As members of the China Philharmonic Orchestra flew back to China on Jan 21 after a taxing whirlwind tour of Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania covering just eight days, they would no doubt have been yearning for at least a little rest.
Chinese New Year, which the orchestra had just helped China's friends in eastern and central Europe celebrate with some wonderful music, was four days away, and once those festivities were over, a busy year, including celebrating the orchestra's 20th anniversary, lay ahead.
However, orchestra members would have had little inkling of the shape that this rest of theirs would eventually take. Signs that a year unlike any other for the orchestra might be shaping up appeared as early as Jan 28, when management announced that the closing concert of the Chinese Symphonic Works Exhibition in Celebration of the 70th Anniversary of the Founding of the People's Republic of China, which was to have been performed in Beijing on Feb 19, would be postponed.
The reason, of course, was the coronavirus. While it would be an exaggeration to say that these were the days in which the orchestra's music died, for eight months it certainly made no live appearances. Those days included May 25, the orchestra's 20th anniversary, and around which a series of live concerts and events was supposed to bring together musicians from around the world.
The 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven's birth falls in about three months, and the 110th anniversary of Gustav Mahler's death is next May, so the orchestra had plans to perform pieces by the two composers during its 2020-21 season.
"Like many orchestras around the world we did give a lot of online performances, but you can't compare that to the joy of live concerts," says Yu Long, the orchestra's founder, artistic director and chief conductor.
"For both the musicians and audiences, playing and watching a live concert inside a concert hall are about sharing, meeting and connecting with one another. It's exciting and spontaneous, and it's entertaining and interactive."
Now, as performing arts venues reopen after months bathed in silence, the China Philharmonic Orchestra is back with live concerts, and it will get the chance belatedly to celebrate its big day.
On Aug 24 Yu appeared in the rehearsal room of the orchestra in downtown Beijing and set out the orchestra's modified program for 2020-21. Taking into account live concerts canceled because of COVID-19, 16 live concerts by the full-size orchestra and five chamber music concerts, all to be held in Beijing, were on the program.
Under Yu's baton, the orchestra finally opened its 2020-21 season at the Forbidden City Concert Hall in Beijing on Sept 11, featuring the violinist Ning Feng. Works by Beethoven, including Violin Concerto in D Major, Op 61 and Symphony No 6 In F Major, Op 68 ("Pastorale"), were performed.
Next Saturday, Sept 26, a concert will be held at Poly Theater celebrating the 71st anniversary of the founding of New China. Under the baton of Shi Shucheng, the orchestra will perform Chinese pieces including Festival Overture by Shi Wanchun, written from 1960 to 1976, and The White-haired Girl Symphonic Suite, adapted from the Chinese opera The White-Haired Girl, which debuted in 1945 in Yan'an, Shaanxi province. Bedrich Smetana's Vltava and From Bohemia's Woods and Fields, both from the composer's (My Country) will also be played.
The delayed 20th anniversary concert will be held at Poly Theater on Oct 20. Five young Chinese musicians born in 2000 will perform, including the violist Yu Mingyue, the violinist Lin Ruifeng, the pianist Ju Xiaofu, the falsetto tenor Liu Kun and the cellist Ouyang Nana.
"Each of these five musicians is as old as the China Philharmonic Orchestra," Yu says. "Along with the orchestra, as they've grown up they've witnessed the growth of China's classical music scene."
Yu, who will take the baton for the concert, says: "I am very excited about it. With this new season, not only do we perform the finest music, but we also showcase our achievements over 20 years and young musicians who are the future of the country's classical music industry."
Yu Mingyue, born in Beijing into an intellectual family, will play Romanze for Viola and Orchestra, Op 85 by Max Bruch.
"I know some musicians in the orchestra, but this will be the first time I've performed with it," Yu says. "It's a great honor to be able to play with the other musicians on this special occasion."
Yu, who started to learn to play violin when she was 4, enrolled to study at the affiliated middle school of the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing in 2012. The sound of the viola is "not as high and squeaky as the violin", she says, and at middle school she decided to make the viola her specialist subject.
