Passing the baton

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For the very first time in his decadeslong career, renowned conductor Yu Long took the baton and led a student orchestra in concert, which he describes as "a wonderful new discovery".

On Dec 9, Yu conducted Tianjin Juilliard Orchestra to perform Gustav Mahler's Symphony No 4 in G Major.

During the three-day rehearsal, he worked closely with the orchestra, consisting of students of Tianjin Juilliard School, the world's first, and so far, only branch campus of the New York performing arts school.

"When I do rehearsals with professional symphony orchestras, I am very strict. I point out mistakes outright," says Yu, who is the musical director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, musical director of the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra, and artistic director and chief conductor of the China Philharmonic Orchestra. "When I work with the students, I am more like a father. I learn to communicate with them, just like talking to my daughter."

In 2019, Yu was invited to take the position of chair on the Tianjin Juilliard Advisory Council, composed of exceptional individuals, including Deborah Borda, president and CEO of the New York Philharmonic, pianist Lang Lang, soprano Renee Fleming and composer and conductor Tan Dun.

"The rehearsals turned out to be good. These students showed me their charming nature, passion for music and their vibrant musicality," says Yu. "They reminded me of my years as a student. They have open, inquiring minds. They learn to play individually as musicians and collectively as an ensemble."

According to He Wei, violinist, artistic director and dean of Tianjin Juilliard School, it was the first time that the students of the school's orchestra had performed Mahler's symphonic work.

"Among all of Mahler's works, Symphony No 4 is the one that is closest to chamber music. It is scored for a full orchestra and has a soprano part in the last movement. It sounds like a dialogue between all kinds of musical instruments such as violins, violas and oboes in the first movement and double basses, cellos and clarinets in the third movement," He explains.

Soprano Li Jingjing performed in the last movement of the piece.

The concert also brought a trombone quartet to perform Dutch composer Saskia Apon's Eerste Trombone Kwartet.

Faculty members of the Tianjin school also joined the concert, including flutist Gergely Ittzes, bassoonist Akio Koyama, clarinetist Zhou Xiangyu and trumpet player Sergey Tyuteykin.

"Mahler's Symphony No 4 is my favorite symphony of his, because there is so much joy. The first step of making music is to have fun," Yu says.

In September, the school launched the program for Tianjin Juilliard Orchestra's 2021-22 season. Comprising the school's largest student ensemble-all of whom are in the school's graduate program, majoring in orchestral studies and chamber music-the orchestra performs works by composers, including Johannes Brahms, Beethoven, Wagner and Igor Stravinsky under the batons of renowned conductors, such as Lin Daye, Chen Lin and Zhang Guoyong.

"By working with professional musicians, students get a sense of professionalism, which better prepares them for their future musical career," He adds.

"When I was a young student, I always gained knowledge by working with experienced musicians, which was very rewarding," recalls Yu, who was born in 1964 in a Shanghai musical family and studied at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and the Hochschule der Kunst in Berlin. "There are around 80 symphony orchestras in China and when these students graduate, they are prepared to perform in professional orchestras."

Xu Ruifeng, 25, who is the principal French horn player of the Tianjin Juilliard Orchestra, says: "It's definitely my plan to perform with a professional symphony orchestra after graduation. By performing with other musicians, I learn to listen, to respond well and think before producing my own sounds."

A graduate from South China University of Technology with a bachelor's degree in advertising, Xu is studying with Chang Chou Han, veteran French horn player, who has played with orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic, Munich Radio Philharmonic and Boston Symphony. Xu will graduate from the Tianjin school next year.

He has performed with professional orchestras such as the Hangzhou Philharmonic and the Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra.

According to Alexander Brose, executive director and CEO of Tianjin Juilliard School, the first group of students in the school's graduate studies program will graduate in May.

"We will celebrate for them. We always consider our first group of students to be pioneers because they took a big risk in coming here, without knowing what they were going to get and without knowing what the building would look like," says Brose. "These students will succeed if they are able to connect with people through their music."

This May, the Tianjin school and the Shanghai Orchestra Academy announced a partnership designed to encourage academic and musical exchanges and to advance the missions of both organizations. The Shanghai Orchestra Academy is the result of an alliance with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Its inaugural class began in September 2014.

On Dec 30, a concert by students of the Tianjin school and the Shanghai academy will be held in Shanghai, with a program featuring Bach's Orchestral Suite No 2, Dvorak's Serenade for Wind Instruments and Brahms' Festive and Commemorative Music.

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