There is a sense of déjà vu. When the world was reeling from the onset of the pandemic in the first half of last year, the first country to pick itself up and resume live concerts was Taiwan. Now the concert halls in the west are shuttered again and the spotlight has turned back to east Asia, where Taiwan is enjoying a full programme of music and the arts.
The handsome National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts, opened in 2018, has just announced a wide-ranging spring season. Chien Wen-Pin, conductor and general and artistic director, has a full diary, with a concert of Brahms and Beethoven coming up shortly, and much more at the arts centre at Kaohsiung, known as Weiwuying, to follow.
“This is the biggest theatre complex under one roof in the world,” says Chien proudly. “It is the newest cultural building in Taiwan and the only one built after the political change in 2000 — a symbol of freedom and democracy. People are eager to have everything that was denied to them previously and in that spirit the centre was designed to be totally open for everyone.”
The photos are stunning. Designed by the Dutch firm Mecanoo, the building looks like a vast, elegant space ship that has settled gracefully among a subtropical park in the city’s suburbs. Inspired by the local banyan trees, the open structure welcomes visitors under an undulating roof, inviting open-air performances or street art along its walkways.
In the 1980s, when the National Theater and Concert Hall was opened in Taipei, all the cultural activities were in the north of Taiwan. By pushing forward with the new arts centre at Kaohsiung, the government has shown that it wants to level up cultural development between the north and south of the island. The new mayor of Kaohsiung has nominated the area around the arts centre for future cultural development; property prices there have been soaring.
Under the arts centre’s wave-like roof lie multiple venues, including Taiwan's first dedicated opera house, a theatre, concert hall and recital hall. That must be both a challenge and an opportunity to Chien as its director.
“The architects left so many possibilities for creating new work,” Chien says. “In the opera house, we have not only standard opera, but experimental theatre with the audience and performers together on the stage. Similarly, we decided to do something new in the concert hall and that housed a circus, like a traditional circus but without animals. Next year we will hold an organ festival, as we have the biggest organ in Asia. Then there will be an international music festival with visiting orchestras.”
As a conductor, Chien says his personal enthusiasm lies firstly with opera. From the mid-1990s he was based at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Dūsseldorf/Duisburg and has been a guest conductor at the international companies in Amsterdam, Hamburg and Berlin. He also scheduled two operas per season during his time as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Taipei.
Chien's proudest achievement, and one for the history books, was the first Taiwan production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. In general, Wagner’s epic music dramas, with their political symbolism, have been less popular in Asia than the human passion of Italian opera, and the casts have depended heavily on artists from the west — but not this time.
“I was so proud that we only needed seven foreign singers,” says Chien. “We had always been under the impression that Taiwanese singers were not for Wagner, but after two years' training we proved they can do it. It is the physical strength as well as everything else. We had a Taiwanese singer as Mime who doubted if he would be up to it, but the German coach told him, ‘Run 3,000 metres every day, and sing while you run.’ It was a big success, helped by the fact that many in the audience were well-prepared, as we ran pre-performance education events and co-operated with a local radio station on talks by musicologists.”
For all that, Chien believes a grounding from Europe will hold its value. The new focus on Asia, he says, is more about the size of its market, especially the huge opportunities afforded in China, whereas Europe will always benefit from the historical depth of its culture.
“Everything we know about classical music comes from Europe,” he says. “We need to experience the music there, to feel it in our heart, and get to know the people. After leaving Germany, I went back to guest conduct and it was fascinating to see how the air is different there, and how that affects our performances as artists. Europe is not a museum. It will always be alive.”
At times it seems that the flood of young musicians from east Asia, especially China, will take over, as there has been no stopping the flow of teenage pianists and violinists. Chien, though, who has the experience of conducting widely in China, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan and Korea, has his doubts.
“It used to be like that in Taiwan when I was young,” he says, “but the birth rate is quite low here and there is less interest in becoming a musician these days. People used to play Bach or Beethoven to show they were educated, but now young people have so many more possibilities.” Maybe in that respect as well Taiwan is one step ahead. The future will tell.
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