Monday , June 24 2024
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Photo © Yuexin Zhou

Interview: Wray Armstrong and Evita Zhang of Armstrong Music & Arts on Bridging the China-West Cultural Divide

Cultural exchange has long served as a counterweight to international tensions. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us how nations are prone to cooperate poorly, purveyors of the arts persist in working to increase understanding and collaboration. Armstrong Music & Arts builds cultural bridges between China and the West through touring and management for artists and organizations in the West and in China, and by discovering and nurturing talented Chinese artists.

A Wide-Ranging International Portfolio

Founder and Chairman Wray Armstrong, Chief Operations Officer Evita Zhang, and their team manage established artists and groups who want to tour China, such as Hélène Grimaud, Joshua Bell, Maxim Vengerov, Misha Maisky, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, and the Israel Philharmonic. They also manage “rising star” musicians who want to tour Western nations, such as pianist Tianxu An (Musical America’s New Artist of the Month for August 2021) and classical guitarist Meng Su.

Along with classical music and opera, they also produce and present dance and theater projects and visual arts exhibitions, as you’ll see below.

Wray Armstrong has worked in classical music management and consulting for over 40 years, including a stint with IMG. He began the latest phase of his career when he moved to China in 2009 to begin arts management there.

Evita Zhang has served as Director of Touring and Projects for Armstrong Music & Arts and is now COO.

Both spoke with us from China about their goals and accomplishments, offering perspective on the international cultural scene in the age of COVID-19 and beyond.

Wray Armstrong and Evita Zhang. Photo © Armstrong Music & Arts

Wray Armstrong

You’ve been involved with classical music in China for many years. What drove this interest – and inspired you to move to China and devote yourself to bridging cultural divides through music and the arts?

I was involved with the Beijing Music Festival because of the conductor Long Yu, whom I used to manage in Europe, and I became fascinated by China and all the possibilities here. Long and others pushed me to come here because of my experience and the ways I could help here in China. There was a great energy, spirit of adventure, and willingness to try to make things happen over here which seemed like a perfect way to finish off my career. That was 12 years ago, and it’s been a wonderful time.

What cross-cultural developments have you observed since you founded Armstrong Music & Arts? Are connections increasing and deepening?

Cross-cultural development is happening slowly, but [I have seen] an explosion in the creation of new arts centers and orchestras in China since founding Armstrong Music & Arts. When I first came here, there were around 20 orchestras, and seven of those were at a very high level. Now there are 25 at a high level, and more than 70 orchestras around China.

In 2008 my colleagues and I were bringing the National Symphony Orchestra (Washington D.C.) to China, and they really wanted to go to Xi’an. We were working with one of the major government agencies [toward] finding a hall to play in. Finally, we found out that there was no hall in Xi’an! In the time since, a wonderful hall and opera house have been built there, and throughout China the Poly Group (our joint venture partner) now has 73 arts centers across China. This shows the enormous explosion of Western activity.

We get a very good response from orchestras and can bring almost any repertoire now. For example, when we brought Maestro Krzysztof Penderecki and the Sinfonia Varsovia with Anne-Sophie Mutter, she was playing his Violin Concerto No. 2 and the concerts and tour were completely sold out. Things have really moved along from the days of only playing Tchaikovsky and Beethoven.

What do you foresee for the coming years in terms of touring and cultural exchange in China and around the world?

The key word is “recovery.” We have to be realistic about what will happen in the next year. We have many big projects ready to go from September onward, including the Israel Philharmonic/Lahav Shani and Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev, but we won’t know until April or May if those will be possible.

There are several important events in Beijing this year, between the Olympics and the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China with two sessions. We think that things will go well in the spring and summer and hope for no quarantines on return from travel – there is a great hunger for the concerts to come back, and everyone wants international artists back as soon as the borders are open. By 2023, we are planning on going full steam ahead.

How does managing top-name Western soloists help with your mission to connect cultures through the arts?

One of the issues here in China is that there isn’t an established depth of knowledge yet about the high-profile performers we know in the West. It’s an ongoing information process. One of the big problems that China’s arts centers are facing is finding knowledgeable people to run these centers. A lot of centers want to continue booking the same artists because of connections. But a few, like the National Center or the Shanghai Oriental Arts Center, know exactly what we’re talking about and will book performers that we bring to them.

For the centers that need more incentive, our staff in the marketing division and touring division make very nice PowerPoints to emphasize a performer’s accomplishments and show recordings and videos.

And after 13 years’ operation in China, especially working with the top names, we established a very strong credit in China, and the theatres know Armstrong Music & Arts means high quality. Sometimes we had to give up some fast money-making opportunities because of our quality control, but now we have received the “long-termism” rewards, which [makes it] much easier for Armstrong Music to sell artists and artistic groups to theatres in China, as they definitely take our projects more seriously

With involvement in some festival programming, and international exchange strategy advising, we also established strong credit and relationship with the government. Music and performing arts are always the best bridge to reduce conflict and bring different cultures together. On top of normal booking, we facilitated our projects into cultural diplomacy, during diplomatic anniversaries and high officials’ visits. Now we have culture diplomacy projects between China and UK, the US, Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic, Israel etc.

