Published: 16:54, April 18, 2024
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Pop goes the theater
By Xing Wen

Festival gives the mainstream music genre an unconventional home in venues in Beijing that typically host plays rather than concerts, Xing Wen reports.

Hong Kong singer-songwriter Ivana Wong raises the curtain of the 10th Beijing International Pop Music Festival with two solo concerts on April 11 and 12, 2024. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

It's universally agreed upon that performing in front of audiences and critics is the ultimate test of ability and courage for a stage actor. But for veteran music producer Jiang Tao, singing in a theater with a superior sound system and fostering closer interaction between audiences and performers also serves as a touchstone for a talented singer. That's why he has run the annual Beijing International Pop Music Festival, which offers pop musicians opportunities to perform in theaters, since 2015.

Singer-songwriters Jeremy Zhang, Zhang Qiang and Jin Wenqi, as well as the bands Wild Children, New Pants and Sir Deer, are among the artists who have been invited by the festival over the past 10 years.

Jiang is one of the festival's initiators and is now the secretary-general of its organizing committee.

"Compared to stadiums and arenas where concerts are frequently held, theaters enable the audience to perceive the performers' nuances more distinctly. And because they have superior sound systems, theaters also enable artists to better showcase their skills," he explains.

Veteran artist Gong Linna performing at the annual Beijing International Pop Music Festival in 2023. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

He says lively and bustling outdoor music festivals typically prioritize the interactions between performers and crowds. In contrast, within a theater setting, audiences tend to quietly appreciate performances with less interaction.

"This scenario presents artists with a greater challenge: how to properly handle the atmosphere in a theater filled with thousands of people."

Jiang recalls singer-songwriter Lao Lang's solo concert, which was held as part of the first Beijing International Pop Music Festival in December 2015 at the Beijing Poly Theatre.

"As the concert progressed into its final third, the audience began to stand up. However, their reaction wasn't the chaotic frenzy seen in rock concerts, where people jump onto chairs. This warm and orderly atmosphere made me feel particularly good. It fulfilled my ideal image of pop performances in theaters," Jiang recollects.

This year marks the festival's 10th anniversary. It has already transitioned from a weeklong event to a year-round affair, featuring a range of activities, including pop music shows in theaters and livehouses, pop industry forums, exhibitions and salons.

Japanese musician Shinji Tanimura singing at the festival in 2018. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The opening performance of this year's festival took place on April 11 and 12 at Beijing's MAO Livehouse, and featured Hong Kong singer-songwriter Ivana Wong.

It was Wong's first time to perform for the festival.

Wong said before the concerts that during the event, she would perform work from different periods of her career, sharing with everyone the changes she has undergone as a music maker from the beginning until now.

She also expressed her delight at the opportunity to perform in Beijing.

"I feel that Beijing is a city rich in traditional culture and modern vigor. Such a contrast is very interesting. Similarly, making music requires innovation while preserving some traditions," she said.

Greek American musician Yanni plays keyboard at the festival in 2019. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Jiang, who has been involved in the pop industry for nearly three decades, emphasizes that as a national cultural center, Beijing has always played a significant role in the growth of pop music culture in China.

"Due to the cultural atmosphere of this city, lyrics by pop musicians who live in Beijing have tended to explore themes beyond just love. They often delve into contemplations on life from a humanistic perspective, and exhibit depth and literary qualities," he says.

Jiang also hopes that the Beijing International Pop Music Festival can help promote the capital's musical exchanges with foreign countries.

The festival has previously invited foreign artists such as Japanese director Shunji Iwai and his group Hec&Pascal, Greek American musician Yanni, Swedish guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen, Singaporean singer-songwriter Yida Huang and Croatian pianist Maksim Mrvica to perform in Beijing.

Jiang Tao, a veteran music producer who is also secretary-general of the festival's organizing committee, poses with Wong at an event. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Jiang shares his observations of the past decade of live pop music performances in China.

He says there is a growing enthusiasm for live shows but expresses concern over the homogeneity and lack of innovation in music festivals.

"Many new bands and singers who are entering the market through short-video platforms, online talent shows and gigs at livehouses have not yet reached the required level of professionalism," he says.

Despite this, Jiang, who has been involved in pop music production and music event planning for a long time, remains optimistic about the future of China's pop music.

"I've noticed that many teenagers are excellent at playing musical instruments," he says. "The future looks promising, given the continued involvement of a new generation of young pop musicians."

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