Interview: Tiffany Ng, University of Michigan Carillonist
On November 7, 2017, the China NCPA Orchestra make their UMS debut in a performance that also features pipa virtuoso Wu Man. Tiffany Ng is an assistant professor of music at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and the University carillonist at Burton Tower. Her research focuses on the spectator and employee culture of the National Center for the Performing Arts venue, and we chatted about role of Western classical music in contemporary Chinese culture, bringing kids to concerts, seeing the orchestra in Ann Arbor, and more.
You mentioned that your research was focused on the spectator and employee culture of the National Center for the Performing Arts venue. What surprised you about the culture of the venue? What did you learn more broadly?
In the fifteen or so years following the construction of the groundbreaking Shanghai Grand Theater in 1998, every first-tier, second-tier, and even aspiring third-tier city in China has striven to demonstrate its global modernity with an architecturally adventurous cultural building. The new performing arts centers are designed to showcase a variety of traditions, from Western opera to Chinese theater to Russian ballet. It’s remarkable to see classical music playing such a prominent role in the nation’s construction of global cosmopolitan cities. The powerful association of Western classical music with a new sense of Chinese global modernity has drawn new audiences of all ages to classical music concerts. The single most important listeners, from my point of view, are children.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), conservatories were closed, and Western classical music was banned and its practitioners persecuted. The result is that an entire generation shares an unfamiliarity with that tradition. By 2009, however, an estimated 38 million children were studying piano, supported by parents whose hopes for their children range from gaining an edge in college admissions to international music stardom. In my fieldwork at Chinese performing arts centers, I regularly observed that concerts are filled with earnest parents whose children listen quietly and attentively to solo pianists and symphony orchestras alike. I would warn, however, against the sweeping statements going around that China is to become the refuge of Western classical music as Western audiences dwindle. There are new audiences being cultivated in Western countries, and new Chinese traditions being cultivated in Chinese performing arts centers.
Anything that you learned that you think would be interesting or useful for an Ann Arbor audience member attending the performance to consider?
Bring your kids! Given the educational value that families in Beijing place on taking their children to symphony concerts at the National Center for the Performing Arts, the members of the NCPA Orchestra are seasoned at performing for audiences of all ages. I’ve seen Chinese orchestras play on unfazed, even as the occasional child listener vocalizes delight or scrambles over seats to get closer to mom or dad. The NCPA Orchestra is a leading force in building new, young generations of classical music fans in Beijing.
The NCPA Orchestra is visiting Ann Arbor in November. Will your research impact how you experience the performance?
Absolutely. Many audience members in China are unfamiliar with, or just not invested in, current Western concert-going orthodoxies; for example, there are usually a few listeners eagerly snapping mobile phone photos and videos during classical concerts so they can share the excitement of the experience with their friends. This will be my first opportunity to see the NCPA Orchestra perform outside of China to audiences with a more uniform social code. Moreover, the repertoire of symphony orchestras in China can be subject to the agendas of state and corporate entities and to the NCPA’s mission to foster greater classical music literacy in China, but this performance will stage the NCPA’s self-presentation to American audiences. I’m excited to see how the NCPA approaches the opportunity to help Western audiences learn more about China’s burgeoning classical music scene and its global connections.
Where are you with your research now, and what are your future research plans?
Next year, I plan to return to Beijing and Shanghai to do follow-up fieldwork, supported by the Confucius Institute at the University of Michigan. Besides looking for the latest developments in audience behavior and demographics, I’d like to investigate the associations of Western classical music with nature, a connection that my interviewees frequently mentioned. I’d also like to conduct a more focused investigation of the developing role of concert hall pipe organs in China. When I first visited, the role and use of those numerous new instruments was unclear, and is evolving rapidly even now, along with the completion of China’s first carillon in Beijing in 2014. I’m Assistant Professor of Carillon in the Organ Department, so the development of these instruments in China is of great interest to me as a practicing musician.
See the China NCPA Orchestra at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor on November 7, 2017.