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Carmen in China

20 February 2015


A FEW years ago, I had the dubious privilege of conducting the Yangon Symphony Orchestra, a motley array of music teachers and amateurs. Our rendition of Eine kleine Nachtmusik would not have earned it a visit to last year's Proms season of global orchestras; though the ensemble was driven by a fierce desire to compete in the global cultural market.

Petroc Trelawny's survey of Global Classical Music (World Service, Saturday) focused on the rather more polished orchestras of Mumbai, Beijing, and Muscat; but he might just as easily have chosen bands in Thailand, Malaysia, and Myanmar, all of them prioritising the music of dead Westerners.

We are used to the notion of globalised pop and sport. But the phenomenon of vast and expensive buildings being erected to house performances of Beethoven symphonies and Verdi operas is a still more puzzling one, not least because this is music that Western promoters are constantly anxious to sell to their own public.

Trelawny visited Guangzhou, in China, whose new opera house is staging a production of Carmen which originated at the Royal Opera House; so, it was a British version of a French setting of a Spanish drama. Music publishers are finding that they are selling more to these markets than to traditional Western ones, and everyone in the ailing classical-music business is keen that it should continue.

But, even in these halcyon days, there are signs of strain. In China, music promoters can no longer rely on state subsidy as before; which is good, in that they no longer have to give away half their tickets to uninterested party apparatchiks, but bad if you don't like seeing luxury-end cars parked in your foyer as adverts for your corporate sponsors.

Klaus Heymann, the founder of Naxos records, which made its money promoting cheaper, non-Western orchestras, also sounded a frustrated note. If all those Chinese children who play the piano (at least 30 million of them) were to buy one concert ticket and one CD a year, the problem of filling the new concert halls would be solved.

But musical taste has only a little to do with music. It is about self-identity on the political, just as much as on the individual, level. It will be interesting to see what is occupying those impressive futuristic buildings in 20 years' time.

If you are the kind of person who loves to dazzle your dining companions with recondite facts, then Salt (Radio 4, Monday of last week) was your kind of programme. Posing as a historical survey of this most essential of ingredients and preservatives, Steph McGovern's essay was really a QI-style recital of did-you-knows.

Did you know, for instance, that the oldest cities in the world were essentially salt silos? Or that salt played an important strategic part in the American Civil War? You could play the etymology game: salt takes us to soldier, salary, salsa, sauce, and cellar. Indeed, if you really want to impress your friends, you could point out the pleonasm which is the "salt cellar".

There was a lot more, including some interesting material on the use of salt in folkloric practices; but I doubt you'll have any friends left by then.

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