By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The tale of Chinese violinist Xiaochun in the Chen Kaige movie Together is not unlike the real-life story of violinist Li Chuanyun, 23, who performs the soundtrack.
"It was quite similar," says Li, a Hong Kong native who studied for a year at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. "I was trained from 3 years old, under the tutelage of my parents. During the Cultural Revolution, they couldn't finish their studying, so I have to continue their dreams to be violinists."
Li speaks more confidently in English now than in 1999, when I interviewed him at CCM. But even at age 19, the scope of his talent was dazzling, and his daredevil feats showed ability beyond his years. His destination, he said then, was to be a concert soloist.
"He impressed me with his ability to immediately turn a musical idea into performance reality," says Kurt Sassmannshaus, his former teacher. "His technique is so stupendous, there is no barrier between a musical thought and the sound that comes out of the violin."
Together is a touching tale of a father's love, sacrifice and desperate ambition for his son - fulfilling a dream unreachable by many artists during Mao's stifling Cultural Revolution.
Many prodigies, including Li, have been divorced from their families at a tender age in seek of fame and fortune. But success comes to those who not only play with virtuosity and heart - but also who have the steely resolve and nerves to survive the competitive - and often lonely - classical music world.
Unlike the boy in the film, Li has that resolve.
He left his home in Hong Kong after winning many youth violin competitions, for the prestigious Central Conservatory in Beijing, where he studied with renowned teacher Yao Ji Lin.
"My father was also very strict, like the (father) in the movie. If I didn't play well, he would beat me," says Li, laughing. "That was the Asian parent way: no beat, no success. I really thank my mother and my father."
When Li was 16, New York's Juilliard School awarded him a full scholarship to study in the school's pre-college division. There, he worked with Dorothy DeLay, the famed (now deceased) teacher of many of today's superstars, and with violinist Itzhak Perlman. After spending his freshman year at CCM, he went to New York "to try to build my career, and earn some money."
Then director Chen Kaige called Li's Chinese teacher, Professor Lin, who suggested Li for the soundtrack. (The star, Tang Yun, is also a real-life prodigy from the small town of Shen Yong. But it is Li who actually plays the music.)
The luminous score is a seamless pastiche of Asian-inspired music by Zhao Lin and stirring masterpieces of Western violin literature. Li's contributions - which include snippets of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Paganini, Liszt and Sarasate's spectacular gypsy piece, "Zigeunerweisen" - are tackled with equal parts wizardry and the heart and soul of one who has lived this story.
"The whole experience was like a dream come true," says Li, who also has a cameo in the movie as a rising star, performing the Vieuxtemps Violin Concerto. For his 13-city promotion tour, he was loaned a $5 million Stradivarius, another dream come true. And now, artist agents are lining up with offers for the young soloist.
Making a movie, it seems, could be just the kind of career boost he needs.
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