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Lucerne orchestra strikes a chord in China


Star conductor Claudio Abbado is taking his Lucerne Festival Orchestra to Beijing, for what is expected to be a very popular series of concerts.

It is the first time that the renowned orchestra has played in China, a country in which classical music is hitting a popularity high note.

The six-day residency at Beijing's new National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) begins on Sunday.

It will be a busy visit, with four symphony and several chamber concerts. The soloists will be the young Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, who wowed audiences at this year's Lucerne Summer Festival, and the acclaimed Swiss soprano Rachel Harnisch.

Chinese conductor and composer Tan Dun, responsible for the Oscar-winning film music for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, completes the lineup.

"It's the biggest residency that has ever taken place in Beijing and the first time that an orchestra is having such an intense residency [there]," Lucerne festival director Michael Haefliger told ahead of the visit.


The musicians of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, which only forms in the summer months, are handpicked by the Italian conductor Abbado. The ensemble is regarded by many as one of the best of its kind, with this year's performance of Mahler's Symphony No.4 in G major receiving rave reviews in the media.

Since 2005 the orchestra has headed abroad following its festival engagements. Previous destinations have included Rome, Tokyo, New York and Vienna.

Haefliger said that the orchestra was invited to go to Beijing. It was also the 76-year-old Abbado's personal wish to return to the country that he first visited in 1973, in what was a pioneering series of concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Demand for tickets then was very big. "I never heard a sound," Abbado was quoted in the International Herald Tribune as saying. "But every ten minutes 2,000 people would leave and 2,000 more would come in."

The 2009 concert location, the ultra-modern NCPA – which is situated in the heart of old Beijing - only opened two years ago. It is described on its website as "China's new face on the performing arts". There are already good reports about ticket sales for the residency.

"We are of course very curious and interested in getting to know a new audience. Classical music in China is very important and it's growing, so we want to build up a relationship with the audience there," Haefliger said.

Exciting experience

Harnisch, who is singing two concerts, is also looking forward to the trip. "I was with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra when it went to Japan and that was also very exciting," she said, adding that it was, nevertheless, a little bit of a culture shock and the same would probably apply in China.

The audiences should be enthusiastic. "I think they are crazy about European musicians and singers and the NCPA is huge, of course," said the singer.

She will be going over early. "The voice is an instrument and if the body is tired then you can't really sing. That's the challenge," she said.

For Thomas Gartmann, head of music at Pro Helvetia, the Swiss arts council, the Beijing residency is important for building up the Lucerne festival's brand in China. Hundreds of Japanese fans have attended the festival in the years after the 2006 Tokyo visit, he said.

70 million pianists

"During the cultural revolution in China it was forbidden to listen to western music records and you couldn't play a western instrument. But in the past 30 years [classical music] has become more and more important," Gartmann told

"It's hard to imagine but there are around 70 million amateur pianists, so you can sell 70 million pianos, it's a big market. There's also a huge pool of talent so you can take the best and support them from the beginning... and the best of the best go abroad to study in Vienna, Germany, Switzerland or the United States."

There are currently several Chinese students in Switzerland and many have gone on to have success. This includes composer Deqing Wen who studied in Beijing and Geneva and is now a dual Swiss-Chinese citizen. He now works in both countries.

It's important to learn from each other, said Gartmann. Pro Helvetia has a cultural exchange programme with China and there will be Swiss contributions at the World Expo in Shanghai next year.

For Haefliger, interaction with this big cultural nation is very important. "Culture is always a forerunner and a very important factor in building up relations," he said.

Isobel Leybold-Johnson,

Lucerne Festival Orchestra

Claudio Abbado and Michael Haefliger founded the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2003 as an elite body. Every summer renowned soloists, chamber musicians and music professors join musicians from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Many musicians spend their holidays there.

It is a central part of Abbado's musical life, since he scaled back his activities following his recovery from stomach cancer at the beginning of the decade. The charismatic conductor, said to be one of the best of his generation, has previously headed the Berlin Philharmonic and the Teatro della Scala.

The idea of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra is to experience joy in making music in a relaxed atmosphere. It usually plays during the first ten days of the summer festival (which this year ran from August 12-September 19). Members also appear in chamber recitals.

This year's Mahler 4 concert was described as "another example of glorious music making", by the International Herald Tribune. Shirley Apthorp in The Financial Times said that she would "never hear a better Mahler 4". Both reviews described how the audience sat in awestruck silence after the symphony was over.

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Beijing programme

As at this year's summer festival in Lucerne, the focus of the two orchestral concerts will fall on Gustav Mahler and his First and Fourth Symphonies, conducted by Claudio Abbado.

Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto will feature Yuja Wang, while Rachel Harnisch sings Mahler's Fourth and Mozart arias.

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra will appear under the baton of Tan Dun. The residency's opening event will be a chamber music matinee featuring soloists from the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

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