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January 1, 2010

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Opening chamber music door

CLASSICAL music abounds in China, but not so chamber music, the smaller, delicate ensemble performances - some call them musical "conversations" - among four or more musicians.

The emphasis is on big, impressive orchestras and soloist stars, both Chinese and international. Chamber music, though taught in Chinese conservatories, is seldom taught by accomplished chamber musicians.

Lovers of chamber music often feel frustrated that during the holidays there's little chamber music on offer and they long to savor a nuanced string quartet in which each musician responds to the others.

The chamber music scene is improving, however, as the Shanghai Conservatory of Music celebrated this music form during 2009, the 200th anniversary of the death of Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). The Austrian composed numerous pieces of chamber music and keyboard pieces in addition to symphonies.

The conservatory also held its inaugural national Chamber Music Festival and 2009 Haydn Chamber Music Competition from December 11-16. The competition attracted 12 string quartets and 10 piano trios from conservatories in Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Guangdong Province.

Simply Quartet consisting of Shen Danfeng, Sun Tongtong, Ma Hui and He Sihao won the first-prize in the string quartet category.

The competition, believed to be the first in China, aims to promote chamber music, encourage the best performers and educate the public about the beauties of refined and intricate music played in small performance halls, not huge concert halls. Chamber music, which began in Europe, was first performed to entertain nobility in palace chambers.

The event was undertaken by the Orchestra Department of the Conservatory and the Jensen Lam Chamber Music Teaching and Performance Workshop in the conservatory. Lam, who was born in Singapore, is an internationally recognized violist and chamber music educator.

The performances were sponsored by the Shanghai Chamber Music Lovers, which raised prize money of 134,500 yuan (US$19,700) and financed the travel to Shanghai for international judges. The jury included the Meta4 String Quartet from Finland, the Moscow Rachmaninov Trio, Dr Yang Yandi and Dr Qian Yiping, professor of musicology at the Shanghai Conservatory.

Seminars, master classes and concerts were open to the public.

Organizers also plan to feature chamber music by woodwinds and brass, in addition to strings and piano ensemble; they may alternate years.

"Chamber music in China is very underdeveloped," says Jensen Lam, founder of the conservatory's chamber music workshop in 2007.

"Lack of government promotions, encouragement and support are major reasons," says Lam. "In China, the focus and system is to encourage and promote solo playing. Prize money and recognition are given to teachers and students alike who have won international solo instrumental competitions."

Dr Yang, vice president of the conservatory and a renowned musicologist, says the festival and competition will become key events on the China music calender.

"The purpose is learning and exchanging. I hope this inaugural event is just the beginning of the rise of Chinese chamber music and its prominence in China and around the world."

During the festival, musicians "experience the joy and mystery of listening, interacting, cooperating and balancing that is central to performing chamber music," says Yang.

Chamber music is taught in all state conservatories in China, though it is far from entrenched in music institutions.

"Teaching chamber music is very different from instrumental teaching," says Lam who studied in Austria and Basel and has performed and toured extensively in Europe and America. A number of original compositions for the viola are dedicated to him and he has debuted concertos for viola.

"Most is not taught by qualified chamber musicians, though they may be qualified as instrumental instructors."

Educational institutions are still not actively promoting "this most fundamental and essential part of musical training," he says.

Institutions focus on sending individual students to solo competitions, there is little private promotion of chamber music or coverage in the media.

In many Western countries, chamber music is well known and concerts are popular.

Lam calls chamber music "an intimate conversation among four, with the vocabulary of musical intonation and rhetorical accentuation - each tiny movement almost instantaneously comprehended and responded to.?It is constant mental and physical communication, integrating the ideas of four disparate musicians into a unified entity, provoking, soothing, hinting, conversing - and then receiving a response of the same level of intensity and integrity from one's fellow musicians. It's a remarkable experience."

The aim of the chamber music workshop in the Shanghai Conservatory is to raise awareness among institutions, students and teachers. In chamber music individual musicians do not only play together, but they also work together toward a goal, they give and take, learn to accept criticism, put one's ego aside and cooperate in achieving unified musical ideas.

At the chamber music festival, students and teachers became acquainted with international standards and trends demonstrated by the Rachmaninov Piano Trio from Russia and Meta4 String Quartet from Finland.

The Shanghai Chamber Music Lovers, a major supporter of the event, is an informal group of chamber music fans founded last year. It is coordinated by the fine dining restaurant M on the Bund and Lam's chamber music workshop at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. It relies on individual and corporate donations and volunteers.

"M on the Bund's passion for, and support of chamber music, goes back to the inauguration of our cultural events program in 2002, when chamber music was a regular feature of the programming," says Michelle Garnaut, owner of M on the Bund, also a member of the Chamber Music Lovers.

"Our current initiative aims to support and encourage chamber music in China."

M on the Bund organized sponsors and fund-raising events to support the chamber music competition in December. It holds regular chamber music concerts in the Crystal Room.

"Our congratulations to the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and the chamber music workshop for their incredible effort in putting together this ground-breaking competition and festival - the first of many more to come," says Garnaut.

"Of course, we need a lot of financial support to make these a continuous meaningful project," says Lam. "We must keep knocking on doors of both private corporations and state government units to support us in funding chamber music projects to make them feasible."

If you are interested in Shanghai Chamber Music Lovers, contact Niny Lam by 1356-4914-637.


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