A Musician's Plea: my letter to the Prime Minister
To the Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister and Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage
To the Hon Kris Faafoi, Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media
To the Hon Grant Robertson, Minster of Finance and Associate Minister for Arts, Culture, and Heritage
I am a Chinese New Zealand pianist from Christchurch currently based in Budapest, Hungary. Like thousands of other Kiwis, I am deeply distressed to hear about the drastic changes being proposed to RNZ Concert. I would like to add to the plethora of letters and share my personal sentiments regarding the matter. As a Kiwi musician of Chinese heritage, one that sits in the 18 to 35-year-old demographic, as well as a former immigrant who made New Zealand his home from an early age, I hope by telling my story I could also contribute to the general discourse, as well as to voice the concerns of other Asian-Kiwis who are not among the stereotyped listeners of RNZ Concert.
I was an ordinary child growing up in a family of modest means. My parents brought me out to New Zealand as a 6-year-old believing it would benefit their child. They are not musicians and there was rarely music in the house; neither were they overly ambitious and allowed me the freedom to cull my own interests in our new home. When I was 12 I accidentally chanced upon Concert FM. What I heard immediately piqued my curiosity. It was the first time I encountered “classical” music and, at an impressionable age, it struck me with considerable force. An unfamiliar piece on the radio would immediately spur me on a hunt for a recording at the local library. These two sources fuelled my new-found passion. But soon growing increasingly discontent with this passive involvement, I begged my parents and eventually, overjoyed, received my first piano lesson. When I started attending my first concerts I was excited to recognise pieces I had once heard on the radio. As my passion and interest grew, Concert FM became my constant companion on my journey of discovery. Those charismatic presenters with their wit, contagious enthusiasm and wealth of knowledge were my guide, while the wonderfully diverse programmes, insightful interviews and news on all arts-related topics shaped and contributed immeasurably to my development.
Then one day this radio station stepped into my life in ways I could not have imagined. From winning the National Concerto Competition – when a naïve and overwhelmed 19-year-old unexpectedly received a call from a cheery and upbeat Eva Radich wanting to congratulate and interview him on air – to having my first orchestral pieces recorded at the NZSO Young Composers Awards and subsequently being interviewed alongside fellow winner Claire Cowan, RNZ Concert had been with me every step of the way, encouraging and recognising my efforts and achievements. This was invaluable and reassuring support to receive at such a volatile age and – being a rather self-conscious late-starter – was what ultimately encouraged me and gave me that gentle nudge to pursue my dream.
This genuine interest and support continue to this day. In March 2019 when I performed with Michael Houstoun and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra at the re-opening of the Christchurch Town Hall, RNZ Concert not only was there to broadcast this historic event live to the rest of the country, they also took particular interest in how I had made the selection of the new Steinway grand piano in Hamburg for the venue. Last September, as I embarked on a 14-concert solo tour across the country with Chamber Music New Zealand, RNZ Concert keenly followed my progress, announced to its listeners where I was going to perform every day, interviewed me and recorded my last concert in Wellington. (One of the pieces on my programme was a new work written for me by the Chinese composer Gao Ping.) In addition to all this, RNZ Concert regularly broadcasts my debut album, giving me exposure as an artist even while I’m abroad.
I know of no other radio station in the world that not only so willingly, actively and personally engages with its young musicians in such an intimate way, but also follows their careers with as much eagerness as a parent’s and celebrates their successes with as much pride as its own. Their precious acknowledgement provides us with the confidence to take that daunting leap. Many a time I’ve been overwhelmed by how incredibly privileged I am to have made this discovery in New Zealand, and I give my parents a slap on the back for having made the right decision of bringing me up here. Had we stayed in China I most certainly would not have heard of Bach.
This is only my story. I know of numerous others, of friends and peers, Kiwi composers and performers across the whole musical spectrum, all of whom have equally benefited from RNZ Concert’s generous support. What I have learned over the years is that for musicians, RNZ Concert is not merely a radio station; it is our very voice and soul. It is a forum, the agora on which we meet as a community, to share and spread our common love for music and the arts. It plays a tremendously vital role in shaping the cultural life of New Zealand. RNZ Concert represents us all and is an irreplaceable part of our identity. We live and breathe it, and without it we would simply be lost.
