In China, Rejuvenating a Classical Music Heritage Linked to a Jewish Community
Dancers in front of the Harbin Opera House, which was unveiled last year.
HARBIN, China — In winter, tourists flock to Harbin, in northeastern China, for its world-renowned ice sculpture festival. But with summer in full bloom, this city is working overtime on behalf of a less publicized part of its heritage: classical music.
The arts — and especially classical music — flourished here throughout the early 20th century. Nicknamed the St. Petersburg of the East, Harbin was home to a thriving Jewish community that helped build a rich cultural scene, including China’s first symphony orchestra, made up of mostly Russian musicians.
“Harbin is a modern city that has a deep tradition of music,” Liu Shifa, the city’s deputy mayor, said recently in an interview. “We want to rejuvenate this tradition so we can bring it to the next level.”
On Saturday, the annual Harbin Summer Music Festival began its 33rd edition, which will continue until Aug. 20. This summer the city has also hosted the third Alice & Eleonore Schoenfeld International String Competition and two concerts conducted by Zubin Mehta, featuring the Harbin Symphony Orchestra and 15 members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. The festival lineup includes the a cappella group Ball in the House from Boston, the Kodaly Quartet from Hungary and the Yinhe Siqin Mongolia Original Music Band.
With President Xi Jinping having called for a “cultural renaissance,” Harbin, like a number of other second- and third-tier cities around China, has poured hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years into cultural infrastructure projects.
The Harbin Opera House, which is 850,000 square feet.
Over the past two years Harbin has focused on developing its cultural infrastructure.
In the past two years alone it has unveiled a gleaming concert hall, an 850,000-square-foot opera house and a $116 million conservatory built in a neo-Classical style. Giant sculptures of Chinese classical instruments and statues of famous Western composers dot the 121-acre Harbin Music Park, which opened in 2012.
Crucially, reviving Harbin’s musical tradition has also meant strengthening its ties to the city’s Jewish past. That is one facet of a larger effort to promote tourism and strengthen economic bonds with countries like Israel.
City officials have a “vision of building a cultural bridge with Israel,” said Mr. Mehta, the longtime music director of the Israel Philharmonic. “So I came as a catalyst between the two sides.”
In the packed audience during one of the conductor’s concerts was Mr. Liu, the deputy mayor, along with a delegation of local government officials.
“Interest in the Harbin Jewish community has gone up tremendously,” said Dan Ben-Canaan, director of the Sino-Israel Research and Study Center at Heilongjiang University in Harbin. “Fifteen years ago, there was zero interest and zero acknowledgment of the community.”
The government now maintains a once neglected Jewish cemetery where Joseph Olmert, a grandfather of the former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, is buried. The city has also invested millions of dollars in restoring Jewish-built structures, including the Old Synagogue, which provided a cool respite from one sticky evening this summer when a local string quartet performed Brahms, Scott Joplin and the Chinese folk song “Jasmine Flower.”
A concert at the Old Synagogue, which is now a concert hall.
Harbin has invested millions of dollars in restoring Jewish structures.
Soon after its establishment in 1898, Harbin grew into a thriving administrative hub for the China Eastern Railway, built to connect Moscow to Vladivostok.
During the 1920s, the city was home to as many as 20,000 Jews. Some were refugees who wanted to escape czarist pogroms in Russia and, later, the Bolshevik Revolution and World War I. But unlike the Jews in Shanghai and other China cities with large Jewish communities, many in Harbin were also merchants and entrepreneurs who had come from Russia and Europe seeking economic opportunities.
“In a sense, the Harbin Jews were more wealthy and aristocratic than the other Jews in China,” Mr. Ben-Canaan said. “They built a much richer and stronger foundation for culture.”
The city soon became a gateway for Western classical music in China. In addition to the country’s first symphony orchestra — founded in 1908 — Harbin had as many as 30 music schools where a number of prominent international musicians trained, including the German violinist Helmut Stern. There were jazz orchestras, ballet performances, drama groups, theater companies and even a Yiddish theater.
“The Jewish community made huge contributions to the establishment of Harbin’s musical tradition,” said Miao Di, director of the Harbin Museum of Music. “So many of China’s top classical musicians in the early 20th century trained in Harbin or studied under teachers trained in Harbin.”
After the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in the 1930s, however, the city’s Jewish population began to decline as Jews fled.
Zubin Mehta conducting the Harbin Symphony Orchestra.
By the mid-1950s, after World War II and the victory of the Chinese Communist Party, only a few hundred Jews remained.
Yet even after the departure of most of the city’s foreigners, Harbin continued to devote resources to classical music. It established the summer music festival in 1958.
In 2010, the United Nations recognized Harbin as a Music City. Today it is still common to see local musicians and bands serenading crowds on the popular Zhongyang Pedestrian Street in the summer.
“There’s a different attitude toward the high arts in Harbin,” said Jindong Cai, a Stanford professor and frequent guest conductor with Chinese orchestras. “Every city in China is trying to find its niche, and it’s clear that Harbin discovered theirs early.”
Still, there is a long road ahead before Harbin can be considered a world-class musical city.
Major issues need to be addressed, such as how to create consistent quality programming for the new concert hall and grand theater, and how to recruit world-class faculty and students for a new conservatory that is competing with other, more established ones.
It does not help that the pool of talented musicians in China is shrinking as more and more musicians choose to study and play abroad.
At least one Chinese musician, Suli Xue, has heeded that call. Several years ago, Mr. Xue, a violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, decided to take advantage of the growing interest in classical music in Harbin, his hometown.
The government quickly agreed to his proposal to host the Alice & Eleonore Schoenfeld International String Competition. Beginning last month, Harbin hosted the competition for the second consecutive year, with the government providing the venues and paying for some of the competition’s costs.
“In China, when you get the government’s support, it’s very strong,” said Mr. Xue, who is the artistic director of the competition.
Such international exchanges “help improve the musical taste of the entire city of Harbin,” said Mr. Liu, the deputy mayor, during intermission at Mr. Mehta’s concert.
Perhaps more important, he said, they help move China toward its longer-term cultural vision.
“If one day we can attend a performance by a Chinese master leading a performance of a work by a famous Chinese composer,” he said, “that would be the dream.”
The New York Times, August 9, 2016