Evita Zhang

As the pandemic eases and artists are again able to travel internationally and perform in person, what projects are you working on now?

We have quite a few domestic performances this coming summer and autumn (2022). The YuanYuan Tan project is one of our most major projects right now and will include a significant tour. This project gives young dancers, under the mentorship of YuanYuan Tan, [the opportunity] to create their own choreographies of short new works which will become part of the full evening production. The young dancers will develop their own pieces, working with a creative team including the project’s artistic director along with a choreographer, a costume designer and a lighting designer. There will be national auditions to select the dancers who will be involved for 2022, and the new show will be premiered at the Shanghai Oriental Arts Centre in mid-August.

Photo © Fuzhou Strait Culture and Art Centre

Next summer in Beijing there will be an immersive exhibition project about one of the most famous Taiwanese illustrators, Jimmy Liao, who has written and illustrated over 60 books. His illustrations focus on hope, light and warmth. The impacts from COVID-19 have only minimally impacted exhibitions, as the audiences can spread out and be appropriately distanced from each other. We are working with Poly Theatre Management Company, major performance centers and culture and tourism investment companies which present large-scale projects and exhibitions in centers like the London Barbican Centre and other major venues and centers of tourism. That is why we decided to work with the exhibition.

What are a few of your proudest accomplishments of recent years?

The San Francisco Opera’s Dream of the Red Chamber tour was one of our proudest accomplishments of the past few years. The production was based on one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels, and one of the biggest productions ever taken on a tour in China. There were over 250 people involved and after one year [of] preparation including casting/rehearsal/booking etc., we took them through Beijing, Changsha, and Wuhan for a three-week tour. The tour was very successful and increased international relations between the US and China. The new American Ambassador attended as his first public event after being appointed. Sixteen Ambassadors and Chinese high officials attended the tour premiere in Beijing.

Another accomplishment is that our amount of touring [has been] increasing at least 20% every year in recent years. We have a large scale of touring capabilities, and in 2020 had to cancel 197 foreign performances in China. Due to our successful delivery, we have signed more and more successful clients and touring projects in China/Asia, like Maestro Penderecki, David Stern, Joshua Bell, Mischa Maisky, Mikhail Pletnev, Hélène Grimaud, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Anne-Sophie Mutter/Sinfonia Varsovia/Maestro Penderecki and ASM’s special projects, Czech Philharmonic, Russian National Orchestra, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Les Grands Ballets Canada etc.

We also have great cultural diplomatic affiliations with Chinese high officials and in foreign countries. For example, the Czech Philharmonic signed a five-year strategic operation with Jiangsu Cultural Investment Group and Poly Culture Group. That is witnessed by Miloš Zeman, the President of the Czech Republic, and China’s deputy prime minister Sun Chunlan. We have good connections at the diplomatic level.

During COVID-19 we have helped artists with strategic cooperations. We worked with Maestro Charles Dutoit to sign a three-year plan with the Silk Road International League of Theatres. Another is David Stern with the Jiangsu Grand Theater. He will get the young singers in Opera Fuoco to come to Jiangsu Grand Theater and develop a young singers’ training program for the local artists for three years.

Another big achievement is a joint venture we had with the Poly Theatre Group in 2019. which manages 73 theatres. The JV will be their major high-end content provider, and a window for them for international cooperation and co-production. Our goal together is also to introduce great Chinese artists to the world.

Pandemic aside, what are some general challenges you face as you link Western and Chinese artists and groups for tours and productions?

There aren’t many general challenges besides the pandemic right now. Since COVID-19 has made travel almost impossible, it has limited most of what we normally do. Prior to the pandemic, we were planning almost 500 total performances in 2020. We have a great booking capability and lobbying skills in local theaters and with the government, so we needed to adjust our activities during COVID-19 to develop new opportunities for the best domestic artists, such as the Beijing Modern Dance Company, pianist Tianxu An, guitarist Meng Su – we got more than 20 performances for each – as well as developing exhibitions.

We’re also working with BesTV, the biggest internet TV company in China, and helped with some online festivals/online theaters, including providing the major content to Langfang Arts Center for their “Belt and Road” Great Wall International Folk Culture and Arts Festival for which president Xi has sent the greeting mail. We also helped Napa Valley Festival’s live broadcasting via the CCTV App and Gordon Getty’s new opera Goodbye Mr. Chips! premiere in China, which has received more than 60,000 views within three days with very nice reviews.

To learn more about the artists, tours, and projects that Armstrong Music & Arts manages and produces, including their upcoming events both in Asia and in the West, visit their website.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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