A simple walk through the halls of the new music building (nicknamed S.S. Bienen for its resemblance in shape to a cruise ship) during a class change shows that the demographics of classical music are not what they were 50 years ago. Music departments and conservatories across the country have seen a dramatic increase in Asian and Asian American students over the past 20 years. At Juilliard, Asians make up one-fifth of undergraduate students, and one-third of Ph.D./DMA students. The number of Asian musicians in top orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic are up to 20 percent.
The rise of Asians in classical music can be partly attributed to post-war economic prosperity in China, Japan, and South Korea. With the rise of the middle class in these countries, more families were able to afford the high price of buying instruments, paying for private lessons, and investing time accompanying children to and from competitions and concerts. Strict immigration laws also accounted for the financial stability of many Asian American families. Many middle class Asian families viewed classical music as valuable cultural capital; having a child trained in classical music was a symbol of upward social mobility.
One Asian woman who has shocked the classical music world is 29-year-old Chinese pianist Yuja Wang. Aside from her astounding technical prowess and entrancing musicality, Wang is also known for performing in tight, revealing dresses and six-inch heels. The piano prodigy came to the US when she was 14 to study at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. In an interview with the New Yorker last month, she expresses her personal conflicts with Chinese culture. She describes her parents as “naive” and “traditional.” Wang says the environment in which they lived “never allowed them to develop to their full potential,” expressing how she feels “lucky” to have been able to leave at such a young age.
Click here to watch Yuja Wang slay Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto.
Wang’s outfit choices can be interpreted as a betrayal of her ethnic identity. As Bow discusses, the performance of one’s sexuality can influence their perceived ethnic and national affiliation (9). Asian American women can use the expression of their sexuality as a way to show disdain for the “backwards, uptight” East while exhibiting their connection to the “free, liberating” West. Wang’s career as a classical musician can also be viewed as a betrayal, as classical music as an institution values Western music. These actions are viewed as betrayals by dominant narratives as well as by those within said ethnic affiliations.
Yuja Wang performing a solo recital in her signature dress and heels. NYT 2013.
While Yuja Wang’s scandalous outfit choices have garnered a surprising amount of praise, much of the attention she has attracted is gendered. Many of her marketing images are highly sexualized (by classical music standards,) mirroring the sexism that is still entrenched in the classical music world, including the exotification and over-sexualization of Asian women.
While East Asians have made tremendous strides in the classical music world, there is still much work to do. Asian and Asian American musicians are still viewed as foreigners. In a 2008 interview, solo violinist Jennifer Koh talks about awkward encounters she often has with Europeans who are surprised that Asian musicians are able to play “their” music. While Asian musicians make up a large proportion of orchestra musicians, it is still rare to seem them in leadership positions, such as conductors or performing arts organization boards. While there are more Asian musicians, the standard classical music repertory is still comprised entirely of white male composers.
It is also important to acknowledge that the rise of Asians in classical music only applies to East Asians. South and Southeast Asians still remain largely invisible in the world of classical music. Widely disseminated stereotypes about Asian children being piano or violin prodigies erase the heterogeneity of “Asians” and “Asian Americans,” ignoring large class disparities between different Asian ethnicities in the United States (Lowe 67).
The growth in number of Asian and Asian American musicians has brought much needed diversity to the classical music world. However, with this new diversity comes new needs to address the different ways in which this new crop of talented musicians brings issues of class, race, gender, and sexuality to light.
Bow, Leslie. “Theorizing Gendered Constructions of Ethnic and National Collectivity.” Introduction. Betrayal and Other Acts of Subversion: Feminism, Sexual Politics, Asian American Women’s Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2001. N. pag. Print.
“Interview with Mari Yoshihara.” Interview with Mari Yoshihara. Temple University, n.d. Web. 09 Oct. 2016.
Lowe, Lisa. “Heterogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity: Asian American Differences.” Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. Durham: Duke UP, 1996. N. pag. Print.
Malcolm, Janet. “Yuja Wang and the Art of Performance.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 29 Aug. 2016. Web. 09 Oct. 2016.
Paarlberg, Michael Ahn. “Can Asians Save Classical Music?” Slate Magazine. Slate Magazine, 02 Feb. 2012. Web. 09 Oct. 2016.
Tompkins, Jeff. “Interview: Classical Violinist Jennifer Koh Finds Her Own Path to Music with Meaning.” Asia Society. Asia Society, 23 May 2013. Web. 09 Oct. 2016.