Our symphony orchestra’s journey-Wuhan University
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Our symphony orchestra’s journey
Author:Li Yingdi & Li Yuhan  Date:2017-07-05  Clicks:

Last June, Bai Jinfeng and a couple of his friends organized a small concert at the Wanlin Museum as a warm sendoff for Chen Shushen, a doctoral student graduating from Wuhan University. At the concert, Chen played the second movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. It was written shortly before Mozart’s death, and called “a gentle goodbye” by the critics.

Chen used to be the student conductor for WHU’s symphony orchestra. The orchestra was founded at the end of 2001. It annually holds the New Year's Concert and the Mid-summer Musical Festival.

Chen joined the orchestra in 2004 when he first came to WHU. Beginning as a clarinet player, then transitioning to head of the woodwind section, and later becoming the student conductor,  Chen’s student life in WHU is intertwined with his participation in the orchestra. And just as in any meaningful relationship, both the orchestra and Chen himself have gone through great changes.

The golden days

Professor Jiang Boan was nominated as the director of the “new-born” art organization when WHU’s symphony orchestra was first founded. For him, the symphony orchestra is just like his own child.

In 2002, in order to expand the autonomy of college enrollment, and to promote quality education, the Ministry of Education approved for the university to implement autonomous enrollment. Students with artistic specialties were admitted even if their standardized test scores were far below the requirement set for other students.  Under this arrangement, the orchestra was quickly established.

Chen Shusheng is an undergraduate student majoring in chemistry and molecular sciences in WHU. He is not an art student, but had received the Tsinghua University Art Winter Award as a clarinet player. After being admitted to WHU in 2004, he joined the orchestra under a friend’s recommendation.

“Many of the early members in the orchestra were close to being professional, and more than half of them have had experience performing in nationally renowned middle school orchestras. Though the management was full of chaos at that time, the orchestra was still able to reach such a high level.” Chen said. Its members were making so much contribution that the group could track the whole composition despite short rehearsal times.

At that time, the orchestra played the Ninth Symphony of Dvorak, which not only is grand but also demands a high-level and an integral organization of the orchestra. The orchestra spent only three days rehearsing Ravel’s Polaroid under the instruction of the Hubei government to perform at the “Li Lanqing Music Talk” college symphonic concert in November 2004.

“Actually, one day’s practice could suffice.” Chen added.

“Down and Turning”

As the standard for autonomous enrollment assessment got relaxed, members of the orchestra found that the new recruits’ musical accomplishment fell.

In 2009, Pan Xing Zi Min came to the WHU’s Orchestra as a trombonist, but also conducted the orchestra to play part of the track. At that time the orchestra was still competent for some famous symphony pieces such as the Fifth Symphony (Beethoven) and D major violin concerto (Tchaikovsky); but Pan obviously felt that “the orchestra is going downhill.”


“Professor Jiang’s expectations for the orchestra seem to be getting lower and lower. The level of training of the symphony has decreased dramatically.” Once upon a time, Pan was rehearsing D major violin concerto (Tchaikovsky) but Jiang abruptly deleted dozens of chapters because he thought the audience wouldn’t like this paragraph.

The appearance of Delv has brought a turn for the better. In 2010, Delv came to Wuhan to study archeology. He had studied for three years at the Rotterdam Conservatory of Music in the Netherlands and Celibidak, the famous contemporary conductor, used to be his instructor. He made friend with Professor Jiang through his guqin (Chinese string instrument) teacher. Professor Jiang then invited Delv to the orchestra to lead the members.

“This is Yuanfen (fate).” Delv used a Chinese word to explain.

Delv brought vigor to the orchestra. Actually Jiang’s profession is music education rather than management. After being admitted to the graduate program and returning to the orchestra, Chen Shusheng said he had just trained for basic skills, “Far less than Delv.”

During the 120th anniversary celebration of WHU in 2013, the orchestra came to the Wuhan Qintai Concert Hall and publicly paid back to society with a splendid performance. With the support of former president Li Xiaohong and WHU’s alumni, the orchestra had overcome the difficulties of Jiang’s sudden illness and lack of funding.

“The Qintai Concert Hall is the highest venue that the orchestra had ever performed at”, Chen recalls, at the beginning the orchestra only prepared the Scottish Fantasia. Later, Professor Jiang recommended for the orchestra to play the piano concerto Yellow River. Delv was more interested in the latter, so Chen took over “Scotland.” However, even before the rehearsal of the Scotland could begin, Teacher Jiang suddenly fell ill.

The orchestra accepted temporary instructions given by the Communist Youth League. Chen and Delv continued to organize rehearsals. It never occurred to them that Professor Jiang would write an open letter to the president after he recovered from this rocky period. Under the coordination of President Li, WHU’s Alumni Club was gifted an opportunity to perform at the concert hall and decided to take the performance as an important part of the 120th anniversary celebration, which also helped the orchestra build its reputation.

“Reform and new start”

Chen thought about the ill-managed orchestra, and began to organize group reforms which were never addressed in the beginning even though criticism was voiced: First, attendance, the orchestra has never recorded the attendance; Second, business assessment, after the full business assessment in 2006, the orchestra never had another.

“It would take only a few minutes for a qualified musician to respond to such an assessment, and if someone couldn’t meet my standard I would think that perhaps they may even fail the admission criteria.” said Chen.

A harpist still remembered the tension at the time: "I secretly practiced when Susan said she was going to start doing random checks."

Meanwhile, Chen also implements his ideas for change in various ways: find the balance between art, skills, profoundness, and public acceptance. Specifically, in addition to offering a technical classic repertoire, the orchestra should also take care of the youth’s taste and try offering some contemporary popular orchestral works.

The 2014 New Year Concert is a showcase of such an experience: from Mendelssohn's Little Violin Concerto to Wagner's Valkyrie's Riding, from Hogwarts to the Caribbean. The performance was so prevailing that many audience members whistled, shouting “bravo”. And the official performance of the play lasted more than 20 minutes.

From Chen’s perspective, this reform "may not be successful, but it is effective." After the reorganization, the orchestra participated in the fourth section of the University Arts Festival, Delv brought the orchestra to play Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet (the first part) and won the first prize.

Chen graduated from and left WHU in 2016 and Professor Jiang is no longer responsible for the management of the orchestra. But the story continues. In 2017, the Art School took over the symphony orchestra and adopted a new rehearsal method while returning to the previous route selection.

During the last semester, the WHU Orchestra and the Munich University of Technology in Germany conducted a concert to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the surveying major at WHU. In this exchange, the symphony orchestra benefited a lot. The new head of the orchestra said they learned that the German students see music as part of their culture. “Just like we Chinese regard the Peking opera as quintessence. For them, symphonic and classical music means some kind of origin. And our passion for the art form may not be the same as their deeply ingrained spirit of love.”


Edited by Fang Siyuan, Edmund Wai Man Lai & Hu Sijia


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