Saturday, 5 May 2012

The Maestro and the Protege

Isaac Stern in Beijing in 1979
Tonight the Asia Society organized an interesting event where it screened the 1980 Oscar-winning documentary From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China.

It followed American violinist Stern who visited China for the first time in 1979 and was invited there by the Chinese government. The country was just coming out of the Cultural Revolution and the people were starving for western music.

What was originally supposed to be one recital turned out into more than one formal performance and numerous masterclasses with young Chinese musicians.

He was impressed by their hard work ethic, determination and skill, but they just seemed to play the notes on the page.

By playing on the violin to the students he was able to demonstrate that music is not about imitation or technique, but feeling the music and expressing it through the instrument.

He instructs a girl to sing then to play on the violin
He asked one girl to sing the first few bars of music for him, and at first embarrassed, she does it for him and he then instructs her to play like she sang. Stern said it was about getting the brain and the body to work together to create the music.

In another instance he explained that music was like all the colours we see as well as the ones we cannot see; he also said that every note in the music is intentional, and so when you play, you must make a statement with the music, otherwise what is the point?

This documentary perfectly captured the cultural awakening of the country as he profoundly touched the lives of these young musicians and their teachers -- he encouraged them to express themselves individually -- not as a group, or the same. This was probably a very difficult concept for them to understand, but only then could they really play music.

Another aspect of the film was seeing China over 30 years ago. There were lots of shots of people riding bicycles along Chang'an Avenue in Beijing, farmers walking barefoot as they carried heaps of straw on their shoulders, donkeys pulling carts, people wearing plain Mao suits.

How the country has changed so much in three decades. It was quite amazing to see the the difference.

We also saw how people the audience were constantly fanning themselves; there was no air conditioning to speak of, and perhaps the odd fan blowing hot air around the room.

There was also a sad interview with Tan Shuzhen of the Shanghai Conservatory, who talked about his experiences in the Cultural Revolution. He recalled having to live in a small closet below the stairs with no windows or fresh air and below him was the septic tank where all the toilet waste flowed into. He was only allowed out a few minutes each day and he lived like this for 14 months.

Wang Jian at aged 10
He said some 10 teachers committed suicide because they could not stand the humiliation of being treated like criminals when their crime was having the knowledge of western music.

Nevertheless, towards the end of the movie, there's a scene where Stern and his family visit the conservatory and watch a 10-year-old boy -- who looks more like a seven-year-old -- play the cello.

He is playing intently with feeling, each note resonating with the maestro.

This is Wang Jian, who has since become a famous cellist.

I saw him perform in Beijing in 2008 and wrote about it here.

After viewing the documentary, Wang came up on stage and talked about his life.

He began playing the cello at the age of four, as his father was a cellist. Because his father played well, he was chosen to go to Shanghai to perform for an opera company and the younger Wang joined him at the age of three. His parents were originally from Xian.

"My father gave me a viola and that to me was a cello," he explained with a smile. "Then I used a chopstick as a bow."

"My father wanted me to hear Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, but at the time of the Cultural Revolution, all the recordings were locked away in the library," he said. "So my father said to the Red Guards that he wanted to write a criticism denouncing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, but needed to do research on it. So he was allowed to get access to it and that's how I first heard this recording."

His father taught him many life lessons at a young age.

"When I was young I worked very hard," Wang recalled. "My father said if you learn an instrument then you will avoid being sent down to the countryside. So I practiced very hard.

"He also said, 'I have nothing to give to you. I only know how to play the cello.' One time he took me to see a movie about a young child begging in the streets of Shanghai and said that if I didn't learn how to play cello well then I would be like that child begging on the street. So I practiced very hard."

When Stern came to the Shanghai Conservatory, no one knew who he was, not even the teachers. Wang explains that at that time, China was more focused on learning from Russian musicians. So to have an American musician come see them was unusual, though he was told Stern was invited by the Culture Ministry so he must be of some importance.

Wang wiping off his 1622 cello, a gift from the Lam family
At the time Wang has just studied one year at the conservatory which was very difficult to get into. So many children applied that he recalled, "If you didn't have perfect pitch, it didn't matter if you played well, you were not allowed in."

Not knowing who Stern was, Wang didn't focus too much attention on practicing for the maestro, even remembering that he played soccer just before playing for him.

Wang explained that he was always chosen to play for important people who visited the conservatory, so he thought this would be another routine thing.

"But I soon realized how serious this was because there were so many people, so many cameras and lights," he recalled. He mostly remembered Stern's bright orange shirt and "his face was really red."

Wang said at first they didn't film him and then Stern got up and got all angry and soon "they stuck a camera up my nose and they told me to continue playing."

He says for a long time he could not watch the film as he didn't remember himself like that. "He's a little awkward," Wang says of himself. "But then after I saw him as a cute boy." It was this distance that helped Wang see how much he had matured.

"Isaac Stern was very special," he said. "He was very intrusive. If he cared about something you could not run away from him. If he hears a young musician who has 'it', he can't control himself. He was the godfather of music in every sense of the word."

After Stern went back to the United States, he wrote letters to Wang, asking him how he was and even sent him a bow because his had broken.

A Hong Kong-born Chinese-American businessman Lam Sau-wing saw the documentary and was touched by the young boy.

Lam wrote to the Culture Ministry asking if he could sponsor Wang to study in the US. But because he was 12 at the time, he was considered too young. But four years later Lam tried again and succeeded. He promised Wang's parents he would treat the young boy as his own son and gave him a very expensive cello -- more dear that Yo-Yo Ma's instrument.

Wang talking to fans after his mini recital
Wang's cello dates back to 1622 and is from Lam's collection of musical instruments. From there Wang was able to go to the Yale School of Music with Stern's son and periodically the maestro gave him lessons.

It's been an incredible journey for Wang, who is forever indebted to Stern for his endless encouragement.

When asked what he thinks about young musicians today, if they are focused more on technique than playing with their heart, Wang observes that musicians are the product of society and today's society is more comfortable.

"Masterpieces were written in hard times. Maybe people like entertainment than pure art," he said, adding that most classical music was linked to religion which encouraged followers to think of a higher calling.

Wang did agree to a certain extent that many young Asian musicians he sees are technically proficient, but do they really love music? That's another thing altogether.

He definitely sees himself as a pure artist, as he jokingly says he has no clue how to become more commercial.

Just as well -- we need more artists to steer us back to important values, even as simple as music.

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