Pamela Yau interviews world renowned cellist Jian Wang, as he speaks about Bach, the BBC Proms, and being Chinese.
Pageantry, patriotism, and rousing renditions of Jerusalem abound on the last night at the BBC Proms. Thousands gathered in Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington, London on Saturday, September 13th to mark the end of what has been called “the world’s greatest classical music festival”; at the same time millions more watched from home and in parks all over the UK in order to catch a glimpse of the spectacle that is the finale of the BBC Proms.
As captivating as the final night of the Proms may have been, on a late Sunday evening of August 24th, a lone musician with his cello demonstrated on the grand stage of RAH that there is nothing as powerful and awe inspiring as the brilliance of a great performance.
In honor of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, the BBC dedicated Proms 51, 52, and 53 to the Baroque composer, culminating with the performance of the first three Bach cello suites by world-renowned Chinese cellist, Jian Wang. In an unprecedented unaccompanied solo cello recital at the BBC Proms, Wang made his debut at the Proms performing the signature pieces of his extensive classical repertoire.
Wang has garnered much critical acclaim in recent years for his interpretations of the Bach’s cello suites, although the relationship he has had with these compositions stretch as far back as his days as a youth in China. He has gone on to perform these works with some of the most prominent orchestras and conductors around the world.
“These Bach cello pieces are very close to me,” Wang admitted. “They are basically your inner thoughts… they are good companions for your mind and heart.”
Wang has noted many western journalists have asked him if his Chinese heritage has an impact on his performance of Bach’s music. He has not been afraid to say exactly how he feels in relation to these queries as he has freely stated that he truly believes that his being Chinese has enabled him to better understand the work of Bach, even more so than a modern western musician probably would.
“Western culture has changed a lot,” Wang points out. With Chinese culture remaining close to the spiritual beliefs that it held hundreds of years ago; according to Wang, it shares many more characteristics with the customs and morals of Bach’s time than that of today’s western culture. It is this spirituality that he has grown to recognize in Bach’s work, as the composer himself was a deeply religious man. By creating music that reflected his own devout beliefs, Bach composed pieces that Wang has described as essentially being written “between the soul and god.”
“In front of god you must be humble and truthful,” said Wang, who embraces the essence of these morals when he performs Bach’s cello suites. “I don’t believe in controlling things musically,” he added. “It becomes contrived and planned.”
While other artists may place the audience first when they perform, Wang remains true to himself as he stated firmly, “I believe the best performances are when you play for yourself and your own heart.”
“For me, the best performance is when the audience forgets about the performer and thinks about their own stories,” he explained. “I want them to feel themselves and their own stories and feelings.”
He may have accomplished his objective at this most recent performance with the aid of the “promming” tradition at the BBC Proms that allows concertgoers to buy season or day tickets for the arena or gallery areas of RAH. On stage, Wang allowed himself to become completely immersed in his own playing, while some members of the audience unabashedly laid themselves out on the ground of the arena for all to see. With their hands covering their eyes to block out the already dimmed lights of the hall, these individuals were taking in the moment in the most naturalistic manner by letting their bodies filter the sound and sheer emotion of the power of the music.
In his playing, Wang captured each and every nuance of what has been considered to be the most beautiful and important music ever written for the cello. With the audience witnessing before their eyes this perfect union of music, musician, and instrument, these concertgoers are taken on one man’s journey through the intricacies of Bach’s masterpieces. No matter how fierce the playing became, there was a quality to Wang’s performance of these suites that made them incredibly soothing and enlightening. The deep mellow sounds of the cello reached into the depths of one’s consciousness as if a voice calling and beckoning one to follow it to where ever it may lead.
“I think they will never stop changing for me,” Wang says of the Bach cello suites. For Wang, with time the rules and aesthetics one uses to think about beauty continually revises itself and therefore so will he when it comes to the way he will play this music.
From Mao to Mozart
From RAH to the silver screen, Jian Wang’s rise to fame began at the age of 10 when he was featured in the Oscar winning documentary, From Mao to Mozart, which chronicled legendary violinist and teacher, Isaac Stern and his visit to China soon after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1980.
