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Sounds of joy in China

The theme of universal joy and brotherhood is one that has thrilled and inspired audiences for more than a century. But this holiday season, for the first time in 19 years, the voices singing out the words of Schiller's "Ode to Joy" were Chinese, as were the some 1,800 eager listeners who jammed Peking's Red Tower Theater, and the orchestra performing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the Peking Central Philharmonic. At the podium was the Boston Symphony Orchestra's music director, Seiji Ozawa, painstakingly introducing musicians and audience alike to their first live performance of the Beethoven masterpiece since in 1961 .

But perhaps more surprising than the Western music itself, banned during the oppressive 10-year cultural revolution, were other refreshing indications of change. Men in the orchestra wore Western-style suits; women, floor-length evening dresses. Female vocalists, soloists, had shed the accustomed drab gray uniforms for bright red and green evening dresses, jeweled necklaces and earrings, and facial make-up.

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As in other areas in life, music in China shows welcome signs of gradually awakening from the stifling ideological isolation that held China in its grip in the past. Of course, a great many restrictions of communist dogma remain to be loosened. For instance, all references to Deity were eliminated from the Chinese translation of the Beethoven hymm. But these, too, could weaken in time , especially if the following sentiments in "Ode to Joy" are viewed as prophetic: Why bow ye down -- why down, ye millions? O world, thy Maker's throne to see Look upward, search the star pavilions -- There must His mansion be!


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