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Beyond Home

Home is the residence of both the body and the mind; the city is the location of home. 2023 marks the 870th anniversary of the founding of Beijing. As we look back, we can’t help but wonder what brought people to live and work together in this great city striving for a common goal, and how people in this city design and create the future of their home in response to changes. These questions may be partially answered in the 2023/2024 season of the China NCPA Orchestra, an orchestra born in Beijing.

The year also marks the 190th anniversary of the birth of the great Johannes Brahms. This obstinate man from northern Germany, often labeled “classical” and “traditional”, defended the glory of classicism with tenacity and perseverance as the last beacon for the home of classicism in the traditional sense. In this season, we will present a number of Brahms’s masterpieces deeply rooted in the tradition, including the Second Symphony as splendid and peaceful as the setting sun’s last rays, the Third Symphony featuring heroic ups and downs, the “free but lonely” F-A-E Sonata, the Variations on a Theme of Haydn, and others. These works reflect Brahms’s admiration for the classical ideal, his reluctance to see its fading, and his defense of the home of the musical ideal. Brahms was a traditionalist who did not cling to the traditions rigidly, and he heralded the future with his loneliness and struggle. The Fourth Symphony, which the NCPAO will present under the baton of Music Director LÜ Jia, shows Brahms’s insight into the future. In the final movement, the passacaglia, we can feel the composer’s despair, hope, anger and disturbance intertwining into a torrent of sound, in which the classicist pours out his shattered dreams, tragic retreat, and profound loneliness. The tragic images in Brahms’s works almost always point to the only ending: If the home can no longer be revisited, I will choose to sail away.

As Kahlil Gibran says in The Prophet, home “shall be not an anchor but a mast.”

Here lies Brahms’s foresight seeing the inevitability to face the challenge of modernity.

In an award-winning documentary on twentieth-century music, renowned conductor Simon Rattle argues that the story of twentieth-century music is in many ways one of leaving home. While searching for new creative response to the world in which they lived, many talented composers turned away from the solid ground of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century music: tonal harmony, melody, and regular rhythms, which is precisely the spiritual home that that Brahms guarded. Besides, twentieth-century musicians had a remarkably more diverse expression of “leaving home” because this was an age in which war forced many into a life of vagrancy, leaving their homes in the truest sense of the word. In this season, we will gain an understanding of different journeys away from home in the program of twentieth-century pieces. Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, Berg’s Lyrische Suite, and Webern’s Symphony, Op. 21 originated in the revolution of music that started in Vienna in the nineteenth century and their reverberations continue to this day. In the melancholic power of these pieces, we hear not only the crumbling of the old world order, but also the rise of music through the reconstruction of the time in the second half of the twentieth century. Boulez’s Notations for orchestra was composed with the young people of the post-war generation in mind, and, like many of its contemporaries, the work shows the determination to erase the shadow of a ruined home and establish a new discursive system for the new world. Bartók’s Two Portraits were written before he left home, and and Korngold’s Violin Concerto was composed in exile. Both composers spent their last days in a foreign land, with both the body and mind far away from home.

If “leaving home” was the key word for the journey of music in the twentieth century, we can’t help but wonder: is it time for us to return home in the twenty-first century? For the audience, hearing Chinese-American pianist George Li perform the Yellow River Piano Concerto in the new season at the newly opened Beijing Performing Arts Center may be a spiritual homecoming; hearing Qigang Chen’s Reflet d’un temps disparu performed by Jian Wang, HUANG Ruo’s the Butterfly Exchange, Bright Sheng’s Roosters of Dawn once again, and hearing the world premiere of Bernd Deutsch’s concerto for the traditional Chinese instrument, the sheng, one might even go so far as to say, are brand-new self-discovery. As Scott Fitzgerald said, “It’s a funny thing to come home. Nothing changes. Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same. You realize what’s changed is you.”

The German philosopher Schopenhauer, who inspired Wagner to write Tristan und Isolde, had a profound insight into music, believing that music is more deeply rooted in human nature than any other art, other forms of art being representations of external phenomena and symbols of the essence of things, while music being the essence itself, a parallel form of the world as perceived by our intellect. It is for this reason that we see music as our spiritual home. Music has the power to speak to the heart; music shows the humanity that cannot be confined by barriers; music is able to establish cultural identity, create unity, and dissolve estrangement.

The 2023/24 season will see the premieres of three new works, which have been repeatedly postponed, the appointment of NING Feng as the Artist-in-Residence, which has been discussed for three years, and the first post-epidemic return of overseas artists including Daniele Gatti, Myung-whun Chung, Xian Zhang, Lü Shao-chia, Wong Kah Chun, and Wilson Ng, as well as Víkingur Ólafsson, Jian Wang, Jan Vogler, Shekou Kannah Mason, Bruce Liu, George Li, MEI Diyang, Wu Wei and others. Music Director LÜ Jia’s exploration of German and Austrian music with a focus on Bruckner is an endless journey towards the residence of the soul. Beijing is not everyone’s homeland, but it is a shining spiritual home in the world map of music.


Ning Feng / Violin