symphony.

“When you’re starting out as a musician, you just audition everywhere. And you go wherever it takes you,” Chen said.

Having grown up in Taiwan from ages 5 to 14, Chen has a deep affection for China.

“Over the past five years, I’ve been trying to come back here (in China). Joining the Wuxi Symphony is a step up from the jobs I’ve had in the past,” he said.

The Wuxi Symphony requires about five hours of rehearsal per day, which is a regular routine for members to keep improving their skills.

“One of the ways you can tell if an orchestra is professional or not is how much better they play on stage versus in rehearsal. Because in rehearsal, everyone’s just playing in a way to kind of saving their energy,” said Chen.

Lodovico Maletti, 25, a horn player from Modena, Italy, has chosen the Wuxi Symphony as his first musical job after competing in the audition. He started his horn practice at age 7 and completed his bachelor’s degree in the Royal College of Music in London and master’s degrees at the Zurich University of the Arts in Switzerland.

“Orchestra performance in China is younger than it is in Europe, which also means that there are less strict rules about how things should be performed,” said Maletti. “I think the Western world has to take into account the presence of China more and more, and that it is good to be somewhat pioneers of Chinese culture. Symphony orchestra is one of the channels that can help China better integrate into the world.”

Music Director Li said: “It is important not only to localize this Western music but also to nourish this artistic form with our traditional culture.”

There will be more musical creations featuring Wu culture, classic Chinese literature and even cross-genre elements in the orchestra’s future performances, according to Li.

Co-built by the Wuxi city government and Xinwu district, the Wuxi Symphony is envisioned to serve as a channel for Wuxi to make exchanges with the world. The local governments have provided strong financial investment, with a new music hall under construction and expected to be completed by the end of 2025.

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