Thursday, April 12, 2007

Pilgrim With an Oboe, Citizen of the World

This is an interesting article where Paavo is quoted...

April 8, 2007
New York Times
By DANIEL J. WAKIN
Dressed in black, his oval face adorned with sideburns and an upturned lock of hair, the slender oboist looked like a New Wave Tintin as he took his seat on stage for an orchestra rehearsal.He turned and chatted with the bassoonist behind him, waved shyly to a violinist across the stage and exchanged words with the neighboring principal flutist, who threw his head back in laughter.The man in black, Liang Wang, all of 26, was only a few months into his first season as principal oboist of the New York Philharmonic. It is an enormous job: giver of the tuning pitch A, de facto leader of the woodwinds, a major solo voice. Around him were some of the toughest, most expert orchestra players in the world, several of whom had joined the orchestra long before Mr. Wang was born.By all accounts the players — most important, the woodwind section — have embraced him. For his part Mr. Wang said in an interview, he feels at home.“People are just so supportive of me, and allow me to express myself as an artist,” said Mr. Wang, who conveys a mix of self-assurance, unfeigned humility and amazement at where he has arrived. “They really welcome people who are trying to make something musical.”Although he does not want to sound cocky, Mr. Wang said, he has an inner security about his abilities. “If you don’t have the goods,” he added, “people aren’t going to put up with you.”It is an extraordinary place to be for a young man who just a little more than a decade ago was playing his oboe in a practice room in Beijing. But Mr. Wang’s hiring was also a clarion example of the strides musicians from China have made in the realm of Western classical music. They have become a powerful presence as soloists, orchestra members and conservatory students.Immigrants — Russians, Japanese and Koreans — have long filled out orchestral string sections and excelled as pianists. But Chinese musicians have to a large extent broken out of those areas, lending their talents to woodwinds, brass and percussion instruments as well, despite the generally lower quality of teaching of those instruments in China.Two of the finest students now in the Juilliard School’s precollege division, teachers there say, are a Chinese clarinetist and a Chinese marimba player.Mr. Wang’s rise has been meteoric.Orchestra auditions are grueling competitions to win coveted lifetime jobs. Hundreds of musicians often vie for a position. Winning a first chair in a major orchestra is like winning tenure at an Ivy League university.Mr. Wang’s touch on the audition circuit was golden from the start, so successful that he won jobs faster than he could take them, although it is also true that he came up at a time when an unusually large number of top jobs were open.He was appointed principal oboist at the Richmond Symphony in Virginia in 2003 but never showed up, having won an audition for the principal position at the San Francisco Ballet. Then came an appointment to the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra as associate principal oboist. He lasted two weeks before grabbing the principal job at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.While there he was a finalist at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra. He won an audition for the Grant Park Orchestra in Chicago, a summer job, which was rendered moot by an appointment at the Santa Fe Opera.“There’s an incredible combination of talent and personality,” said Paavo Jarvi, the music director of the Cincinnati Symphony. “Liang is a good example of what’s right with musical education here at the highest level.” The veterans of the Cincinnati woodwind section, some old enough to be Mr. Wang’s grandparents, immediately accepted him as a colleague, Mr. Jarvi said.After a season in Cincinnati, Mr. Wang won the equivalent of full professorships at Harvard and Yale, simultaneously. He received offers as principal oboist from both the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera orchestra.He used the Met offer to negotiate a better package from the Philharmonic, where he could play for a favorite conductor, the music director Lorin Maazel. The job would also be less grueling than the Met’s and more high-profile, offering a heavy weekly dose of oboe solos.“I enjoy being put on the spot,” Mr. Wang said. “I like the pressure.”He took some ribbing from his new colleagues for his flighty job history. “I became the ‘two-weeks guy,’ ” he said.Despite his extraordinary ability and success, Mr. Wang, like many Asian-born musicians, has had to confront preconceptions about his ability to connect with Western classical music. At the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied with Richard Woodhams of the Philadelphia Orchestra, a German conductor said he would be happy to show Mr. Wang how to play Brahms, since it was not in his culture, he recounted.“You don’t have to be German to play Brahms,” Mr. Wang said. “I was very hurt. People think that way? It never occurred to me.”Mr. Woodhams counseled him to work extra hard because some critics would blame stylistic failings on his nationality, Mr. Wang said. “I had to go the extra mile,” he added. “It may seem like I won a lot of auditions. But I worked harder.”Sometimes, Mr. Wang said, he gets naïve questions like, “Did you listen to classical music when you were growing up?”