Wuhan gets back on its musical feet
Zhu Ning, founder of VOX, the oldest and one of the best-known live-house venues in Wuhan, Hubei province. [Photo provided to China Daily]

On Jan 16, 2020, an audience of more than 200 attended a concert at VOX, the oldest and one of the best-known live music venues in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province.

Three days later, Zhu Ning, the founder and owner of VOX, returned to his hometown of Panzhihua, Sichuan province, to celebrate Spring Festival with his family.

He planned to return to Wuhan after the weeklong holiday for a show that had been scheduled at VOX on Feb 9 last year.

However, due to the emergence of the pandemic, a lockdown was imposed in the city on Jan 23, 2020. Zhu had to cancel his plans and the venue was closed.

"Everything happened so fast. For the first time in 15 years, VOX closed for several months and we had no idea whether it would open again," Zhu said.

A year later, life in Wuhan, the Chinese mainland city hardest hit by COVID-19, has returned to normal and VOX has reopened.

"Although it is still hard to cover costs, and we have had to cut the number of shows, bands are eager to perform and to reconnect with audiences, who also appreciate the chance to watch live shows after so long," Zhu said.

Audience members are offered face masks before they enter the venue, all tickets are sold online, and capacity is limited to about 80 in order to maintain social distancing of at least 1 meter.

Zhu said that from September to December, 85 shows were staged at the venue by bands from Wuhan and other parts of the country.

From February to May last year, shows at the venue were canceled, including performances by Cheers Elephant, an indie pop rock band from Philadelphia in the United States, and Long Shen Dao, a reggae group based in Beijing.

"We had to figure out alternative ways to keep the venue running and reconnect with fans through social media platforms," Zhu said.

He added that a livestreamed concert by Chinese rock band Miserable Faith performed alongside the Yangtze River in Wuhan on May 15 "really cheered us up, especially in view of the stress caused by the pandemic".

On April 8, outbound travel restrictions were lifted in Wuhan after 76 days.

Djang San performs at VOX on Nov 9 with Nicolas Mege on drums and Pierre Billiard on bass. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Touching messages

People in the city have welcomed the return to normality, with restaurants, shopping malls, factories, and transportation and delivery services gradually recovering.

VOX, although unable to stage live performances, reopened in May for customers wanting to have a drink or drop by to relax.

"I received many touching messages of support from people who said they were looking forward to attending a show at VOX again," Zhu said.

Born and raised in Panzhihua, he became interested in music when he was a boy after watching a Sichuan Opera troupe perform at the machine factory where his father worked.

Zhu learned to play drums as a child, and as the country's rock music scene emerged in the 1980s, he listened to bands such as Black Panther and Tang Dynasty, as well as rock pioneer Cui Jian.

In August 1995, when he was 24, Zhu quit his job at the factory where his father worked. Taking his life savings, he boarded a bus before switching to a train for the 3,000-kilometer, 24-hour journey to Beijing. His destination was the Midi School of Music, the nation's first contemporary music school.

During his training at the school, Zhu decided to devote his life to music. At the institution, he met two students from Wuhan-Wu Wei and Han Lifeng-with whom he formed the punk band SMZB in 1996, which is considered to be the first such outfit in the city.

In 2005, Zhu rented a 170-square-meter bar, which he transformed into VOX. Since then, it has become a leading venue for indie music, in particular attracting students and expatriates living in Wuhan.

"The city lies at the heart of China, making it a destination that is hard to ignore for rock bands planning nationwide tours," said Zhu, who launched VOX venues in Changsha, capital of Hunan province, in 2017, and in Chongqing a year later.

"After all we have been through during the pandemic, it now seems much more meaningful to perform in Wuhan. The city has been brave and has successfully tamed the virus. We're proud of it," Zhu said, adding that performances at VOX in Wuhan are fully booked for summer this year.

French musician Djang San performs at Vox. [Photo provided to China Daily]

On Nov 9, concerts with the theme "Restart "were held at the three VOX venues, with the audiences comprising those who contributed to the fight against the pandemic, including medical workers, volunteers and rescue teams.

