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December 15, 2009

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Chinese stars call orchestra's tune

OCCUPYING about one-10th of the more than 100 prestigious seats in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), 11 extraordinary Chinese musicians treasure their opportunity to be part of one of the greatest classical music ensembles in the world.

Consistently hailed as one of today's leading orchestras, the CSO is a musical force both in Chicago and around the world. Located on the beautiful Michigan Avenue, the symphony is home to 107 talented musicians who stage more than 150 performances and events a year.

In a recent interview, Chang Li-Kuo, assistant principal viola and also the first Chinese mainland musician in the CSO, says: "The orchestra has musicians from all over the world including Japan, South Korea, Russia, France and the Netherlands. The Chinese, by far, are the biggest element in number. I am very proud and happy about that."

According to Chang, there are currently 11 Chinese musicians in the CSO, including seven from the Chinese mainland. They perform in a number of prestigious positions from principle to concertmaster.

Chicago's musical community has begun to recognize more and more of the Chinese faces in the orchestra. "The seating at the orchestra is rotated regularly and sometimes it happens that all of the Chinese members are sitting in the front, which makes it almost look like a Chinese orchestra," Chang says.

Daniel Barenbolm, former music director of the CSO, once told Chang that God gave musical talents to three kinds of people: Jewish, German and Chinese.

During an interview in 2002, Barenbolm said that the Chinese musicians he worked with at CSO set a good example. He praised them as being excellent in attitude, execution, interpretation and technique.

Positive element

In addition, he said: "They not only play very well but also behave as good human beings."

Chang is proud that Chinese musicians have become a positive element of this world-class orchestra and that they are collectively recognized. "Everybody here has only good things to say about the Chinese musicians," he says.

Chang feels they treasure the honor more than most because of the long and winding road they traveled to become part of this world-acclaimed orchestra.

"We have to beat everyone here and we have to be the best. Can you imagine how difficult this is? It is like an American who goes to China to study Peking Opera and tries to compete with all the Chinese over there to get into the top opera house," he says.

Indeed, each one of these distinguished Chinese musicians has undertaken a unique and challenging journey to finally reach this incredible musical destination.

Chang, originally from Shanghai, is one of the first Chinese musicians to leave China after its adoption of the reform and opening-up policy in 1979, to study in the United States.

Nearly 21 years later, when reflecting on his audition experience, Chang can still vividly recall how scared and nervous he was.

"Believe it or not, before I won the audition in 1988, I applied three times. But the first two times I gave up at the very last minute because I was so nervous and scared.

"I heard of all kinds of rumors about how difficult the audition would be. Although I prepared for a long time, at the last minute I felt I could not come," Chang says.

The third time he finally made it to Chicago.

"I can still remember today how uneasy I felt when I walked up the 20-step staircase for the audition 21 years ago," he recalls.

"My knees were very weak and I felt very nervous during the audition. Fortunately I was lucky enough to get a split vote and another chance to play," he says.

Filled with emotion, and with a beaming smile, he adds: "And I nailed it that time!"

In September 1988, Chang finally realized his long-time dream and joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Two weeks later, there was another audition for his current assistant principle viola position and he won it again.

"I could not believe how many phone calls and cards I received. The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, where I used to study and play, sent me a card with everybody's signature saying 'Congratulations on reaching the pinnacle of musical paradise'!" Chang recalls.

"Later on I met many young musicians from China and they told me that my winning this position gave them inspiration and encouragement. Now I look around this great orchestra, and I am so happy to see the younger generation not only doing so well, but even better," he says.

Following in the footsteps of Chang, Xia Sanduo became the second Chinese musician from the Chinese mainland to win the honor in 1989, and started playing violin with the orchestra. She had a unique experience before coming to the United States.

"I went through the 'cultural revolution' (1966-76) in China," she says. "I was sent down to rural areas and worked at farms to plant rice. Looking at my hands I was not even sure when I could play violin again, let alone to dream that one day I could play at the world famous orchestra. So I am very grateful."

Among the young generation of Chinese musicians in the CSO, Hou Lei Hou and Hou Qing definitely made a big splash when they both successfully auditioned in 1997 and joined the orchestra as sisters at the same time.

Currently, the Hou sisters have a brother who plays as a substitute musician in the orchestra and Qing Hou's husband is a member as well. Their proud parents often come to listen to their performances.

Lei Hou, the older sister, says: "When I went to college at 18 years old, I listened to a CD by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I was so excited about the music, but even in my wildest dreams I never believed that I would play with this wonderful orchestra myself. Even today, whenever we play that music piece that I heard when I was 18, I can still vividly remember how I felt back then."

Qing Hou agrees with her elder sister: "I am very lucky and honored to play here. We enjoy touring around the world. This January we went to China to perform and I was so proud and happy to play for my teachers and former classmates."

Yu Yuanqing, a violinist at the orchestra who joined in 1995, says: "I am so happy to work with so many Chinese colleagues. Four of us were taught by the same teacher in Shanghai, which we discovered after we were already here."

Mei Ni, the youngest of the Chinese musicians, joined the CSO less than two years ago. She says: "I am so excited to play violin in the orchestra. My father is a conductor and I have been listening to CDs by the CSO since I was a little girl, but never thought I could have the honor to play here."

In January 2009, following two decades of effort, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra finally took its first historic trip to China and achieved great success in Shanghai and Beijing.

Music, as a universal language, has played an important role in promoting cultural exchange and understanding.

"As Chinese musicians, we can play an even more effective role to push, nurture and enhance this relationship. You can really touch people's hearts and change people's minds. We should really treasure the opportunity to achieve this goal," Chang concludes.


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