In Memoriam (1917-2017): China’s Maestro, Huang Feili

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China’s Maestro Huang Feili died at his home in Beijing this past month (Feb. 19, 2017) at the age of 99). The following article is a reprint of my tribute to Maestro Huang – “Huang Feili: The Father of Chinese Conductors”, which appeared in La Scena Musicale on June 1, 2013.


Paul Robinson with Maestro Huang Feili (Beijing, 2009)

Paul Robinson with Maestro Huang Feili (Beijing, CCOM)

In March 2009, I was a Guest Lecturer at the Central Conservatory of Music (CCOM) in Beijing, China. My audience was a class of young conductors. My lecture, titled “Stokowski: the Limits of Interpretation,” considered the many changes that Stokowski had made in the scores of the music he conducted and how these changes might be defended and justified. Moments before my talk was to begin, I had a distinguished surprise visitor, 92-year old Huang Feili, the man who had founded the conducting department of this institution back in 1956. His presence not only did me great honour, but gave me great joy. I was delighted to see an old friend whom I had first met in Toronto in 1987.

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Western Music in China

China has made extraordinary progress in the last 20 years, particularly in the growth of its economy, the well-being of its vast population – 1.3 billion at last count in the census of 2010 – and in the transformation of its infrastructure. The explosion of Western classical music in China in that same time period has been no less remarkable; as recently as 1976, the Chinese communist authorities had denounced Western music as decadent and bourgeois, and a corrupting influence. Chairman Mao Zedong‘s wife Jiang Qing had made it her business to suppress any music except that which served the political purposes of the country’s communist regime.

The general history of Western music in China has been well told in a recent book called Rhapsody in Red, but my specific interest over the years has been the struggle faced by Chinese conductors to find opportunities for training and growth, and ultimately to become masters in their own house. At the very centre of that struggle was my old friend Huang Feili.

Shanghai International Settlement & Maestro Mario Paci


Maestro Mario Paci

When Mario Paci arrived in Shanghai and played a concerto with local musicians, the residents of the International Settlement realized that this was the man they needed to take the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra (SMO) to a higher level. Paci accepted the challenge, reorganizing and reinvigorating the SMO from 1919 until 1942, when war with Japan ruined everything.

The quality of the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra should not be underestimated. There is no doubt that for more than 30 years, it was the finest symphony orchestra in the Far East. Among its members was Walter Joachim, principal cello of the SMO for eleven years. After settling in Canada in 1952, he became principal cello of the Montreal Symphony. Concertmaster of the SMO was Arrigo Foa. Recruited by Paci from his native Italy, Foa made Shanghai his home for 21 years. I met Foa in Hong Kong in the 1960s when I played double bass for the Hong Kong Philharmonic, which he conducted.

Huang Feili’s Musical Journey:  Defining the Mission

Lyceumm Theater

Lyceum Theater

Growing up in Shanghai in the 1930s, Huang became familiar with Paci only after the Maestro had already vastly improved the SMO. While still in Primary School, he heard the orchestra for the first time playing an outdoor concert in Hongkou Park. Later, in Middle School, he attended his first SMO indoor concert at the Lyceum Theatre.  Now a violin student, and old enough to appreciate the role of the conductor, he recalls the experience: “That was the first time I came into contact with a symphony orchestra and with Paci. I watched my violin teacher sitting to the left of the concertmaster and I watched Paci’s conducting. For the first time I heard the wonderful sound of an orchestra come out of the hands of a conductor. I was greatly impressed.”

Later, with the help of his violin teacher, Huang regularly attended Paci’s rehearsals. Huang never had formal training in conducting. As he puts it, “My conducting was ‘stolen’, mostly from Paci!” Interestingly, given my reason for being in Beijing in 2009, Huang also recalls another important influence on his conducting education in the 1930s: Stokowski’s 1937 film with Deanna Durbin One Hundred men and a Girl. Musical life in Shanghai in those days was surprisingly rich and varied. recitals and concerto performances by artists of the stature of Heifetz, Szigeti, Elman, Moiseiwitsch and Chaliapin.

After the war, Huang moved to the United States to study music at Yale University. Among his teachers was the distinguished composer Paul Hindemith. By this time, he played the violin well enough to join the New Haven Symphony and work with soloists such as Serkin and Primrose. There were also opportunities to watch KoussevitskyMonteuxStokowskiMitropoulos and others at work in nearby Boston and New York.


Huang An-lun’s works are performed by major orchestras around the world

Upon graduating from Yale in 1951, Huang had a big decision to make: should he go back to China or try to make a career in the West? By this time, the communists were in power and it was not yet clear what the New China would look like. Ma Sicong was then in charge of the Central Conservatory and offered him a job at the school: “New China has been established and things are good – come back.” The deciding factor for Huang was his family; he had been married before he left for Yale and hadn’t yet seen his first-born child, Huang An-lun.

Back in China, Huang joined the Department of Composition at the Central Conservatory and among his other assignments, taught conducting. One of his early successes was a production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin with students of the CCOM. Huang was the conductor on this historic occasion – the first performance of a Western opera in China, featuring Chinese singers and musicians.

By 1956, Huang had had such an impact on the Central Conservatory of Music, the musical life of Beijing and nearby Tianjin that he was asked to start a Department of Conducting. His dream was to create, as he put it, “a Chinese School of Conducting.” What he had in mind was an approach to conducting that was uniquely Chinese, a “school of conducting” analogous to the schools which existed in other art forms in China such as the Peking Opera and its various “schools” which each feature unique singing and acting.

With time and experience, Huang came to realize that his dream was “impractical, impossible and even unnecessary.” Even the “immutable” schools of the Peking Opera have changed and living in a global village as we are today, Huang finally understood that change is probably inevitable and healthy.

The Department of Conducting at the CCOM had only a handful of students in its early years, most of them training to become choral conductors; while there were very few orchestras in China in the 1950s, there were a large number of amateur choirs.

Founding Father of the Beijing Symphony

229HuangHuang Feili  became not only a respected teacher at the CCOM. but also one of the most prominent conductors in China. In the mid-1970s, he was invited to head up the ensemble that would grow into one of the finest professional orchestras in China, the Beijing Symphony. When he took it over, the orchestra was a student group created to accompany the Beijing Song and Dance Ensemble. Xianglin Li, head of the Department of Culture of the Beijing Municipal Government, asked Huang to lead and improve it. Shocked by what he heard at the first concert he attended, Huang described the experience with an expression Chinese orchestral musicians used at the time to refer to wrong notes: “There was artillery fire all over the sky.”

Huang accepted Li’s invitation to lead and improve the Beijing Song and Dance Ensemble, but laid down several conditions: it must become a concert orchestra rather than an accompanying ensemble; it must be large enough to play the standard orchestral literature; and the administration must be run like a professional orchestra.

By 1985, under Huang’s leadership, the orchestra had improved to the point of becoming fully professional and was renamed the Beijing Symphony. Huang Feili then went back to his full-time job at the Central Conservatory, but continued to make regular appearances as a guest conductor with the Beijing Symphony until his final concert on February 26, 2009.

Western Orchestras Serve Communist Cause

Without a doubt, Maestro Huang Feili has made an enormous contribution to the creation of one of China’s finest orchestras. The other great conducting pioneer, by the way, was Huang Feili’s contemporary and friend Li Delun, the man who led the Central Philharmonic (later known as the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra) through the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution and thereafter, until his death in 2001.

After years of turmoil in China through civil war, war with Japan, and the communist victory in 1949, it appeared that the New China would be more just and more stable. This was not to be. Under Mao’s leadership, millions starved to   in the 1950s and the turmoil continued. Then in 1966, came the Cultural Revolution, which the leadership of China today recognizes to have been a misguided attempt to restore the ideals of the communist revolution. For artists and intellectuals like Huang Feili, it was a terrible time. The Central Conservatory simply ceased to function; there was no music teaching and there were no concerts. Huang and his colleagues were sent to various military divisions to learn from the army.

229jiang-qingFinally, this period of madness gave way to the era of ‘Openness and Reform.’ Work at the CCOM resumed and China even began to make overtures to the West. Nixon and Kissinger arrived in 1972, and Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra soon after. In spite of all the public euphoria which greeted these developments, behind the scenes life was far more complicated and difficult for Chinese musicians. Li Delun tried to bend with the constantly changing political winds, but it was a soul-destroying process: “It was all a power struggle, all politics – Jiang Qing just used music…We were all used by her, to give her something to do. I worked hard, but in my heart it was difficult.” (Rhapsody in Red, p. 287)

China Welcomes Back the Best of the West


Boston Symphony/Seiji Ozawa China tour 1979

When Ozawa and the Boston Symphony visited China  in 1979, it was a momentous occasion. Ozawa, born in China, had a special affection for the country and its people. He had already conducted LiDelun’s Central Philharmonic a few years earlier and he and Li Delun had become very close. Ozawa demanded to see Li, but the officials lied and claimed he was busy in the south. By this time Li had been stripped of all his positions and was out of favour with the government.

Huang Feili also got to know Ozawa during his many visits to China. Ozawa gave a master class for conductors at the CCOM and soon became a conducting icon for young Chinese conductors. Huang Feili has great admiration for Ozawa, but felt that his students venerated the Maestro for the wrong reasons. They loved his flamboyant style on the podium and soon began to emulate it. Huang spent a good deal of time trying to get his students to understand that what made Ozawa great was not just the podium choreography – that was the superficial part; the more important part was his grasp of the music.

Huang Feili’s Love of Western Music Bears Fruit

Composer Huang An-lun

Composer Huang An-lun

In 1987, Huang Feili made a return visit to Yale University, his alma mater, and to Toronto, where I met him for the first time. The connection was made through Huang’s son, An-lun, now a professional musician and composer who divides his time between Toronto and China where he is composer in residence with the Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra. I had the honour of conducting the first performance of Huang An-lun’s Symphonic Overture No. 2 in 1989.

Huang Feili is now 94 years old and living in Beijing. He was appointed conductor for life of the Golden Sail Youth Orchestra, but relinquished his conducting role with this orchestra four years ago. Every Saturday, however, he continues to conduct a rehearsal of the 80-voice Beijing Yuying Beimang Alumni choir, an ensemble that combines alumni from two schools founded by the American Congregational Church: Yuying (boys) and Beimang (girls) high schools.

Maestro Huang Feili did not create a “uniquely Chinese” school of conducting as he had originally dreamed of doing; he chose instead to train several generations of Chinese conductors well enough to lead their own orchestras around the world – an impressive achievement by any standard, but particularly given the social and political challenges faced by China in his lifetime.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: The Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: visit Paul’s podcast, Classical Airs.

Photo of Maestro Huang Felli with Paul E. Robinson by Marita




About Author

Former conductor and broadcaster, Paul E. Robinson, is the author of four books on conductors, Digital Editor for Classical Voice America, and a regular contributor to La Scena Musicale.

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