Zuohuang Chen, conductor of China's Central Philharmonic Orchestra, says he once tried telling an American colleague what Chinese musicians endured between 1966 and 1976, when many were banished to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution for playing Western music.
"I told him, 'They sent me to the rice fields,' and he said, 'Oh, that's not too bad.' I shut up. I don't talk anymore about this to Americans. How do you explain what it is like to lose 10 years?"
The struggle against that loss forms the backdrop for the orchestra's concert tonight at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, as the group nears the end of the first United States tour by a Chinese symphony orchestra since the Cultural Revolution ended a decade ago.
Tonight, Chen, 40, will lead the Philharmonic's 100 members in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, Elgar's Cello Concerto, with soloist Jian Wang, and a work by contemporary Chinese composer Wu Zu-Qiang.
It is seven years since Chen became the first Chinese conductor of his generation permitted to train in the United States, studying with Seiji Ozawa, Andre Previn and others.
While Chinese embassy officials call the Central Philharmonic their country's top symphony, Chen candidly assessed its international status this way: "It is not a first-rate orchestra. It has much enthusiasm, but I know that it has a long way to go."
He also stressed the distance it has already come. The Orchestra is 30 years old, and during its second decade, it only performed a few times--and then only official revolutionary music. "You could not even practice etudes because it was forbidden," Chen said. The orchestra's concertmaster, Yang Bingsun, was imprisoned for nine years for transgressions against the revolution.
The conductor seemed amazed at some of the details of his own experiences, his hands sometimes flying out to make a point before regaining their folded repose in his lap. Sitting in the calm of a downtown Los Angeles hotel room, he was by turns boyish and deeply serious as he tried to convey the turmoil of a place and time so far away. Chen was a 19-year-old student at Beijing's Central Conservatory in the summer of 1966 when he saw his fellow students wearing the red armbands of the Red Guard, formed to purge the nation of anti-revolutionary influences. Red Guard critics told Chen to forget all he had learned about Western music.
"They said I had been spiritually polluted by Beethoven, Mozart and Bach, and they felt I needed physical labor to cleanse my soul," he said. "So they sent me to the rice fields."
Before he went, a professor let him hand-copy the scores of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony and Mozart's Symphony No. 40, which he smuggled to his new home, an army camp in the village of Xia Men, about 200 miles south of Beijing. There, he lived for about eight years in a dormitory with dozens of beds, planting and harvesting rice, thinking through pieces of music he could not play.
"When we got up in the morning we did exercise to music recorded by an orchestra," he recalled. "I missed the sound of an orchestra so much I started to cry. It was exercise music--like aerobics music!"
He was allowed to see his parents on brief visits to the city near Shanghai where he grew up. Although authorities sent him back to Beijing in 1974, he was not allowed to re-enter the conservatory until 1977. The Cultural Revolution was over. "(Age) 19 to 29, those are the years I lost," he said. "Those were my golden years.
"I think that this is probably a very similar story for a lot of people in the orchestra," he added, noting that the average age of the orchestra's members is 45.
He remembers the first time he heard the Central Philharmonic play at the end of the Cultural Revolution, a somewhat ragged version of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. "It was so gorgeous to me," he said. "You didn't have time to digest the way the orchestra played. You just digested the music."
Chen studied at the Central Conservatory until 1980, when the Ministry of Culture selected him to become the first Chinese conductor to take advanced studies in this country. He completed a master's program at the University of Michigan and has taught conducting at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. When the Central Philharmonic's six-week tour ends next week in San Francisco, he will return to China to become the orchestra's full-time conductor.
He hopes to transform it into a world-class orchestra and that it will be able to tour some day without having to put its playing into historical context.
Does Chen ever fear, as he prepares to return to China after living away for seven years, that the government there may again reject Western culture, that the music he is returning home to conduct might again be deemed poison?
He did not answer immediately, or with automatic confidence.
"A new concert hall for this orchestra was built 1 1/2 years ago," he said, and then paused. "No, I don't think it will happen again."
Again, he thought it over.
"It is amazing how things have changed," he said. "I was sent to the rice fields but then I was sent to the United States. Such a change. No, I think the future for symphonic music in China is very good."