The image of a little boy with his red bandana, white t-shirt, shorts, and socks with sandals, playing a cello almost as big as himself with great virtuosity has been engrained in viewers’ memories for almost 30 years now.
“I thought it was cool to be in the movie,” Wang said, in speaking about how he felt at that age in regards to his participating in the ground-breaking documentary.
“How I look at it [From Mao to Mozart] has changed,” Wang admits. “I don’t identify with that boy anymore…I think he’s cute.”
Looking back at the documentary From Mao to Mozart, Wang is very much aware of the historical significance of the film, as it captured a moment in time that showed China in transition.
“China was starting to open up but had not changed yet…isn’t it a miracle that in less than 30 years China has changed so much.”
After being “discovered” through his appearance in From Mao to Mozart, Wang left China at a fairly young age to continue his musical studies in the United States.
“My outlook is still very Chinese,” said Wang, who can still read Chinese and has maintained his love of Chinese literature.
In speaking of the US society he would later grow up in, he expressed his appreciation of its ability to accept all different types of individuals that come to reside in the country.
“What’s great about American culture is that it is very tolerant.”
With the recent staging of the summer Olympics in Beijing and the fact that his performance at the BBC Proms coincided with the final day of the event, Wang became inspired to show his pride in being Chinese. For this performance, he chose to wear a Chinese white silk mandarin collar shirt, although he usually wears a traditional tails tuxedo in concert.
By maintaining “a very Chinese way of thinking,” Wang stresses the importance of remaining humble, a virtue that is evident in many of his statements.
“The competition is fierce,” Wang said in regards to being a solo concert cellist in this day and age. In spite of his immense talent and international recognition as a classical musician, he says he feels incredibly lucky to be able to make his living performing music and travelling around the world doing what he loves.
Even with all that he has accomplished, Wang insists he really does not set goals for himself, it is simply not the way he leads his life. Instead, he would rather let things develop organically. As we live in a society where nothing seems more important than to “make things happen,” Wang instead takes on a different and more straightforward approach in dealing with how things may turn out in life.
“Let nature take care of itself,” he says, and for Wang it is as simple as that.
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Raising the Barre - National Ballet of China debuts at the Royal Opera House, London
Friday, 15 August 2008, Pamela Yau for Dimsum.co.uk
The National Ballet of China made their Royal Opera House debut with performances of Swan Lake and Raise the Red Lantern. Pamela Yau reviews the productions and chronicles the intriguing history of the NBC.
All eyes were on China on the eighth of August with the beginning of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing where grace through athleticism is as lauded as much as medals won. Undeniably years of training and practice have led these individuals to the world stage of the Olympics, all possessing an uncompromising degree of passion and devotion to their craft.
The same could be said of the ballerinas and danseurs of the National Ballet of China, who made their debut on one of the grandest stages in the world at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden during the week of July 28th in the productions of Swan Lake and Raise the Red Lantern.
The story of ballet in China and that of the NBC has come a long way since the creation of the dance company on December 31st, 1959. With ballet’s evolution as an art form in China, from its establishment to current day, this type of dance has been thoroughly intertwined with the country’s political and social history.
The Experimental Ballet Company of the Beijing Dance School, as the NBC was called in its early years, was notably established after a state decision to create national balletic training programs and academies. Firmly based in the classical ballet style of the Russian School, NBC enlisted the help of Pyotr Gusev, a contemporary of George Balanchine to build up its training regime.
Swan Lake, which the NBC performed at the Royal Opera House from July 28th to the 30th, is characteristic of the earliest phases of Chinese ballet as a part of its classical repertoire. First staged by the NBC along with classical ballets such as Giselle and Le Corsaire, Swan Lake has been captivating audiences for over a century. The story of star-crossed lovers of Prince Siegfried and Odette, the beautiful maiden cursed to be a swan by an evil sorcerer can be said to be one of the greatest tragedies and most famous works in ballet.
