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Curtis feeling the echoes as music swells in China

The dean of the Curtis Institute of Music calls it the "Lang Lang syndrome" and says it was bound to happen.

Gary Graffman, here with star Curtis student Yuja Wang, has developed the school's contacts in China.
Gary Graffman, here with star Curtis student Yuja Wang, has developed the school's contacts in China.Read more

The dean of the Curtis Institute of Music calls it the "Lang Lang syndrome" and says it was bound to happen.

Many young musicians in China dream of living the life of the 25-year-old piano phenomenon. And that leads them to the doorstep of the place where Lang Lang trained - the elite 84-year-old conservatory of music on Rittenhouse Square.

Curtis has seen a significant bump in Chinese applicants, reflecting the growing ranks - and aptitude - of classical music students in China.

This spring, 32 Chinese students traveled to Philadelphia to audition for openings at Curtis. A decade ago, there were only six applicants from China, said Robert Fitzpatrick, Curtis' dean.

Even to audition for one of the school's 162 tuition-free spots "is a tremendous commitment of time and money," Fitzpatrick said.

He said Chinese musicians today are following the same course as early-20th-century Eastern European and Russian immigrants, who saw classical music as a "cultural bridge" to a better life.

Fitzpatrick said seven Chinese musicians were offered spots in the next school year, representing 16 percent of all new students. Three are pianists, two are violists, one is a harpist, and one a percussionist.

It's not uncommon, in the dark-wood-paneled hallways lined with class photos dating to 1924, to hear Mandarin mixed with strains of Beethoven. Among the school's international students, the number of musicians from mainland China (16) ranks behind only the number from South Korea (17). But that does not include students who have recently immigrated from China to the United States.

Fitzpatrick said that not just the quantity, but also the quality of classical music students in China has increased. "They've made astounding progress in the last 10 years."

He said Gary Graffman, Lang Lang's former teacher at Curtis and also the school's former president, has done much in recent years to build contacts in China.

Graffman travels there often to judge student competitions, as well as to conduct master classes at conservatories. "Parents and students are always interested in playing for him because of his success rate," Fitzpatrick said.

In addition to Lang Lang, Graffman taught Yuja Wang, a 21-year-old May graduate who already has distinguished herself with major orchestras as a fiery performer.

"What you're seeing in China is a huge saturation of musical opportunity," Fitzpatrick said. "That's why we're seeing these Lang Langs and Yujas rising up. It's not an accident."

Those two Curtis graduates top an expanding list of Chinese alumni who have attained prominence with American orchestras.

Liang Wang, 27, is principal oboist with the New York Philharmonic, while Duoming Ba, 29, is a violinist. Chu-fang Huang, 25, a 2004 graduate, was a finalist in the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. And Zhou Tian, 26, a composer, has been commissioned to write pieces for a number of orchestras, including the Minnesota Orchestra.

Other conservatories are seeing a similar rise in the number of Chinese students. In New York, the Juilliard School had 21 students from mainland China in 2007; a decade earlier there were only nine.

Shanshan Yao, 24, a violinist who graduated from Curtis in May and plans to continue her studies at Juilliard, arrived at Curtis when she was 19. The only child of a mother who worked in a restaurant and a father who was a tax official, Yao said it was a struggle for them to support her music training.

Her mother traveled from the family's home in Anhui province to attend Yao's graduation on May 17. "My mom played a crucial role," Yao said. "She really helped me."

Yao said she'd like to pursue a career in performance or teaching in the United States, Europe or, just as possibly, back home.

With top conservatories in Beijing and Shanghai, "a lot of people are going back to China instead of staying here," Yao said.

That's a huge shift, Fitzpatrick said, and reflects the evolving classical music scene in China.

"Fifteen years ago, every Asian student who came here, their dream was to stay in America and get a green card," Fitzpatrick said. "That's not true of the Chinese students today. They are very interested in having worldwide careers as performers."

"Our students see themselves much more as music citizens of the world that no longer excludes their home country," he said.