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September 13, 2009

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Music man adds China strings

THE life of Willard White is dominated by two parts - music and Chinese culture. He is possibly the only foreign orchestra cello player in the world who spends all his holidays in China.

The permanent cellist for the Orchestra de la Suisse Romande seldom performs professionally in China, but plays frequently for free for children, seniors and the needy with his rare cello, an Italian-made instrument nearly 200 years old.

He has played it in Sichuan, Yunnan, Fujian, Hainan, Zhejiang and Tibet, in the countryside and cities, in hospitals and neighborhood communities, and even in the streets. He once gave free music lessons to needy children, teaching them cello face to face.

White recently returned to Shanghai to play Bach for intellectually disabled children at the Xinhua Neighborhood Community in Changning District.

The conscientious and gentle man believes that disabled children, who are purer and simpler, may understand music better than ordinary people, and that Bach's music will assist their mental development.

His performance was so significant to the community that many officials crowded around the stage to take photos. But White asked them to stand back. "Please let the children listen and see," he said politely.

"They were moved by Bach and I was moved by the children," White said.

But that's not all that the 58-year-old China lover has done for the country.

The man who tries to be a bridge between East and West is so devoted to introducing Chinese culture to foreigners that he has translated two Chinese novels and a drama into English in his leisure time.

In 2007, he translated a short story collection "Uncle's Story" - about young Chinese people living in the 1970s-80s - written by Wang Anyi, a renowned Shanghai author. White said that although he had read the book three times, it moved him to tears each time.

"I knew well what the writer wanted to tell readers, though I'd never talked to Wang," he said.

This year he finished the translation of the book "Sand Bed" written by Ge Hongbing, a Shanghai University professor. The book describes emotional chaos among college students.

"Many older Chinese books, such as Lu Xun's story, have been published overseas but foreigners still don't know many modern Chinese novels," he said. "I could read Chinese but not write it. But I can write English well. That's what I can do to express the culture."

White also translated a modern Chinese opera, "A Bet of Life and Death," and promoted it in Europe.

Born in Chicago, he started to learn Chinese in 1999 in Geneva College, but his destiny with China was determined much earlier.

He became a fan of late Chairman Mao Zedong at 12 when he learned about China's history during World War II. "At that time, I knew about the 'red pocket book'," he said.

He came to China with the orchestra in 1999 and then he made the decision to learn Chinese. Although the complicated characters and four tones in the language confused him, he still managed to comprehend speaking and reading.

"It's a very different language from my mother tongue or the German and French that I learned earlier," he said. "But I thought that however different the language was, the basic thinking of human beings was the same."

White made an interesting comparison about the language with an illustration using the Windows and MacIntosh computer operating systems. "The platform is completely different, but the basic idea is absolutely the same," he said.

White's father was a heroic pilot during World War II. His plane was attacked by the Germans but he managed to land it and return to battle.

"That's what my uncle told me," said White. "My father never talked about it because he believed that it was his job and it wasn't worth boasting about."

White was born into a musical family. His mother played harp and his maternal grandfather was also a cellist. White started playing cello when he was eight or nine. He said the reason he chose cello was that he wanted "to be different from his elder brother of two years," who chose violin.

At the age of 18, he was given one of the most significant presents from his father, a cello made in the 1820s. "I will never sell it," White said.

This significant instrument, which is White's lifeblood, also has a China background.

In August 2000, he went to Dalian, Liaoning Province, as a judge for a cello contest and then went to Kunming, Yunnan Province, to meet friends from the Kunming Philharmonic Orchestra.

During the visit over more than 20 days, the weather became damp, which affected the cello's fingerboard. "My cello would weep," he said.

He returned to Shanghai and immediately visited a cello maker surnamed Lin in Qingpu District. While Lin was giving the cello a new fingerboard, he became so nervous that he started sweating. He didn't relax until the piece was in place.

"My cello had a Chinese 'heart,' and so do I," White said. "The cello is a very important hobby."

He learned the cello by taking private lessons during his childhood and almost quit several times for different reasons. He went to Northwestern University at 16, majoring in physics, but soon realized it wasn't what he wanted to do.

"I transferred to major in music because that's really what I wanted to learn," he said.

In China, he has a very important friend who helps with his performances around the country. "White was a music maniac," his Chinese friend said.

Chen Jiaxue, 55, has been his friend and assistant for five years and met the cellist when she was recuperating from chemotherapy treatment for stomach cancer in Lijiang, Yunnan Province.

She was depressed and White introduced her to Bach to relieve her anxiety. Their friendship has been strong ever since.

Chen recalled that last year they came across a music festival in Zhujiajiao Town in Qingpu District.

White, who hadn't registered to participate, wanted to play Bach's music but the organizers decided Bach was too "classic" and they wanted more popular music.

"Bach was popular," White pressed them. "He was popular at his time."

Music has not only allowed White to grow as a performer, but also helped to forge his special lifestyle. He moved to Europe in the 1970s after graduating from university to avoid going to Vietnam. "That wasn't a just war, so I wouldn't go," he said.

He and his wife, who works as an accountant in a bank, live relatively separate lives. "We don't intervene in each other's life," he said.

They have three daughters who have developed careers in medicine and movies, but he didn't force them to learn to play cello or any other instrument, allowing them to make their own choices.

Because of his busy international performing schedule, White doesn't get much chance to reunite with his family.

"But I believe we are better than some Chinese couples with the husband living in Beijing and the wife living in Shanghai," he grinned.

White's wife and three daughters have never been to China. He says every time he comes to China he is not a tourist, but he would be happy for his family to come with him one day.


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