One of the acts featured was French musician Djang San, who performed with Nicolas Mege on drums and Pierre Billiard on bass.

Djang San, who played at VOX in Wuhan in 2011, said: "The audience feedback was great. The moment we took to the stage, people cheered like crazy."

Raised in Peru, and now living in Beijing, Djang San, whose real name is Jean-Sebastien Henry, started playing violin as a child and guitar as a teenager. He first visited Beijing in 2000 and began to play Chinese instruments, such as the zhongruan, pipa and guzheng.

When the pandemic struck, he started composing pieces to convey the feeling of isolation. He also wrote an album titled Coronavirus Music, and others such as Stars Falling Into Places and West East North South.

"The pandemic reduced the number of venues available, and concerts were often canceled. Many people left and will not come back. Some good musicians are still here, but life has changed," he said.

"There are a few more shows now, but there is always the possibility that performances will be called off due to the pandemic. Online shows can't really replace live performances, and watching a video on the internet is no replacement for meeting with people."

Since 2007, VOX in Wuhan has staged shows at universities, with the aim of offering young indie bands an opportunity to show their talent. Every year, 10 shows are open to amateur young bands from local universities.

As the venue is near Huazhong University of Science and Technology and China University of Geosciences, the young bands also get the chance to perform with professional indie rock outfits at VOX.

On Nov 27, a year-end show was held at the venue, featuring five young rock bands from Wuhan who are signed to VOX's record label.

Xu Bo, founder and lead vocalist with local rock lineup Chinese Football, said: "The city is noisy and crowded. It inspires me to think about and write music."

The Wuhan Philharmonic Orchestra opens its 2021 season on Jan 16 at VOX. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Classical return

In addition to the indie music scene's revival, classical music fans in Wuhan are returning to concert halls, with the city's main performing arts venues, Wuhan Qintai Concert Hall and Wuhan Qintai Grand Theater, reopening in July last year.

On Jan 15, the Wuhan Philharmonic Orchestra opened its new season with a concert under the baton of Chinese-Singaporean conductor James P. Liu, featuring the pianist Zhang Haochen. With works by Russian composers such as Sergey Rachmaninoff and Dmitri Shostakovich, the performance sold out days in advance.

Liu, who was appointed the orchestra's music director in 2004, said, "All the musicians felt very emotional when they returned to the concert hall and performed in front of audiences.

"Many of my friends, who are musicians living in the US and Europe, tell me they find it hard to believe that we can now have live concerts again in Wuhan.

"Musicians whose shows were canceled suffered a heavy blow and had to find other ways to make a living. The pandemic has changed many things, such as the way we enjoy music, the way in which we communicate and even the way we see the world."

Liu studied music at Utrecht Conservatorium in the Netherlands and Michigan State University in the US.

As its first formal music director and chief conductor, he took the Wuhan Philharmonic Orchestra professional, programming 80 concerts worldwide every year.

Because of the pandemic, the annual Wuhan International Piano Festival, which Liu founded in June 2011, was delayed to September last year.

At the event, Liu conducted the orchestra in a performance of Rebirth, a new work composed by Guan Xia. The performance was staged near Wuhan's landmark Yellow Crane Tower, which was built during the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280).

The work, a tribute to those who made significant contributions to the battle against the pandemic, was also staged at universities in November and December.

Li said: "It will become a collective memory for all of us who lived through the year 2020. Music is important to people. Gathering in one place and sharing the energy of music is a fantastic experience."

From October to December, Liu gave some 15 shows a month, most of which quickly sold out, which he said was solid evidence of the demand for live classical music concerts.

He added that he hopes to give young Chinese musicians as many opportunities as possible to perform this year.

"Young musicians, especially those who are students pursuing degrees from overseas conservatories, have had to take online courses, which is frustrating. We want to let them perform onstage, because this brings hope," Liu said.

However, with new cases of COVID-19 recently reported in areas of the country such as Hebei, plans to stage concerts may have to be changed to lower the risk of transmission.

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