Feature: Chinese element in Chicago Symphony Orchestra

08:37, December 09, 2009      

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Occupying about one tenth of the more than one hundred prestigious seats in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), eleven 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 Chicago Symphony Orchestra 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 150performances and events a year.

In a recent interview, Li-Kuo Chang, Assistant Principal Viola, and also the very first Chinese mainland musician in the CSO, told Xinhua: "The orchestra has musicians from all over the world including Japan, 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 eleven Chinese musicians in the CSO, including seven from the Chinese mainland. They perform in a number of prestigious positions from principle to concert master.

Chicago's musical community has begun to recognize more and more of the Chinese faces in the orchestra. Chang said: "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."

Daniel Barenbolm, the former music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 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 the Chicago Symphony Orchestra set a good example. He praised them as being excellent in attitude, execution, interpretation, and technique. 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 said.

Chang feels that the Chinese musicians treasure this 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 Beijing Opera and tries to compete with all the Chinese over there to get into the top opera house," he said.

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 very first Chinese musicians to leave China after its adoption of the 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 said.

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

Filled with emotion, and with a beaming smile, he added: "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, myself, 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 recalled.
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