She is now studying at the Colburn School in Los Angeles under the renowned Scottish viola soloist Paul Coletti.
Recalling her experience of learning music, Yu says her parents let her study violin, hoping to improve her learning and cognitive development as a child. Without the pressure of becoming a soloist, she enjoyed playing her musical instrument. She opted for music as a lifelong career when she was 12.
"I never feel bored when I play my musical instrument. Music makes me happy and imaginative."
Thanks to the internet she can collect and learn music scores from composers around the world, she says, one of her favorite composers being Johannes Brahms, whose music, Yu says, "tastes like wine".
"His music may not be easy to understand when you first listen to it, but the more you listen to it the more intriguing it becomes."
Yu Long says: "These young Chinese musicians are very talented, and they can all access music materials they want to read through the internet, something my generation's musicians consider a luxury."
Yu, born into a musical family in Shanghai in 1964, received his early musical education from his grandfather Ding Shande, a renowned composer, and went on to study at the Shanghai Conservatory and the Hochschule der Kunst in Berlin. On his return from Europe he played a leading role in the growth of classical music in China.
In 1992 he was appointed principal conductor of the China National Opera House in Beijing and served as its conductor for three years.
In 1998 he founded the Beijing Music Festival and was its artistic director from 1998 to 2018. The annual festival is now one of the largest classical music events in the country, at which opera, symphonic concerts, recitals and chamber music concerts are performed.
In the China Philharmonic Orchestra's 20 years it has become one of the country's top orchestras. In 2002, under Yu's baton, it premiered Mahler's Symphony No 8, one of the largest choral works in the classical concert repertoire, in China, with about 1,000 musicians performing onstage. In 2005 the orchestra undertook a world tour, visiting 22 cities in North America, Italy and the United Kingdom.
The following year it was the only Asian orchestra to play in a televised concert along with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic as a tribute to the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birthday.
"The growth of the China Philharmonic Orchestra has coincided with the growth of classical music in China," Yu Long says. "In the early 1990s when we held a concert we had to really persuade people to come and see it. Now our concerts sell out quickly and audiences are getting bigger and bigger."
A new China Philharmonic Orchestra concert hall is now being built south of Beijing Workers Stadium in the downtown area and will cover more than 20,000 square meters. Construction is due to be completed early in 2022, says Lin Nan, the orchestra's director.
In 2018 the orchestra established an orchestra for young amateur musicians, the China Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, which made its debut performance on July 6 last year at the Forbidden City Concert Hall.
On Sept 5 about 100 youth orchestra members performed in a concert held at the same venue, opening the orchestra's new season.
"Though these young musicians are amateurs, their techniques are as good as some of the professionals," says Xia Xiaotang, principal conductor and artistic director of the youth orchestra. He led it on Sept 5 as it performed repertories including The Firebird Suite by Igor Stravinsky and Peter and the Wolf: A Musical Tale for Children, Op 67, by Sergey Prokofiev.
"These repertories are very challenging, but the players performed them very well," Xia says. "We want them to experience what a professional symphony orchestra is capable of."
Xia, 39, who was born in Beijing, learned to play piano as a boy, went on to graduate from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, and joined the China Philharmonic Orchestra in 2008.
Zhai Jia, director and co-founder of the China Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, says most of its members are destined not to become professional musicians.
"However, they receive professional music training and gain the experience of performing in an orchestra, and that will benefit them in their careers."
Zhai says her daughter and son both learned to play the violin when they were 4 years old and enjoyed playing music with their friends in school orchestras.
"Nowadays many Chinese parents are letting their children play instruments and want them just to enjoy music without the pressure that they must follow a music career."
A few weeks ago Yu Long gave a masterclass for members of the China Philharmonic Youth Orchestra in Beijing.
"I asked the children about their plans and why they wanted to play music. Some said they wanted to become doctors, scientists or architects, but that music would play a big role of their lives. That's a fantastic answer."