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Beating his own drum: Li Biao

Release time:2014-07-31Views:
Much has been written about Lang Lang, Ning Feng and China’s 40-million piano and violin students. But while Chinese pianists and violinists are fast becoming regulars on the world stage, there’s still only one Li Biao. Of only a handful of percussion soloists worldwide, Li was the first from China to study in Moscow, win the Debrecen Percussion Competition and take a professorship at Berlin’s prestigious Hochschule fur Musik ‘Hanns Eisler’. Now, this month, the composer, conductor and pedagogue reunites with the Philharmonic Percussion Group of Berlin in Beijing for Li’s International Percussion Festival, which began on September 27, along with the world premiere of his ‘Percussion Symphony’.

Born in 1970, in Nanjing, to a teacher mother and engineer father, five-year-old Li was asked to join the city’s Little Red Flower Performance Troupe – as a dancer. ‘I didn’t have the interest or the talent,’ he says. ‘They suggested I try music instead.’ At the tail-end of the Cultural Revolution, violins and pianos were scarce; Li faced a limited choice between traditional Chinese instruments and percussion, which held greater appeal. ‘I didn’t choose the instrument,’ he says. ‘The instrument chose me.’

It proved an inspired choice, particularly in 1982, when Li entered Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music. ‘Before coming to Beijing, I just followed the teacher, repeating pieces from the Cultural Revolution,’ he says. ‘I don’t think that’s music. But hearing Beethoven and Bach was like going from watching black-and-white film to seeing colour for the first time,’ he continues. ‘It changed everything I knew about music.’

Historically speaking, humans were banging on drums shortly after they discovered their own voices, but in the orchestral pantheon, percussion is a late arrival. Bach, Haydn and Mozart might have tossed the odd instrument into their Baroque/Classical mix, but the genre didn’t begin to reach its potential until the Romantic era. ‘Before Beethoven, no one had ever composed any percussion solos,’ says Li, who added that the first concerto for percussion and orchestra wasn’t written until 1930. ‘Gradually, composers started writing for these instruments, but really [classical percussion] is only about 50 years old.’

These days, Li plays a number of original commissions, and finds that composers’ relative inexperience gives him more flexibility. ‘They don’t have too much knowledge of the instrument, but if they want to write for me, we talk about what I want to use for the piece,’ he says. ‘[Even with a] finished score, there are chances for discussion,’ he continues. ‘It’s important to discover new music together.’

To Li, the myriad textures that percussion offers could lead orchestral music down an entirely new path. ‘Sound is the most important thing in music,’ he explains. ‘Singers need good voices, violinists need good violins, but percussion has so many choices. We need some new styles, new sounds in concert halls; maybe percussion can be the pioneer,’ he continues. ‘We don’t have to repeat everything others did, we can find new ways for people to hear music.’

This vision drives his indefatigable pedagogy, dividing his time between Germany and China, holding ‘educational’ concerts that sell out months in advance, leading his Li Biao and Friends ensemble, running national competitions, serving as the Beijing Symphony Orchestra’s first artist-and-conductor-in-residence and presenting the annual International Percussion Festival. This time, he joins percussionists from ‘the world’s best orchestra [Berlin Philharmonic]’ for an eclectic programme that spans centuries. And if you think these instruments lack the range for such diversity, think again – a full percussion ensemble sounds so rich, you’ll wonder where the orchestra is hiding.

Li will then cap off the night by premiering his ‘Percussion Symphony’. ‘I’m not a composer,’ he demurs. ‘But I arrange a lot of music, and I think the instruments should sound like a symphony orchestra.’ He envisions his work as a ‘continent of percussion’, featuring massive drums from Asia, Africa and South America, and Li himself as conductor/player. ‘Musicians today have to prepare for everything, even conducting and composing,’ he says. ‘Music has a huge language; if you know it, you can speak it everywhere.’

Li Biao is at the National Centre for the Performing Arts on Tue 2.