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Keeping the show on the road
China Daily     Updated: 2021-03-15

It may not be the final curtain, but the coronavirus pandemic and various safety precautions have had a huge impact on the performing arts. Audiences have been encouraged to stay at home and not gather indoors. Venues have closed. Performances have been canceled or postponed.

However, artists know more than anyone that the show must go on. They have found alternative ways to connect with their audiences with various online events.

Since early February 2020, the Xi'an Symphony Orchestra has been finding creative ways to engage with its audience. Within two months the orchestra chorus presented about 80 shows via livestream and the symphony orchestra performed 11 online shows. The shows have attracted more than 23 million online viewers in total.

To their surprise, their online programs not only stabilized their relationship with their audience but also helped build a new fan base.

The symphony orchestra, which was founded in 2012 in Shaanxi province, is home to musicians from around the country, most of whom are younger than 30.

"We had to figure out ways to keep in touch with our fans since many of our live performances were canceled due to the pandemic, which was very disappointing," says Cao Jiwen, branding director of the Xi'an Symphony Orchestra." For us, it was a new experience to launch online the programs since our musicians usually perform in front of a live audience. With the first online concert, we saw many fans, who may have never listened to classical music before, become interested in the genre. It's an unexpected reward. We then tried to come up with more ideas to get classical music closer to more people."

The fact that online concerts are a solution for symphony orchestras to connect with their fans also inspired musicians to design shows specifically for online audiences.

In April and May 2020, the orchestra launched a series of online concerts by working with major video sites Youku and Bilibili, which are popular among younger users. The online concert series,

When Museum Meets XSO, was staged at museums in Shaanxi province, such as the Shaanxi History Museum, the Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum, and the Xi'an Museum.

A team from the orchestra shot videos of the museums and items on display, which were broadcast during the concerts. Millions of viewers watched the When Museum Meets XSO online concert series.

As well as online indoor concerts, the Xi'an Symphony Orchestra also put on outdoor performances at iconic sites in the province. For example, a concert, titled XSO Meets Huashan Mountain Summit Clouds Rhapsody, took place in July 2020, which saw more than 200 musicians from the orchestra, under the baton of conductor Tang Muhai, perform on Huashan Mountain in Shaanxi province, one of China's five most famous mountains, known for its picturesque, steep and perilous peaks.

Over 50 million people watched the virtual concert.

"If there is one good thing that has come of this pandemic, it's that people are desperately longing to hear music performed live again. It is as though many only now fully appreciate just how much of a gift music is," says conductor Li Biao, who, on Feb 5,2020, led the Beijing Symphony Orchestra in performing English composer Edward Elgar's piece, Salut d'Amour. The orchestra released a series of online concerts before it gave its first public performance in front of a live audience on July 31,2020, at the Forbidden City Concert Hall in Beijing.

Independent movement

For the country's indie musicians, the pandemic has left them jobless as financial problems mounted with the loss of income from tours. On Feb 4, 2020, Modern Sky, one of the biggest record companies of China, which is home to over 100 indie rock bands, launched an online streaming program, titled Hi, I Am at Home Too. More than 70 indie music groups, including pop rock band New Pants, joined in the first round of online performances, which received positive feedback from the fans. Then from Feb 22 to 28, 2020, nearly 100 acts, including Chinese-American rapper Victor Ma, and pop rock band Dada, joined in the second round of online performances. The total number of views exceeded 2 million.

"We would often perform at small live music venues in front of fans, who sang along with us and cheered loudly. When performances moved online, I spent some time adjusting to the new way of interacting with fans," says Cao Shi, founder and lead vocalist with Chinese rock band Black Head, who also joined Modern Sky's online streaming program.

As well as singing and playing guitar, Cao also shared his daily life at home during the lockdown, such as cooking and exercising.

"It feels more intimate when I communicate with the audience online. It's more like talking to my friends. I like reading the messages fans tap out on the screen. I also respond to their questions. It's a fresh experience for us," says Cao.

The pandemic also became a source of inspiration to indie musicians. On Feb 25, 2020, singer-songwriter Peng Lei, the frontman of Beijing-based rock band New Pants, released a new single, Just Dance, Wherever You Can, on social media platform Sina Weibo, hoping to bring cheer to fans with its upbeat message.

In the music video, the singer-songwriter performs with his guitar against the backdrop of his living room and balcony. The video was viewed more than 1.2 million times, and the lyrics record Peng's existence at the time, which was just like that of many people, who had to stay at home to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, and his longing for life to return to normal.

Evolving traditions

Traditional Chinese art forms also faced challenges brought by the virus.

Due to the pandemic, a popular venue in the capital's downtown for xiangsheng, or cross-talk, performances, closed down, much to the dismay of its owner and founder Gao Xiaopan. Gao, himself a xiangsheng performer, has been practicing the art since he was 8. He founded the Beijing-based Hip-hop Cross-talk Club, a performing troupe popular among young people due to its creative way of giving the art form a modern twist.

Launched in 2013, the small theater is situated in Jiaodaokou, a populous hutong, or alleyway, area near the Drum Tower and Nanluoguxiang, both popular tourist attractions. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, it attracted audiences of about 200 people every weeknight, and even more on weekends.

"I was depressed when all the shows were canceled due to the outbreak. However, I didn't expect the situation to worsen," says Gao, 35.

On March 28, 2020, Gao and xiangsheng performers from the club held their first online show on Douyin, one of the country's most popular short-video platforms. The debut performance was watched by more than 1.2 million people, far beyond Gao's expectations.

"It was all new to me, as I had rarely watched shows streamed online before I started to do it myself," he says. "But, when I realized that this was a way to connect with audiences, I decided to do it every day."

Shen Lihui, founder of Modern Sky, echoes Gao's idea.

"Online streaming seems to be our only choice currently to keep the music playing," says Shen. The company also launched online concerts using a pay-per-view model to support indie rock musicians with all the revenue going to the bands.

Artists of Peking Opera, known as jingju in Chinese, a 200-year-old ancient art form, also made use of social media platforms to get through the crisis brought by the pandemic. For example, 16 Peking Opera companies from around the country, such as the National Peking Opera Company, the Hubei Provincial China Peking Opera and Tianjin Jingju Theatre Company, launched an online program, which offered audiences online streaming of 26 classic and contemporary Peking Opera pieces from Aug 8 to Sept 4,2020.

Contact the writer at chennan@chinadaily.com.cn

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Xi'an Symphony Orchestra holds a concert on the west peak of Huashan Mountain in Shaanxi province, on July 4, 2020. The concert, titled XSO Meets Huashan Mountain Summit Clouds Rhapsody, which streamed live, attracted over 50 million viewers. CHINA DAILY

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Performing in that concert are conductor Tang Muhai (top left) and a female choir (top right) of the Xi'an Symphony Orchestra, and artists (above right) from Huayin Laoqiang, a local opera troupe. Above left: Erhu player Song Fei performs with the Beijing Chinese Orchestra at a concert held at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing on Feb 27. The livestreamed concert has been viewed over 30 million times. CHINA DAILY