RNZ Concert has always been committed to the youth of New Zealand, whose talents and careers it celebrates and nurtures. If proposed plans go ahead, the management would be doing themselves and the youth – the very demographic they claim they hope to attract – a grave disservice and effectively the very antithesis of what they set out to accomplish. It would be a colossal mistake, one with dire consequences not just for our arts community but also for the future generation. If this happens, I fear New Zealand would essentially be committing cultural suicide. I cannot help but think that this reckless attempt to reach out to that proverbial “youth” of New Zealand, by placing on the sacrificial altar a well-established national treasure with its thousands of loyal listeners, is as absurd as a captain jettisoning every single one of his happy and healthy passengers (old and young) in an obstinate quest to set out into uncharted waters in an ill-informed rescue mission.
My suspicion tells me this new proposal was never simply about appealing to the youth. It seems to reflect a malady that is prevalent today and is symptomatic of a far more worrying phenomenon that is taking place in the Western world. Everywhere, classical music is continuously being marginalised, reduced to a niche, driven by the false assumption that it only caters to a certain race, age bracket and social class. Unfortunately this misconception is counterproductive; it is self-fulfilling and only creates a vicious cycle. The further we pursue this stereotype, the more cuts to funding we’ll see, the weaker the support will become, and ultimately the further we ostracise our diverse younger audiences.
Classical music may not be for everyone…at first. It’s challenging; it explores and expresses complex ideas, thoughts and emotions. Before it yields its miraculous rewards it first asks for the active involvement of the listener – patience and curiosity – attributes many young people today aren’t perhaps readily willing to invest. But the solution to this isn’t to dumb down, to condescend. On the contrary it is to elevate, to embrace, to focus all our attention on education and exposure – especially in early age – both of which RNZ Concert is already a remarkable and exemplary source of. Classical music currently leads a precarious existence in today’s climate: an overly-stimulated and noisy world of “on-demand” accessibility and fleeting attention-spans. We should therefore resist the temptation of underselling classical music while at the same time be wary of underestimating our younger listeners. For what happens beyond that arbitrary frame of “youth”? Let’s not forget the demographic that has been labelled “ageing” was also once in its “youth”.
There is also a widespread but groundless fear of classical music disappearing with its audiences. But in Asia we see large numbers of young people swarming to classical concerts. Even if in most other places the elderly still makes up a large percentage of our audiences, – so what, we adore our “sea of grey”! – a new grey will always replace the old grey. As Marc Taddei writes: “Just because one does not understand something does not mean that it should not be supported.” I would add: “Just because one does not understand something now.” It all begins and ends with education.
So, does a forward-thinking country like New Zealand, a country where culture and diversity forms its basic bedrock, really want to have a hand in tarnishing the richness of cultural experiences? Do we want to pander to the lowest common denominator in order to fill the spreadsheets and chase capitalistic ambitions? Or do we really want to ensure that future generations will continue to enjoy the benefits of being openly exposed to the arts and culture, to profound ideas, to critical thinking and appreciation?
Even in a utopian society, a station like RNZ Concert may not attract the vast majority of today’s youth. Yet for those young people, those whose creativity, sensitivity and imagination, still unbeknownst to them, already set in place and are only laying buried, patiently waiting for that serendipitous moment, that single spark to ignite them; for those youth, losing this station and its presenters would irrevocably damage and unfairly rob them of their chances of having a miraculous encounter that would set them on an immensely fulfilling and life-changing journey.
As a latecomer to the party, I consider myself incredibly lucky to have made this fortuitous discovery of classical music thanks to RNZ Concert. When I consider what this “accident” has already done for my life thus far, how much it has nourished my soul and affirmed my existence, I can’t begin to imagine what further miracles would play out if only more young Kiwis were exposed to the wonders of classical music.
“And how do we do that?” one might ask. Simple. It would be as easy as switching on the radio, tuning in to RNZ Concert, and simply letting the magic happen, a kind of magic no other platform could ever recreate.
Optimistic, hopeful and in good faith.
Tony Chen Lin