Changes amaze four PSO players born in China
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's Meng Wang visits the Central Music Conservatory in Beijing. It was the violist's first real visit to the school in more than 10 years.
Chinese-born Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra musician Adam Liu warms up at the Oriental Arts Center, Shanghai.
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Editor's note: This is part of a series of reviews and reports by classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod, who is on tour with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in China and Taiwan.
BEIJING -- The Pittsburgh Symphony's concerts in mainland China on this Asia tour have special meaning for four members of the orchestra -- assistant concertmaster Hong-Guang Jia, cellist Chang Zheng (Adam) Liu, violinist Rui-Tong Wang and violist Meng Wang. All were born here.
"I would never have dreamed that China would be what it is today," says Jia. "It was an isolated country 30 years ago."
"It is a real thrill playing the brand new hall. It is a wonderful feeling," says Rui-Tong Wang, originally from Xi'An.
Wang joined the PSO in 1995 and is now a U.S. citizen. Although she hasn't been away from Beijing nearly as long as Jia, she, too, has seen a dramatic change:
"Even for me it is a new city. It developed so fast in the last 10 years, with so many new buildings and restaurants."
Each musician studied at China's top music school, Central Music Conservatory in Beijing, a place where nothing substitutes for hard work. Meng Wang, the youngest of this group at 29, took up my offer to visit the conservatory again. It was his first real visit to the school in more than 10 years.
"Practice and eat, and no other life," Wang says with a laugh about his time here as he surveys the buildings on the small urban campus. "I am proud of what I accomplished over the years. It sets up a certain reputation for the school. My old teachers are all very proud of me."
Born in Sheng-Yang, Wang was only 12 when he was accepted into the school. He eventually finished his studies in the United States at a prep school and then at the Curtis Institute before he won an audition with the PSO in 2007. He and the others say that in China, it was discipline and hard work that defined music.
"In a Communist country, the teachers trained their students really strict," says Wang, who held the student council leader position for two years here. But that status didn't make him immune from some harsh lessons.
"You had to memorize the new assignments, and I didn't memorize well [once]," he recalled. "My teacher turned silent and he gently turned to the window, opened it and then just threw all the music out. Everybody could see it."
The entire faculty shared a similar philosophy: "If you don't [play] it well they think you are the shame of their pride," says Wang. "It is very difficult for a teenager to go through all these hardships [when] you are growing up, but actually it helped me a lot. If my teacher didn't push me harder I could easily lose direction."
Jia's direction was helped by the likes of violinists Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin. Born in Sheng-Yang in 1954, Jia was studying at Central Conservatory when Stern made his historic 1979 tour of the country, only a few years after the Cultural Revolution had ended. Jia is even in the film that documented the experience, "From Mao to Mozart," getting instruction from Stern.
Menuhin had an even bigger impact, taking Jia to Switzerland for advanced training. He later studied at Boston University and, among other positions, was an assistant concertmaster in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and a concertmaster at Tanglewood before joining the PSO in 1991.
Jia is well-known in China and gave interviews to the Chinese press while here. In October, he will be honored in a concert that commemorates the influence of the Stern visit to China.
He also gives back to the country. Since 2006, he has recruited several PSO musicians to give master classes and performances at Tianjin Conservatory, one of the best schools in the nation. Bassoonist Nancy Goeres and clarinetist Michael Rusinek have gone every year on the trip, and this year a group of eight visited only a few weeks before the PSO tour (some took the bullet train from Beijing on the off day to see the students again).
"We always enjoyed [going] to Tianjin, and we all felt the special connections between us," says Jia.
Cellist Liu was another who went with Jia to Tianjian, the city of Liu's birth. That was a proud moment for him, but he has been especially excited to play with the PSO in Beijing. "I was here between 1983 and 1986 at Central Conservatory, so [performing here] is great, to see a lot of old friends. I am proud of this orchestra. It has a worldwide reputation."
Bolstered in part by these Chinese-born PSO musicians.