Guangxian Chen is well-versed with all the well-established cultural icons and brands famous both at home and abroad, such as the ancient civilization and cultural legacy of Suzhou, the Pingtan Troupe and Kunqu Opera Theatre of Suzhou, or the Suzhou Ballet Theatre. When asked about the formation of a symphony orchestra in Suzhou, he believes this is the natural response to the internationalization and modernization of Suzhou as a city, as well as a great contribution to broadening the exchange and showcase opportunities for the symphonic art in China.
As the “headmaster” of the Suzhou Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Chen “grades” on the performance of this orchestra since its founding, and the score can only be described as “astonishing”. As the leading authority in the field of symphony orchestra in China, he bears witness to every step in the conception and birth of the Suzhou Symphony Orchestra. This young orchestra is also a source of pride for Mr. Chen, “to achieve so much in such a short time, such as recruiting musicians from all corners of the world, purchasing instruments, programming and producing concerts, is nothing short of a miracle in the history of symphony orchestras.”
Mr. Chen attributes the highly effective process of formation and the operation of the Suzhou Symphony Orchestra to the combination of “tremendous support from the government and the innovative corporate-like management style”, facilitated by the impressively professional caliber of the orchestra’s newly recruited musicians.
“The Suzhou Symphony Orchestra is a brand new orchestra. Its development is like a ‘perfect picture painted on a blank sheet of paper.’ In the near future, the Orchestra will even weave into its Western musical texture the cultural elements of Suzhou, and tell the story of Suzhou using the universal idiom of the symphonic language.
In Mr. Chen’s gentle tone can be always detected an air of confidence, like a self-assured and steadfast “parent”. From his tender yet determined gaze, one can get a clear message that he will continue to lead this young, “big family” that is the Suzhou Symphony Orchestra, and take it to the next milestone in its path.
Q: Under what circumstances did you become involved with the planning and founding of the Suzhou Symphony Orchestra?
A: After my retirement from the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, I became the president of the China Symphony Development Foundation in 2015. The Foundation hosts the annual China Symphony Orchestra Forum, which is intended to stimulate the development of symphonic art in China.
It was a very serendipitous coincidence that the representatives from Suzhou approached me about helping the city form an orchestra. Because I was already in retirement and my home base was not in Suzhou, I was rather hesitant at the beginning. But after I listened to the rationale behind their wish and the details of their planning, I believed that their goal was to achieve the very thing that our Foundation also aimed to achieve. I decided, therefore, to join the founding committee. From the very beginning, we set a very clear goal: to make this orchestra in Suzhou an exemplary model which would show the world the multitude of possibilities in promoting and developing the symphonic art.
Q: What was the most difficult challenge in the past year?
A: The most difficult challenge was to recruit musicians. It is not an easy task to find truly suitable talent for our orchestra. To that end, we decided to broaden the scope of our search to the whole world. Despite this, we still encountered major difficulties. Two weeks before we were due to announce the founding of the orchestra, we were still short of four cellists in the section. There were times when I was attending recruitment auditions abroad in the morning, and in the evening dealing with the administration of forming and founding an orchestra.
Having said that, even if we still did not fill all the positions in the orchestra, our entire recruitment committee upheld a very strict rule that we would not relax the high standard of our recruitment criteria. We would rather leave a few positions vacant than lower our bar and accept anyone below our standards. The ‘standards’ depend alone on the individual player’s ability and quality. If a player meets only the standard of an assistant principal, then we can only hire him as such and cannot nominate him/her the principal; even though the principal position remain unfilled, we cannot delude that particular player with the promise of the principal. This is being responsible to the orchestra, to the audience, and to art.
Q: What are your expectations for the orchestra in 2018? How about in the next five years?
A: Above all, to professionalize everything. That remains the very goal we set for the orchestra during its founding. To professionalize everything means to ensure that all aspects of the orchestra’s management and administration meet the norms and standards of artistic planning and orchestral operation, such as season planning, selection of artists and key personnel, as well as audience cultivation and outreach. Everything must be executed in a professional manner. It is the only way an orchestra can become a “player” in the mainstream circle of symphony orchestras in the world, and the only channel for the orchestra to make greater progress in the future.
I am delighted to say that in the past year, we did rather well in terms of personnel recruitment, season programming and production, selection and acquisition of instruments. But there were certainly areas that needed improvement. I hope that in 2018 the orchestra will proceed with its season all according to plans, that the musicians will continuously perform to a higher standard, that the management team will raise its game through a more scientific management style. This is a process, but the orchestra will inevitably grow along with this process.
Whether in the next three years, or five, or even longer, I am brimming with confidence in this orchestra. As I said previously, “to achieve so much in such a short time, such as recruiting musicians from all corners of the world, purchasing instruments, programming and producing concerts, is nothing short of a miracle in the history of symphony orchestras.” I am deeply grateful to the government and to our friends from all walks of life for their unwavering support, and at the same time deeply proud of the efforts made by the entire team.
Since this first miracle has already happened, then I believe for the SZSO there will be more miraculous moments along its path of development and growth. It goes without saying that the road to miracle is never smooth, but we will tread the uncharted territory step by step. I am confident that going forward, the SZSO will continue to bring us surprises of a different sort each year.