“Music is only alive when you understand humanity, which is the real source of it.”
Jian Wang – February 5th, 2019
I have followed Jian Wang‘s career development for over four decades. He is one of two celebrated cellists whose music affected me most profoundly – via his courage to communicate honestly, the meditative sensibility of his sounds, purity and soulfulness in interpretation, and, deep visceral connection with audiences. His musicianship is inborn, void of pretentiousness, numb to callousness. I think the only other cellist who had held listeners as completely spellbound as he, was Jacqueline du Pré.
Destined to be a concert cellist, Jian Wang’s fate was sealed in 1979, as a ten year old prodigy featured in Isaac Stern‘s award-winning documentary “From Mao to Mozart”. He instantly mesmerized the world with his strikingly forlorn rendition of the Eccles Cello Sonata. Emotions emanated from the performance were so intense and so mature for one so young, that I was haunted by that heart-warming experience for many years thereafter. So were his loyal fans.
With Isaac Stern’s encouragement, and Mr. Sau-Wing Lam’s sponsorship, Jian Wang arrived in the U.S. in 1985 to study at Yale University and the Juilliard School of Music. His international career blossomed, touting him as one of the world’s leading performing artists – appeared at venerable concert halls with the most prestigious orchestras and distinguished conductors, recorded for major labels, invited as honoured guest to music festivals, and sat on juries of competitions. In 2018, our “prodigy” grew up, and turned fifty. He now divides his time between Europe and China, and in addition to concertizing extensively, mentors other budding cellists. Best of all, he is enjoying fatherhood with his adorable two-year-old daughter, Minya.
Despite immersion in the concert circuit for most of his life, Jian Wang’s dedication to music has not waned. Clearly, his “love of humanity” has been the vital source of his energy and the driving force of his passion. He radiates optimism when discussing classical music’s future, especially amongst the younger generation in China, emphasizing its significance in transforming this world into a more spiritual place. He champions the power of authentic expression, and by his own example, inspires musicians to seek lifelong self-betterment, embrace humility and respect human dignity. Jian Wang’s vocation is beyond that of an ambassador for music. He is genuinely an advocate for humanity.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Jian Wang from afar, amidst his very hectic schedule. Here are glimpses of his thoughts.
At 30, most can be sure there will be another 30 years ahead. At 40, we are pretty confident to look forward to the next 40 years. At 50, the best one can do is to hope for another 50 years. Joking aside, I am immensely grateful for what life has given me, especially for granting me the most precious daughter one can hope for.
At what age were you drawn to classical music? Was it the most apt and appropriate means of expression for you?
I never knew a life without music, perhaps the music started even before I was born. I don’t remember much from my childhood, but the cello was always part of my life. I seem to always have had imagined and observed situations in my head, which are too short and too primitive to be stories, but nevertheless more concentrated and raw with emotions. These were and still are my companions in life. In music, and in many other art forms, they seem to come alive and given acceptance. Music is not the universe itself for me, it’s a vehicle, it takes me somewhere, to another world that I know is not real.
Were you attracted to the cello as a 4 year-old child, or was the instrument your father’s choice?
My father is a cellist, without him I wouldn’t have become a musician… I am too lazy by nature and probably wouldn’t have had enough brains to play the cello well enough. He taught me so well from the beginning so I got away with many short comings.
During your lifelong career, your music evoked so much melancholy. What do you think was the reason for your deep and sensitive connection to the music and intense engagement with the audience? Can you explain why you were sad at that time, or was it the music that made you sad?
I don’t know who said it, but my favorite mantra is “Melancholy opens the secret door to the sublime”. I was always melancholic. Perhaps it was triggered by the fact that my mother was separated from me when I was 3…for nine years I could only see her several times a year… So for me I know all good things must end… But it’s not sadness. It gives me strength to expect the worst, and when one doesn’t take anything for granted, beauty somehow shines brighter in our hearts.
The “Mao to Mozart” documentary changed your life. It brought you tremendous opportunities – Isaac Stern became your mentor, with Yale, Juilliard, and a distinguished international career to your credit. Did you expect so much exposure and prestige?
Life was simpler then, all I knew about the great musicians was their music making. Their fame, fortune and prestige did not register much in me because China was so closed. We had no stars in our society. For me the best would be to be able to make a living, preferably as musician. Of course later on I enjoyed being successful, mainly because it meant I can continue playing.
When you arrived at the US at age 16, how did you adapt to life in the new environment? Did you fit in the lifestyle? Were you proficient in English?
Being 16 and studying at Yale was exhilarating. The difference between the US and China in 1985 was huge. Everything was so exciting, fresh and interesting. I would say that was the most exciting 3 years in my life. Of course a big part of it is because I was growing up. I had regular English courses since I was nine in China, so although I could hardly speak in the beginning, I caught up very quickly.
How did you find your musical training at the US? How did it differ from your training in the Shanghai Conservatory?
