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I arrive in Taipei during a spectacular Flower Festival, with the streets lined with hakka-flower posters and the parks blazing with exotic blooms. Taiwan’s rich musical scene is also on display in the annual International Music Festival – one night there is a riveting semi-staged performance of Strauss’s Elektra by the National Symphony Orchestra, the next night the National Chinese Orchestra of Taiwan gives the premiere of a suona (traditional oboe) concerto by Joe Lee based on Taiwanese melodies. In theatres and temples, there is a chance to see popular Chinese opera and puppet shows, while karaoke rings out of bars and markets. It is a vibrant mix.

The Portuguese, the Dutch, the Japanese and the Chinese have all laid claim to this beautiful Pacific island, resulting in a fascinating blend – formally known as Formosa, it is China with a twist. When China was torn by civil war, the Chinese Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan but they failed to retake mainland China from the Communists. Today the People’s Republic of China still does not officially recognise its upstart little neighbour, but there is a cautious rapprochement rather than outright hostility.

Chinese visitors come to see how China might have looked had the Communists not won the civil war. Many of China’s ancient treasures have ended up in Taipei’s National Palace Museum. The designs of many public buildings are based on traditional Chinese structures; the National Concert Hall and the National Theatre refer to traditional Chinese palaces, with gold glazed roof tiles and Chinese red colonnades. But a couple of miles away the world’s second tallest building, Taipei 101, demonstrates that Taipei is firmly a 21st-century city.

While there is an abundance of western classical music, from the excellent National Symphony Orchestra (or Taiwan Philharmonic, as it is known abroad) to the privately-funded Evergreen Symphony Orchestra, the challenge is to encourage audiences hooked on pop to try classical music too. It should not be too hard – people in Taiwan love to learn. As Joyce Chiou, executive director of the NSO, said, “The more information you provide about a concert, the more you sell. Sixty per cent of our audience is under 35 – it’s the seniors we’re trying to attract now.” The NSO gets 60% of its finance from the government and the rest it finds from sponsorship. The standard of the orchestra is growing all the time, and a European tour is on the cards for 2012. Chiou is proud of the fact that unlike other top Asian orchestras, the players are almost all home-grown.

Singing is a popular pastime in Taiwan, and not just in karaoke bars. An abundance of good amateur choruses has meant the NSO can tackle big choral works and, more recently, opera. So far the leading roles in productions such as Elektra have been taken by non-Taiwanese singers, but local singers are gaining in technique and confidence. “When I came 15 years ago, singers couldn’t get experience of bigger roles,” said Swedish principal flautist Anders Norell, one of only six non-Taiwanese players. “The orchestra now has an opera project to give them an opportunity to do more. The Ring cycle we did in 2006/7 was a turning point.”

Taiwanese hunger for culture is matched by their appetite for food – eating is a national obsession. Chinese cuisine is the most popular, but years of Japanese occupation, recent Korean arrivals and the influence of the US add up to a rich menu. Food stalls sell beef-noodle soup, stinky tofu or the ubiquitous steamed pork dumplings. And Taiwan introduced the world to Bubble Tea, a sweet milky beverage containing little pearls of tapioca. Cultural visitors can expect to leave satisfied, in more ways than one…

Five musical highlights

National Symphony Orchestra
This home-grown young orchestra celebrates its 25th season with three new Taiwanese commissions conducted by three former music directors, a Mahler Odyssey and Messiaen’s Turangalîla.

National Chinese Orchestra Taiwan
Formed in 1984 to explore Taiwanese and Chinese traditional music, the NCO is arranged like a symphony orchestra into sections, and commissions new Chinese music.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan
Formed in 1970, this acclaimed company was the first to produce contemporary choreography with an Asian sensibility.
 
National Concert Hall
Fine concerts take place in the 2,000-seat auditorium. Also a great place to hang out, with a buffet, a book and music shop and an extraordinary "vegetal wall" in the foyer.

Taiwanese puppet theatre
See Hou Hsiao-hsien’s classic 1993 film the Puppetmaster, then tour Taipei’s Puppet Theatre Museum and watch a live show.

The article ‘Musical destinations: Taipei, Taiwan’ was published in partnership with BBC Music magazine.

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