Sunday, March 12, 2000

Starling orchestra spreads wings in China

Young musicians begin 11-city tour

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Substitute conductor Xian Zhang works with violinist Jessica Park, 16.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |
        “I can't quite picture what China will be like,” says Hilary Bussell, 15, of Anderson Township, a violinist and member of the Starling Chamber Orchestra.

        “I'm hoping to meet other Chinese musicians of our age there. I know that in some cities, there will be people who have never heard a Western classical music concert before. So that might be interesting for them and for us.”

        Miss Bussell is one of 26 instrumentalists headed for a three-week, 11-city tour of China with the Starling Chamber Orchestra.

        The ensemble, made up of spectacularly talented string players ages 10-18, is part of the Starling Preparatory String Project, a renowned training center based at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

        With the trip, which departed Saturday from the Cincinnati — Northern Kentucky International Airport, founder and director Kurt Sassmannshaus hopes to begin making the Starling Chamber Orchestra a household name in China. In the next two decades, China will be one of the main stages of the world, he predicts.

        “Ten to 20 years from now, China will be a place where many Westerners will go to play concerts. The appreciation for Western classical music is so tremendous,” says Mr. Sassmannshaus, string department chair at CCM.

        For Yang Liu, 23, who is accompanying the orchestra as soloist, the trip will be a homecoming. The Chinese violinist has not been back since he became a CCM student two years ago, after Mr. Sassmannshaus heard him play while visiting the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.

        “I miss China a lot, especially Chinese food,” says the native of Quingdao, home of Quingdao (Tsingtao) beer. Excited and happy, the young virtuoso plans to stay an extra week to visit with family.

        Mr. Liu is already a star in China, and his solo career has taken him to 23 countries. When he left to study with Mr. Sassmannshaus and famed violin pedagogue Dorothy DeLay at CCM, he had already won first prize in the Chinese National Violin Competition — China's most prestigious contest — and had appeared with the best orchestras in China and Japan.

        He began the violin at age 6 because his mother had loved the instrument, but she was not allowed to pursue classical music during the Cultural Revolution. “So she gave all her wishes to me,” Mr. Liu says.

        Today, classical music is popular in China, he says. “You can find a lot of people there learning music. If I'm lucky, I want to be a soloist. Also, I would like to be a teacher.”

Violinists in spotlight
        The tour will showcase four other gifted violinists, who will each play a concerto from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons: Jessica Park, 16; Eun-Mee Jeong, 17; Tania Davison, 20; and Timothy O'Neill, 19. (The latter two musicians are former Starling students.)

        Originally planned for last June, the trip had to be aborted when an international incident made travel to China temporarily impossible. The group had already purchased plane tickets when NATO accidentally bombed Beijing's Embassy in Belgrade on May 7, putting a strain on Chinese-American relations.

        “We got a fax from China saying our performances had been canceled,” Mr. Sassmannshaus says. “As soon as relations improved, the management got busy with rescheduling this trip.”

        The orchestra is performing at the invitation of a Chinese artist manager, Li Dan, director of Bezena Culture & Art Exchange Co. Ltd.

Bus and train travel
        Their tour will begin in southeastern China near Hong Kong. Traveling by bus and train and staying in four-star hotels, the musicians will travel up the coast to Shanghai. They also will visit Shenzhen, Shantou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Wenzhou, Nigbo, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Wuxi and Nanjing. They will return to Cincinnati April 1.

        Their repertoire includes a mixture of the standard virtuoso literature for which they are known, as well as music by Chinese composers. The ensemble will play Moon Reflected in the Erquan Pool by Zu-qiang Wu, and Mr. Liu will perform Song of Nostalgia by Si Cong Ma.

        The $80,000 cost of the tour included purchasing seats for the cellos, instruments which are too large for overhead bins.

        “Delta Air Lines was unrelenting in charging a lot of money for freight, so it was cheaper to buy seats,” Mr. Sassmannshaus says. The musicians are paying a portion of their air fare, and have raised the balance through the Starling Project Foundation. In China, all expenses will be paid by the Chinese management.

        Already veterans of concertizing, these players having made three European tours and a trip to Korea in 1997. The orchestra has a growing discography, and performs annually at the Aspen (Colo.) Music Festival.

        Recently, an impressive new video about the Starling Chamber Orchestra, “Classical Quest,” was produced by On Location Multi-Media in Cincinnati. It is being distributed to 611 Ohio public school districts.

        “For the students and the soloists, (the tour) is a wonderful opportunity to play a lot of important concerts and get performance experience,” Mr. Sassmannshaus says.

        “I'm not sure what to expect, but I can't wait,” says Miss Bussell.


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