Imagine being at the Sydney Opera House. Would you expect the leading composer or conductor to be an Asian person? If you found yourself watching an Asian singer performing both protagonist and villain roles in an opera, would it not surprise you? If someone sitting next to you said that the majority of the music we would be listening to tonight is from Asian classical music, would you believe it? I bet you can't easily imagine it. Classical music has long been regarded as Eurocentric, a musical realm where Asians were not traditionally welcomed. However, despite a history of exclusion, there has been a gradual change, notable for its inclusion of non-white individuals in the industry. Nowadays, it is not surprising to expect people of color playing Beethoven or Debussy's music in classical music theaters. This blog is for those who want to know more about Asian musicians playing or composing European music, and how they have become regarded as some of the best musicians in the world.
Would you believe it if someone from the 20th century had lived in three different countries? Meet Isang Yun, a Korean who studied music in Japan but ended up living in Germany for the rest of his life. Born during the colonial period in Korea, he began playing the violin at the age of 13. With his extraordinary musical talents, he managed to study in Japan, despite the challenges posed by Japanese imperialism. Interestingly, he was kidnapped by the South Korean government, accused of being pro-North Korea. With the help of the international music community, he was eventually released.
Do you know anyone who is both a UNESCO ambassador and a classical music composer? Meet Tan Dun, a Chinese composer and conductor born on August 18, 1957, in Simao, Hunnan, China. He later came to the US, earning a DMA from Columbia University. He has succeeded not only as a composer but also as a conductor, showcasing profound musical ability. Known for his creative approach to music, he blends Western and Chinese influences in innovative ways.
As a prodigy, Yo-Yo Ma started playing cello at the age of 4. Under the Chinese parents, he was born in France who went to America later. In the United States, he went to such ‘big names’ of schools such as the Julliard school and Harvard University and Columbia University. Not only he won Grammy Awards but received numerous prizes. He is known for his adaptive piano skills which embraces diverse musical genres, ranging from American bluegrass, traditional Chinese melodes, Argentine tangos and so on. Moreover, he even collaborated with Miley Cyrus and Sting!
Now, imagine someone who can be both a UNICEF Ambassador and a pianist! Lang Lang, the celebrated Chinese pianist born in Shenyang in 1982, began gaining recognition in the classical world by winning the Tchaikovsky International Young Musicians' Competition in 1999. With numerous recordings and performances worldwide, he is known for his broad repertoire and philanthropic efforts, including founding the Lang Lang International Music Foundation. He has also been a cultural ambassador of China, representing Chinese influence worldwide, even performing at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Tadaaki Otaka is a Japanese conductor and composer known for his contributions to the world of classical music. Born on July 8, 1947, in Tokyo, Japan, Otaka has had a distinguished career in conducting and musical leadership. He has conducted many leading orchestras around the world and has been associated with various orchestras and institutions. One of his notable roles was serving as the principal conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales from 1987 to 1995. Otaka's repertoire encompasses a wide range of classical compositions, and he has received recognition for his interpretations and performances. His work has made him a respected figure in the international classical music scene.
Sungjin Cho is a South Korean classical pianist known for his exceptional talent and performances in the world of classical music. Born on July 23, 1987, in Seoul, South Korea, he has gained recognition for his mastery of classical piano performance, including winning the prestigious Chopin Competition in 2015. Sungjin Cho is known for his delicate and thoughtful piano skills, which have led him to perform at renowned classical music venues. He continues to be a prominent figure in the classical music scene.
Could you imagine someone have debut with the New York Philharmonic at the age of 11? Midori, a Japanese-born American violinist born in 1971, surprised audiences in NYC during the New Year's Eve Gala in 1982. Her performance in 1986 at the Tanglewood Music Festival, conducted by Leonard Bernstein performing his own composition, even appeared at the front page of The New York Times. She became one of the world's famous violinists. At the age of 21, she founded the Midori and Friends foundation, dedicated to bringing music education to underserved communities in New York City and Japan, which has since expanded to have a global impact through four distinct organizations. In 2007, Midori was appointed as a UN Messenger of Peace, furthering her commitment to humanitarian efforts.
Sumi Jo, a Korean vocalist, was born in Changwon, South Korea. Sumi Jo's exceptional musical talent led her to graduate from the Conservatorio Santa Cecilia in Rome, learning under the renowned teachers Carlo Bergonzi and Giannella Borelli. During her time in Italy, she performed extensively in concerts and on national broadcasts. After graduating in 1985 with majors in keyboard and voice, Sumi Jo continued her studies with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and achieved success in international competitions in various cities. In August 1986 she unanimously won the first prize in the prestigious Carlo Alberto Cappelli International Competition in Verona, an exclusive contest for first-prize winners from major competitions worldwide.
Asian classical musicians are still considered to be 'musically' immature, while they are praised for their skills. However, as you may have read in this blog, Asian musicians' musical skill is not only confined to technique. Many of them possess both technique and artistry, which eventually leads them to be recognized in the classical music scene. It is also noteworthy that the classical music field has evolved significantly, transcending its Eurocentric roots to become a global stage where musicians from diverse backgrounds thrive and contribute. The responsibility left for us is to pay attention to and enjoy their music!
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