My teacher Aldo Parisot was one of the most famous cello teachers. He had a wonderful class, full of great talents from all over the world. I was the youngest, hearing the great playing of my school mates taught me a lot. Mr. Parisot was a special teacher. He didn’t care to have his students play the same way as he. Rather he was interested in making us the best versions of ourselves. You can’t tell who studied with him by listening to us, we all play differently. That is a great compliment to a teacher. Right away I noticed people around me are trying to tell their own stories, rather than trying to learn the patterns to fit music into. There is a technical form, but the music is free and individualistic.
What other subjects did you gravitate towards when you were at Yale? How did your US education change your perspectives in life?
I was awed by the Yale library, where I found many old Chinese history books. From then on I became interested in history, at the same time less satisfied by novels. In many ways history is a truer record of humanity, you will never find a hero who did no wrong, sometimes very bad men showed kindness. Reading history also showed that whatever is happening to us, it has happened to countless people already in past, for many times, that comforts me in a strange way.
Can you envision yourself adopting a different career? If so, what? What other talents do you think you were blessed with?
Well if I won the lottery, I would try to make movies…so I can string all those situations in my head together to tell a story.
Which specific events you can think of through your successful career that offered you significant moments to shine?
Brahms: Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8 – I. Allegro con brio
Without knowing it for many years, clearly being chosen by Isaac Stern to feature in his film changed my life. Then meeting Maria João Pires and Augustin Dumay launched my career in Europe, leading to performing and recording with the great Claudio Abbado and Berlin Philharmonic, as well as being the first Chinese musician to sign an exclusive contract with Deutsche Gramophone. I am proud to have taken a part in the development of classical music in China, being the soloist in most of the premiering tours in the west by major Chinese orchestras. As well as opening many new concert halls and being the first ever artist in residence with the National Center for Performing Arts in Beijing and the Shanghai Symphony orchestra. So far I am the cellist who has had the most appearances with all the major Chinese orchestras.
You have worked with many prominent and amazing musicians and maestros. Who can you identify as having the most influence on you – inspired and affected you most profoundly?
Brahms: Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor, Op. 102 – II. Andante
Mr. Parisot passed away last December. He was like a father to me. His immense experience gained from his soloist career has helped me greatly. I was also very fortunate to be around Isaac Stern, I learned so much not only from his teachings, but also from listening to him speaking about so many subjects. I remember once saying to myself that a man with such a mind and soul would be great in anything he chooses to do. He is the one who made me understand that to be a great musician, you must look at humanity from a bigger perspective, further away, not to be limited by music itself. Working with Claudio Abbado meant a great deal to me. Especially seeing his transition after his operation. I worked with him both before and after he was ill. He came to record with me shortly after the operation. His demeanor, musicality can only be described as an angel looking at us with love and forgiveness…few can match the warmth, gentleness and transcendence he radiated with his music near the end of his life.
When you perform, you have a very powerful grip on your audience, even from an early age. Please explain how you could radiate such abundant energy and warmth. Where is your source?
All of us have a mask. We wear it all the time, to protect ourselves, to fit in. Once in a while, we yearn to bare our souls. With music, that mask can come off instantly, both for performer and audience. For me when Iistening to a great performance, I feel I am having a communion with all humanity, dead or alive… For brief moments when the hair on the neck stands up, I feel my soul is not alone, and perhaps there is something greater then this material life. Many ask why I look so tortured when I play, the answer is that it is the unfortunate side effect of trying to get into that zone, where we can all be ourselves, without masks, feeling everything and be certain there is inherent kindness in the whole universe.
Now that you are a mentor yourself to other aspiring cellists, and a proud father of your daughter Minya, are you introducing her to classical music and the cello? What plans do you have for her musical development?
Minya, although only 2, is showing a very strong personality. I doubt I can make her do anything… But I will always encourage her to know music, so she will feel understood by all others.
Being brought up in both the Chinese and Western cultures, and dividing your time between both continents, how do you define your cultural identity? Do you consider yourself more Chinese or European, or are you multi-national?
I feel completely Chinese, although I have been strongly influenced by western culture, there was never a moment when I wanted to be identified as a non-Chinese. I am very lucky to have lived in so many places. Many times just being somewhere is enough to change our understandings. My ideas and outlook are multi-cultured perhaps, but my self identity will always be 100% Chinese.
How has your approach to music changed these 40 plus years? What direction do you foresee yourself heading in the next 50 years? Any thoughts about going into conducting, composing?
I don’t think anything has changed in my music, because I haven’t gotten to anywhere near where I want to be. I have never really been satisfied by my playing. So the struggle is constant. It’s both a source of frustration and hope. Being a little better in a small area of my music making has been the reward that keeps me going as a musician. I did try conducting a few times, nobody was looking at me, and unlike a cello, I can’t make them sound, so likely I have no talent as a conductor whatsoever.
Bach: Cello Suite No. 6 in D Major, BWV 1012
In this day and age of choreographed theatrics and manufactured magic, both products of sophisticated marketing, it is refreshing to behold the success of a “real” talent, one who is generous to share his wisdom, and bold to impel sincerity.