Pirouettes, promenades, and leaps were executed with the greatest precision by the dancers of the NBC to the principal choreography laid out by Russian choreographer Natalia Makarova, who herself had played the part of Odette during her dancing career. Technical perfection characteristic of the NBC left little to the imagination as to the skill and dedication that these dancers possess in order to achieve seemingly statuesque poses en pointe.
As with most productions of Swan Lake, the audience collectively holds its breath as the swan, Odette, portrayed by Wang Qimin, gracefully glides on stage for all to look on with awe and desire. Odette’s appearances in the ballet create the emotional arc of the production. From the first meeting between the lovers, the Prince’s betrayal and the final reconciliation, every meticulous movement that Wang made fulfilled her role of a tragic martyr to love, making this treatment of Swan Lake more than worthwhile to watch.
Swan Lake may show the glorious beginnings of the NBC, but as the Chinese people were forced to adapt to new restrictions and regulations during the Cultural Revolution, so did the NBC. The Cultural Revolution played an integral role in many performing arts in the country from traditional Chinese opera to ballet. Government intervention in the arts led to the creation of propaganda pieces and saw the limitation performances pieces to only those deemed to promote the revolution.
But despite the criticisms of this period, which some have deemed to have caused significant harm and curtailing creativity during the Cultural Revolution, ironically it spurred on the NBC to begin to choreograph works that utilized both classical and Chinese choreography. The years leading up to the Cultural Revolution saw the creation of “revolutionary model ballets” the most famous being The Red Detachment of Women, which became one of the NBC’s signature pieces during the revolution.
This blending of Chinese elements into classical ballet has carried on into the post-Cultural Revolution era of the NBC and its production of Raise the Red Lantern is no exception.
Based on the controversial 1991 movie by the same name directed by Zhang Yimou, Raise the Red Lantern is a story that touches on feudal China at the beginning of the 20th Century. As a young girl is sold by her mother to a powerful mandarin to be his second concubine, Red Lantern becomes a tale about forbidden love and an unforgiving society that cannot save itself from jealously and custom that aims to destroy any true love that may exist.
Many changes were made from the original movie to that of the ballet as Zhang Yimou personally adapted his own original movie, simplifying hundreds of pages of script into one page for the libretto of the ballet.
Raw and emotional, the dancing in the production seems almost uncharacteristic of the NBC’s restrained elegance that it demonstrated in Swan Lake. Despair, desire, and devastation are all expressed through the held poses and the partnering of the male and female leads. With the backdrop of glowing red lanterns and Chinese Peking opera, this unhappy household is held tenuously together by feudalism and tradition.
As it should be, the dance on stage draws in the audience’s attention while everything else seamlessly melds itself into the background to create the atmosphere of the ballet. But besides the dance, the score, composed by Chen Qigang, who is also the Music Director of the Opening and Closing Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, plays an immense role in Red Lantern, as it acts as a driving force pushing forward the sentimental and emotional nature of the story.
It is not simply the movements on stage that are characteristically Chinese, but also the music as Chen goes beyond using traditional Chinese instruments to create the necessary effect for the production. At one point of the ballet, while the characters are onstage playing mahjong, orchestra members actually puts down their instruments and instead uses abacuses to create the desired sound effect of crashing tiles.
Raise the Red Lantern is thoroughly Chinese in feeling and morals, which just happens to be portrayed through the medium of dance. Asked in an interview as to define Chinese cultural characteristics, Zhang spoke of those qualities that ”go beyond simply looking at the external, and reach into the internal culture and its spiritual heritage.” Through its dancers, choreography, and music, Red Lantern exudes this delicate mixture, where it creates a one of a kind experience and mood to be savored and a representation of a period in Chinese history from which lessons must be learned.
Although the ballets of Swan Lake and Raise the Red Lantern staged by the NBC are different on many levels, they both have an uncanny ability to fit themselves into the annals of modern Chinese history and that of the NBC. Their conclusions do not offer the illusion that all is right with the world. Instead, one must instead find peace within oneself with events of the past and have hope that there will be a better day.