“There are things called CD players,” he said with some sarcasm. He pointed out that he probably grew up listening to far more classical music than most American youngsters. “The thing I don’t understand is why it should make a difference,” he said. “I am a Chinese guy when I look in the mirror, but I’m a world citizen of music.”At the Philharmonic players in the woodwind section praise Mr. Wang as having a tone easy to blend with, rock-solid intonation and great sensitivity and musicality.“He’s a very mature player, beyond his years,” said Judith LeClair, the principal bassoonist. “He’s a wonderful colleague. It’s just all music. He’s just very humble and wants to do his job.” Mr. Wang said he feels that acceptance when he senses the other members of the wind section following his lead when he makes subtle changes of character or color.Michael Tilson Thomas, the music director of the San Francisco Symphony, said he was frustrated that Mr. Wang did not take the job there after an extensive search but did not begrudge him the choice. Mr. Wang impressed him, he said, during a tryout concert performance that included Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto. The oboe part is notoriously extensive and difficult.“It was remarkable how quickly he grasped it,” Mr. Thomas said. “It became real music very, very quickly.”Mr. Wang auditioned for the New York Philharmonic in May 2005, having practiced for a month in his closet, where the dead acoustic laid bare the tiniest flaws. (“Trust me,” he said, “it doesn’t sound good at all.”) He played for two trial periods, including a concert with no rehearsals. Mr. Maazel wanted to see if he could handle the pressure, it seemed to Mr. Wang. “I like excitement like that,” he said.For the Met audition, he learned 34 excerpts from 18 operas, then listened through the operas to understand the contexts of the excerpts.He was offered the Philharmonic job last June and now occupies the Alice Tully Chair as principal oboist. “The hard work paid off,” he said.MR. WANG is from Tsingtao, which is in the province of Shandong, the home of Lao-tzu and Confucius. As a former German and Japanese colony, Tsingtao is the cradle of many fine Chinese musicians. His mother was a singer but could not pursue a career because of the Cultural Revolution; his father was a government official overseeing business interests. His family is well off now, but Mr. Wang said he grew up middle class, living in a one-bedroom apartment and sleeping on the living-room couch for seven years.He was introduced to the oboe at 7 by his uncle, an oboist with the Tsingtao orchestra and now a woodwind instrument dealer in Beijing. “I heard him play ‘Swan Lake,’ the oboe solo,” Mr. Wang said. “I fell in love with the sound of the oboe.” He was drawn, he added, by the instrument’s personal, vocal timbre. He began studying with his uncle.At 13 he won a rare oboe scholarship at the Central Conservatory in Beijing and left home for good, moving there to share a dormitory room with six other young musicians. He also shared practice room No. 256 with Lang Lang, now a superstar pianist.Two years later Mr. Wang was visiting an exhibit put on by Lorée, the French oboe maker. A man there heard him play and invited him to his hotel — the Olympic, Mr. Wang still remembers — for an audition. “He said, ‘Do you want to come to the United States?’ ” Mr. Wang recounted. “For a Chinese kid this is impossible. It was too good to be true.”The man turned out to be a Taiwanese Lorée dealer with ties to the Idyllwild Arts Academy in California, a high school program. Within months Mr. Wang was there. “It was a Cinderella story, really,” he said.By 2003 he had graduated from Curtis in Philadelphia, where he said he attended every Philadelphia Orchestra program for four years. Mr. Woodhams was a major influence. “He taught us how to be musicians rather than audition takers,” Mr. Wang said.After three years of constant moving Mr. Wang now lives in a sparsely furnished one-bedroom apartment on West End Avenue and 63rd Street, where, like most other oboists, he spends endless hours painstakingly carving reeds from cane. He has bonded with other young members of the Philharmonic, including the Spanish Pascual Martinez Forteza, the second-clarinetist since 2001, and the German Markus Rhoten, the principal timpanist, who also joined the orchestra this season.Mr. Wang has a proud streak. While at Curtis, he applied for an audition to the Los Angeles Philharmonic but was turned down because he was too inexperienced. He pressed, was given permission and won through to the finals but did not get the job — again, he was told, because he was not ready.When the orchestra reconsidered and asked him back for a tryout last year, he declined. Esa-Pekka Salonen, the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said he could not recall the matter. “Auditioning for an orchestra and hiring is not an exact science,” he said. “It really is as much about the kind of fit.”In February, Mr. Salonen appeared as guest conductor with the New York Philharmonic in a program that included Ravel’s “Tombeau de Couperin,” which has a prominent and difficult oboe part.Mr. Wang said he felt awkward greeting Mr. Salonen but felt a measure of satisfaction as well. And as the audience applauded after the performance, