Chinese Orchestras and Ensembles in New York and the Classical Music “Crisis”

Chinese Music Ensemble of New York
Chinese Music Ensemble of New York

I often refer to the Bay Area Chinese Orchestras when I speak about the rising number of ethnic orchestras in the US. I recently read a dissertation by Su de San Zheng called “Immigrant Music and Transnational Discourse: Chinese American Music in New York City” (1993) which has an appendix which lists most of the Chinese Music groups in the City over nearly a hundred year period. I’d read about the five Chinese Opera troupes in NYC Chinatown in the pre-Depression years–during the height of the Chinese Exclusion Act and had been fascinated to learn that the last two active troupes were performing practically every night, and hundreds of Chinese Opera pieces, but I’d read little about what other performing groups existed with the exception of a few I listed in my page for Ethnic Orchestras in North America.

Zheng’s list included 38 entries (not all since her dissertation was published in 1993) and I’ve made a list of 23 of the ones that I’m positive are groups that do Chinese repertoire. Each portion of her annotated list included sections for Chinese Opera, Chinese Music Ensembles, Choral Groups and I’ve left out what seem to be Western styled Orchestras since these, though they are comprised solely of Chinese-Americans, are doing European repertoire.

Note that all the professional companies folded before the Great Depression. Sadly, due to a lot of the anti-Chinese sentiment, these performing groups didn’t benefit from the economic initiatives (FERA, WPA Federal Music Project) that helped many US European Style Orchestras survive the Great Depression. Neither were new ensembles formed due to those initiatives like the 150 plus Eropean styled Orchestras around the US. After the Depression, most of the earliest groups were “clubs” that did occasional performances rather than the 6-nights-a-week performances we saw in the pre-Depression years. I wonder if this might have happened to many of the US European Styled Orchestras had many of them not had the funding from the Federal Government through FERA and the WPA. One crisis was averted for the dominant cultural majority while another wasn’t for a cultural minority.

Since the 60s and 70s though we’ve been having this rise in ethnic orchestras as I’ve been blogging. More than half of these Chinese ensembles were formed in the 80s and 90s. The same can be said of the bay area Chinese Orchestras and Ensembles. As the proportion of White American population shrinks relative to the total population, I’d suggested that the so-called decline in Classical Music was simply a reflection of that changing demographic. It should be noted that the median age of the White Population in the US is also growing faster than the median age of the population of the US as a whole. What this all suggest to me is simply a A Function of Demographic Evolution and not Demographic Destiny.

One of the joys of my musical life is how often I work with ethnic musicians and with ethnic communities. Whether playing with a Balkan Band, Klezmer Band, Greek or Turkish musicians, Arabic Tahkt, Central Asian troupes I get the honor and pleasure of interacting with these communities–both the audiences and the musicians–which gives me a viewpoint than simply what I’d find in Classical or Pop communities (which I also happen to work with regularly). The musical world is far bigger than the Classical versus Pop Music debates would have us believe–and the forces which shape the former musical worlds have as much to do with changing demographics and the types of power structures in play due to that.


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