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When Bach Meets Beatles

The Beijing Wind Orchestra mixes rock and classical

 Every morning, near the third palace of the Imperial Ancestral Temple, tourists and passersby are surprised to hear John Lennon’s “Hey Jude” and Michael Jackson’s “Heal The World” being played by saxophones and tubas. Inside the palace, eighty young musicians are rehearsing. They are members of the Beijing Wind Orchestra (BWO), only the third professional wind concert band in the world (i.e. not a military band or a subsidary part of a larger orchestra).

Conductor, Li Fangfang

A wind orchestra excludes all string instruments to present the full complement of woodwind and brass instruments, including the alto clarinet, which is almost never found in a conventional orchestra. “A wind orchestra can present a wide range of distinctive tones from the same instrument. It provides rich timbre and musical tension,” says Li Fangfang, the BWO’s principal conductor. “Many modern composers have written great works only for wind orchestras.” The BWO’s first-chair clarinetist, Ma Jia says, “String instruments are irreplaceable, but the wind orchestra can have a stronger impact on audiences’ ears. It’s a very different acoustic experience.”

Last July, the BWO made its debut in the National Centre for the Performing Arts to long and thunderous applause. This month, when they play there again, their program will include pop tunes and jazz; it’s part of Li’s mission to bring audiences multiple styles of music in each concert.

Over the past year, the BWO’s “Big Band” jazz members have received training from Earl Jackson, an experienced woodwind conductor and jazz musician from the US, and Du Yinjiao, a prominent Chinese saxophone player and jazz band conductor.

Concertmaster Ma Jia began learning clarinet at the age of 11, but he admits, “If there was a school of rock, I probably would have applied to that instead of to the Central Conservatory of Music.” This mild-mannered young man was a rock star before he even graduated high school.

While studying clarinet in the high school associated with the Central Conservatory of Music, Ma became fascinated by the rock band Metallica. He and another three friends founded their own rock band in the first year of high school, with Ma on the electric guitar. Back in the 1990s, rock music was still pretty new to China. The group became one of the first underground rock bands in Haidian District. Everyday, after their classical music class, they went to rock out in an empty garage they rented as a rehearsal space. After almost a year’s preparation, they made their debut, playing two Metallica songs in the school’s New Year concert.

With every other student dressed formally and playing classical music, they showed up on stage in skeleton-themed T-shirts, jeans and military boots. As they kicked off their first heavy metal tune, the crowd was shocked. “Our teachers didn’t know what we would play. At that time, our dress was quite avant-garde. I can still remember their faces when they saw our clothes. After the show, they asked us nicely to focus on our major,” Ma laughed. “Some students did not like the music, but others thought we were really cool!”

Ma’s rock band played a few times in bars, before they disbanded in the last year of high school; they had to prepare for the university entrance exams.

“Actually, rock music helps me to understand and manage different music styles now,” Ma adds. “Its diverse style is one of the reasons I wanted to take part in the wind orchestra. In the future, I hope we’ll have a chance to cooperate with rock bands – like Metallica did with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.”

As for the BWO’s upcoming concert, “When Bach Meets Beatles,” Ma recommends two works. “Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera Suite is one of the mainstay repertory pieces for symphonic winds, adapted from The Beggar’s Opera. It successfully mixes classical, pop, swing and European jazz styles. Our wind instruments vividly depict the characters in each movement. Also, Alfred Reed’s Praise Jerusalem has a strong religious influence. It is simply divine.”

It was published in the February issue of thebeijinger.

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