On Sunday night Yuja Wang played a hometown gig.

If you haven’t heard of Wang, she’s a Beijing-born concert pianist who has electrified the sometimes stuffy world of classical music with her beauty, glamor and penchant for short, tight dresses. No, put those cynical thoughts away. While her looks have no doubt helped her career, it must be pointed out that she also has dazzling technique, a fearless and distinctive musicality, and amazingly large hands. (This is a good thing, by the way.) Not yet thirty, she is one of the world’s most in-demand soloists.

Her performance was fabulous, but highlighted a couple of my bugbears about this city’s cultural life.

First, although the concert was sold out weeks in advance, there were lots of empty seats. How does that happen? Do scalpers buy them all up? Tickets were on sale on Taobao the day before, and there were a few shady characters lurking by the subway station (that’s how I got my ticket). But they can’t be making a profit, if so many seats remained unsold. Or are tickets, like at major sporting events, handed out to sponsors and corporate hospitality? Either way it’s a travesty that real fans are denied the opportunity to attend, while world-class performers are playing to halls which are only two-thirds full.

Second, there was the woman sitting next to me who talked (and giggled) all the way through. That wasn’t just bad luck, either. At every performance I’ve been to at the Egg – concert, theatre, opera – there’s been somebody talking nearby. An old schoolfriend who plays with a major London orchestra told me that Beijing audiences are notorious for it.

Perhaps it’s cultural. The audience at Peking opera talk constantly, apparently. But the noisy, percussive music of jingju has evolved to be heard over this; western classical music hasn’t. And watching people talking at the Egg I’ve developed a different theory: people genuinely believe that if you cover your mouth with your hand, nobody can hear you. This might sound crazy, but the alternative is that they’re so rude and arrogant that they don’t care. And it can’t be that, can it? After all, they bother to put their hands over their mouths.

Maybe you don’t like classical music. Fair enough. But nobody’s making you go to concerts, taking up a seat that could be used by someone who does, and spoiling it for others. I’m an atheist, but I don’t crash into church and sit there chatting. And music is my religion, it’s where I go to experience the transcendent. Really, what is so urgent that it can’t wait twenty minutes till the interval? What’s more interesting than listening to Debussy, FFS?

It’s not just the concert hall. I have yet to find a temple or shrine in Beijing where the peace isn’t disturbed by the grating drone of music played through tiny speakers at distorted volume. In fact, there’s hardly anyplace at all where you can go to experience calm and stillness. In the park, in the forest, on top of a mountain, wherever you go there’s banging, shouting, tinny music and the blare of amplified voices.

So, Beijing, why don’t you try it? Turn off the music every now and then, cease the chatter, sit quietly and breathe slowly. Listen to the sounds of nature. Nobody will think any less of you if you ease up for one minute, you’ll still be a great city. As a wise man – I think it might have been Lao Zi – once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Beijing, I love you, but please, sometimes, just STFU.

Photo: beckmesser.com


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