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Pieces of China (S2, E2), Jindong Cai on the Concert that Promoted Dialogue, 9.24.20

Pieces of China (S2, E2), Jindong Cai on the Concert that Promoted Dialogue, 9.24.20

Pieces of China is an online series using objects to tell the story of China.


In season 2, episode 2, we explored the 1997 concert that promoted dialogue in China, with conductor Jindong Cai of the US-China Music Institute at Bard Conservatory.

It was 1997, and Chinese conductor Jindong Cai wanted to add something challenging to a series of American music concerts he was performing in Shanghai. He first served up some crowd-pleasing Gershwin and Copeland. Then came Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1, written to commemorate those lost to the AIDS crisis. It was a sensitive topic in China, which was grappling with its own outbreak. “I wanted to show how art can reflect society,” says Cai. On Sept. 24, the renowned conductor and founder of the US-China Music Institute at Bard College, will talk about the program that promoted cultural dialogue, and why those kinds of exchanges matter today.

Selected Quotes from Jindong Cai:

In 1997, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra invited me to conduct a series of concerts to introduce American symphonic music to a Chinese audience. I was very excited, because I think this was the first time that a Chinese orchestra would play American symphonic music, including Bernstein, Gershwin, Copland, and even John Williams, in such a series.

The first American orchestra to visit China was in 1973 – the Philadelphia Orchestra with Eugene Ormandy – and back then China had just opened, but was still in the Cultural Revolution. In 1979, China just opened to the world. And from then on, gradually, music became so important to opening China, to see the outside world, through this music, through these orchestras.

For many, many musicians, especially musicians in my generation, we benefited from this cultural exchange so much. …Today, China has become a powerhouse for Classical music around the world.

In America, every single symphony orchestra, every single opera house, every single conservatory, all have Chinese musicians.

Music has no boundaries – as long as you are talented, and you play with your heart, people will understand you. It doesn’t matter where you come from.

Western Music went to China more than 400 years ago, with missionaries who brought music and western instruments to China, where it started to take root.

One goal of the U.S.-China Music Institute is on both sides, to introduce the music to each other, and through music, to understand what both societies are all about.

In the 21st century, China will become a major new source of Classical music in general, and sources from all different cultural sources, from all different nations, I think that will be the future of classical music.

DE: We all know that there are growing tensions between China and the United States, are you concerned about how that will affect cultural exchange:

We are all worried. Covid has already had devastating effects as well: you cannot communicate in person, you cannot have performances in concert halls. With regard to the U.S-China relationship, I believe, that people want to know each other. Art and Music are very important for people to understand one another better. So, even in today’s situation, I think as an artist, and as a musician, what I see is opportunity – and I definitely believe that we will prevail.

DE: Going back to 1997, that concert also has a very special personal meaning to you…

Yes, the concert was very successful, but there was an American journalist, Sheila Melvin, in the audience who wanted to interview me. That was the first time we met, and…20 years later, we have two wonderful children, and a wonderful family!


Full Video of Pieces of China with Jindong Cai


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