Culture | Q&A: Asia is key to revitalizing Western classical music

Q&A: Asia is key to revitalizing Western classical music

With a new Tiianjin Juilliard School due to open in 2019, Juilliard president Joseph Polisi says the rise of Asia as a classical music center may help counter a funding decline in the West

April 14, 2017 7:30 PM (UTC+8)
Joseph Polisi, president of New York’s world-renowned Juilliard School, says the opening of a Juilliard school in Tianjin in 2019 makes strategic sense because of China's respect for education in Western art and music. Photo: Juilliard School of Music.
Joseph Polisi, president of New York’s world-renowned Juilliard School, says the opening of a Juilliard school in Tianjin in 2019 makes strategic sense because of China's respect for education in Western art and music. Photo: Juilliard School of Music.

The future of Western classical music may hinge on China and Asia as funding for the performing arts declines in the US and Europe, says Joseph Polisi, president of New York’s world-famous Juilliard School.

A growing number of new concert venues and music schools in the region has been fueled by rising affluence and a traditional appreciation for education. This has pushed Asia’s performing arts scene to a catalytic stage, Polisi said.

One reflection of this, according to Polisi, is the fact that Juilliard is opening a modern performing-arts facility in China — the Tianjin Juilliard School — in 2019.

Juilliard, located in the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, recently announced the appointment of Alexander Brose, a former vice-president for development at the Aspen Music Festival and School as Tianjin’s first executive director and CEO. It’s also tapped Wei He, an internationally known violinist and professor at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music as the institution’s first artistic director and dean.

Polisi believes the collaboration between Brose and Wei will deepen ties between the US and China via artistic expression. The Tianjin school will be the first performing-arts school in China to offer students a US-accredited master’s degree.

Polisi spoke with Asia Times about his global vision for the performing arts, the Tianjin school and the trends for Western classical music in Asia.

Have the performing arts in China and rest of Asia reached a catalytic stage due to rising affluence and a growing number of schools and venues?

I think we have reached a turning point. I’m just basing this on facts.

First of all, the arts as a vibrant force, certainly in America, have been lessened by the lack of support for the teaching of the arts in our kindergarten-through-Grade 12 public and private school systems. As a result, there are millions of children in the US who really don’t have an intense or serious relationship with or understanding of the arts. This applies to drama, dance, music and to a great degree, the visual arts. That’s troubling to me.

Whereas in China, and I think in Japan, Korea and areas of Southeast Asia, I’m seeing a very, very different environment where children are introduced at an early age to serious study of music. The parents are also very supportive of that environment and see it as value in the child’s education.

ARTIST’S CONCEPTION OF TIANJIN JUILLIARD SCHOOL; CREDIT JUILLIARD SCHOOL OF MUSIC
An artist’s conception of the Tianjin Juilliard School of Music. Photo courtesy of the Juilliard School

So it’s the old story — we will reap what we have sown. You can’t expect populations in America who have never been introduced to music throughout their schools years and young adulthood to then have an epiphany by the time they turn 50 and start attending orchestral concerts. So I do see a societal and cultural shift, very much so.

What will this mean for the rest of the world?

One hopes there will be possible positive spinoffs for the rest of the world in the performing arts for what comes out of Asia. This goes back to the original question of “why is Juilliard in China?” It makes strategic sense for us to work in an environment that has so much respect for education in Western art and music.

Do you see Asia as the future of classical music?

It’s certainly a possibility. I think it would be foolish to say otherwise, because what is happening is a serious commitment to the study of classical music at all levels in China, and Chinese artists are going abroad to study in the US and Europe and then they’re coming back.

I think the audiences in China are very desirous of experiencing talent at all levels, and the traditional repertoire that one sees in Western classical music. The construction of concert halls and opera houses all over the country and a belief in the value of culture within communities are other factors.

There’s no question that (China is) putting together the infrastructure for what very much in 50 years could a very central role for Western art and music in China. That’s not to say that it won’t continue in the US or in Europe. But there certainly could be a shift.

How is the creative collaboration represented by the Tianjin Juilliard School helping to deepen ties between the US and China?

There is a very robust and rich environment for Western classical music in China, both for young children studying and also for large audiences attending concerts. I always hoped it would be possible for Juilliard to have a permanent base in China to help support, enlarge and enrich that environment.

The (music) majors that we’re developing in China at our Tianjin Juilliard School are slightly different from what we have in New York in the sense that we’re focusing on orchestral music, chamber music and collaborative piano in the area of vocal arts.

These are three areas where my Chinese colleagues say there is potential for growth and greater exploration, especially in the area of chamber music and also in developing the vocal coaches for which there’s tremendous need in China. These are areas where Juilliard could enhance the process educationally and artistically.

I see this as a very long-term proposition. The results will only really been seen in 15 to 20 years. But we have to begin — and will — so we look forward to our opening in 2019.

What is the Tianjin Juilliard School’s specific mission? What is it trying to achieve?

We are very much intent on continuing the Juilliard tradition in China, making the experience as we’ve used the term, the so-called authentic Juilliard experience in China. So, as close as we can get to the New York experience in China, that’s what we’re going to do, and that has to do with artistic values, standards, faculty, performance repertoire, all of the issues, approaches, and programs that we have in New York.

Can you elaborate on your vision of bringing the performing arts to a global audience?

Juilliard has always been international in the sense that we’ve always had students from around the world study in New York City. Right now, about 30% of our students are international students. But we haven’t been global, and I think there’s a distinction. Global, in my view, means there’s an outreach from New York to the world, instead of the world outreaching to New York.

So this is the first effort on Juilliard’s part, in a consistent way, to have programs that really have a global impact. At Tianjin, we expect not just Chinese students, but East Asian students, and for that matter, students from all over the world who might for various reasons want to study in China, instead of New York.

There are also Juilliard’s other projects such as our association with Nord Anglia Education, an international kindergarten-through-Grade 12 network that is based in Hong Kong in which we provide the performing-arts curriculum for drama, dance and music at their schools all around the world. For us, this is an enormous opportunity to impact, right now, the lives of about 45,000 children. That number will get larger. We also literally want places where Juilliard artists can teach and perform in a network that reaches from North America to China to the Mideast and Europe.

On our digital products such as apps and online courses, this is the first time that we can actually teach courses globally and allow Juilliard to work with adults and children around the world. So this really is an all-hands-on-deck effort to have a much more global impact.

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