As the three-year-old National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America gears up for its seven- city tour of China this summer, no one is looking forward to the trip more eagerly than flutist Yibiao Wang. "I am absolutely thrilled to be returning to China," says the 17-year-old from Flushing, New York, "since this will actually be the first time I will be performing in a concert hall in my homeland."
Yibiao started playing flute and piano at age seven in his native Beijing. After moving to the United States two years later, he enrolled in Juilliard's pre-college program. Currently a senior at Queens High School for the Sciences at York College, he is on track to continue his studies at Juilliard and Columbia University next fall. In the meantime, he is excited about visiting cities like Shanghai, which he says still feel foreign to him.
Yibiao is one of some 25 members of NYO-USA whose Chinese heritage mirrors the shifting demographics of classical music in the United States. In recent years, Chinese musicians have become increasingly prominent in American orchestras, music schools, and concert life. Witness Frank Huang, the New York Philharmonic's newly appointed concertmaster, and Tan Dun, the award-winning composer of the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film score and The First Emperor, which the Metropolitan Opera premiered in 2006.
Tan's music: with its fertile blend of East Asian, European, and American elements: is as popular in China as it is in the West. So it's appropriate that a new work by the boundary-crossing composer, commissioned by Carnegie Hall, will be featured as part of NYO-USA's tour program. Under the baton of Charles Dutoit, the orchestra will also treat Chinese audiences to Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique and Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto, the latter featuring Beijing-based piano virtuoso YUNDI.
China's status as an emerging musical superpower has long been reflected in Carnegie Hall's artistic and strategic planning. As Executive and Artistic Director Clive Gillinson explains, "China has become one of the world's most important centers for classical music and will play an ever- increasing role in the future of music." For that reason, he expects NYO-USA: a program of Carnegie Hall's Weill Music Institute: to return to China in years to come.
Gillinson believes that it is "one of our fundamental responsibilities to use the unique power of this institution to transform lives through music." Pursuant to that vision, Carnegie Hall recently enlisted as one of several major private-sector participants in a diplomatic cultural exchange program between the United States and China known as the Consultation on People-to-People Exchange.
NYO-USA is one of four designated "Cultural Pillars" of this five- year-old US State Department and Chinese Ministry of Culture initiative. Hence, each of the teenage musicians is not just a member of the orchestra, but also a cultural ambassador: a role that Emma Richman, a 16-year- old violinist from Minneapolis, embraces. "I can't think of a more constructive pursuit than being in the company of like-minded musicians, putting our heart and soul into bettering the world through music," she says.
Emma decided to take up the violin when she was four years old, telling her father, "Papa, I have music inside me." For her, making music is about forging connections between people of diverse cultures and backgrounds. "Music is a perfect vehicle for this goal because it is a universal language. It has the power to tell a story and make an impact on an audience without using any words at all. We won't need to speak fluent Chinese in order to connect to audiences in China. We can create a community and a connection between our cultures around the experience of making and hearing our music."
Yibiao agrees that NYO-USA's visit to China presents significant extramusical opportunities. "Ping- pong diplomacy, the first cultural exchange between post-war China and the US, began to thaw the hostile relationship between the two countries. The upcoming tour will facilitate further cultural exchange and ultimately promote friendship between the two powerful countries."
Like Emma and Tan Dun, Yibiao sees himself as a bridge builder. "Having experienced both Chinese and American cultures, I feel that I have an obligation to find the common ground between the two cultures and serve as a conduit between them. To me, Chinese and American cultures are in a yin-yang relationship. I see Chinese culture as the yin, more traditional and introspective, and American culture as the yang, more outgoing and spontaneous."
Concert etiquette is one area in which Yibiao expects to see a difference between the two countries. For instance, he says, "When I lived in China, all the classical music concerts I attended were emceed, even if programs were handed out. Similar to the tradition of applauding every solo in jazz, Chinese culture dictates that it is actually considered rude to the performers if the audience does not applaud after hearing something they like. So the practice of clapping between movements in a classical music concert is not uncommon."
Navigating such cultural cross- currents is part of the job description for Ken Smith, who helped coordinate elements of Carnegie Hall's wide-ranging Ancient Paths, Modern Voices festival of Chinese culture in 2009 and will be on the ground with NYO-USA in China. After performing at Purchase College, SUNY, on July 10 and Carnegie Hall on July 11, the orchestra will fly to Beijing for its Chinese debut on July 15. From there, the ensemble will travel by plane, bus, and train to Shanghai, Suzhou, Xi-an, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou, before playing its final concert in Hong Kong on July 26. Smith explains that the itinerary was built around cities that offered not only large audiences, but excellent concert halls, educational opportunities, and cultural and tourist attractions of interest to young musicians. "Planning this tour has been a combination of finding the best performance opportunities and areas that offer rich possibilities for personal engagement," he says. "Just as important as the quality of the concert halls is the level of local music education and the potential for our young musicians to find enriching experiences."
For Emma, who is returning for her second season with NYO-USA, the opportunity to "better the world through music" is worth all the time and effort that goes into making such a complex venture a reality. "Touring with NYO-USA last year was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Working, playing, laughing, and living with that amazing group of people, I made friendships that will last a lifetime. NYO-USA is the kind of program where you just have to pinch yourself every once in a while and think, 'Is this my life? This is unbelievable!'"