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Jindong Cai directs the Stanford Pan-Asian Music Festival

February 02, 2014
Department of Music, Stanford University

In keeping with Stanford University’s commitment to the arts, Jindong Cai, conductor of the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, directs the 10th anniversary Pan-Asian Music Festival that will be held during the month of February. OIA chats with Professor Cai about the festival’s growth over the last decade and music’s role in promoting peace in the world.

Q. You were educated in the Western music tradition. How did your interest in Asian music come about?

JC: I was educated as a Western musician from a very young age; I play the violin and piano. When I was in college, I decided that I needed to go West if I was to continue studying Western music so I went to the US to study conducting. When I had the opportunity to talk to the audience, I was often asked why I became interested in Western music and not Chinese music. It was a question that made me think. Of course, I learned about traditional Chinese music at conservatory, it is in me, but it never occurred to me to think much about it.

Subsequently, whenever I returned to China I took the opportunity to go to Peking opera and other Chinese music performances beyond Western music. Gradually I started to feel differently about it. Basically, any art form that has been in existence for hundreds or thousands of years must have its artistic and social values. Whether we choose to acknowledge these is a different story.

Q. What led you to create a Pan-Asian music festival?

JCWhen I came to Stanford 10 years ago, I noticed that the Bay area was very diverse and that you could find people from all over the world here, especially from Asia. I thought it would be a good platform to introduce music from Asia. The first festival opened in 2005 and the response was quite overwhelming. We conducted community outreach and all the groups that we met with were very enthusiastic that I showed an interest in their musical

Q. What is the theme for the 10th anniversary festival?

JCThis year, the festival will take place over three separate weekends from February 1-March 2. The first opening weekend took place last weekend and featured the Stanford Chinese Music Ensemble and Stanford Symphony Orchestra with Chinese guest artists. The second and third weekends will feature Tibetan and Mongolian performers, respectively. In addition to the evening concerts, there will also be daytime performances for families and their children and pre-concert seminars. For more information, visitors may refer to the Pan-Asian Music Festival website.

When I invite performers from other countries, I prefer to personally connect with them and their government officials. When Ministries of Culture take an active participatory role in the cultural exchange there is a sense that the level of the exchange is higher. For instance, this year, the Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Mongolia, Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, MA ‘04, will join a panel of speakers on the topic of arts and culture in contemporary Mongolia. The purpose of the pre-concert symposia is to educate the listeners so that they can have a better understanding and appreciation of the art form.

Q. Asian music is steeped in story telling & traditional folklore. How do you introduce this to Western listeners?

JCThe mission of the festival is to introduce music from contemporary Asia; what are people listening to in the country now.  This is one of the reasons why I always go to the country and select the music, seeking something that is representative of their musical culture and that I think Western listeners will enjoy. For the Mongolian portion of the show, we’ll feature traditional singing and dance, also ballet, and opera. Many people don’t even know that Mongolians perform ballet and opera. Programming is another important factor; when I program the concert I am curating the content to shape the art in a way that will help the audience understand the music and culture.

Q. What can you tell us about your upcoming book?

JCMy new book elaborates on my first book, Rhapsody in Red, which I co-wrote with my wife Sheila Melvin. In my first book, I examine how Western music is introduced to China, from as early as the 17th century by traveling missionaries and how it has developed since.  My new book examines China’s quest to become a global cultural superpower and to explore how this will impact America and the world.

Q. As a musician that sits on the fence and moves between Western and Eastern music, what is your belief that music is a universal language?

JCMusic is universal because you don’t need to translate it. You can just feel the expression and the mood as soon as you hear it. Music, and the arts in general, transcends boundaries. When you look at regions of political conflict, for instance India and Pakistan in South Asia, the relationship seems broken, but if you look at the region through the lens of the arts, you see the connections. Classical Indian music influences Pakistani music and at the same time, Islamic Pakistani music influences south Indian music; the stories and language influence each other.  I truly believe that the arts can bring people together and I am not alone in this belief.

Argentine-Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim co-founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 1999 that comprises young musicians from Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Spain. This multi-cultural group of musicians travel and play together without the political conflict of their home countries. His goal was to promote understanding in a conflict-ridden Middle East, and to promote tolerance; we can agree to disagree without violence. As we strive to become global citizens of the world, we need to find more ways to promote peace.

I am very fortunate that I have been able to continue the music festival with the support of the university and the Bay area Asian community. The first decade has been very fruitful and I look forward to continued collaboration with Asian artists in the future.

For more information, visit the Pan-Asian Music Festival website.

You can purchase tickets at the Stanford Ticket Office.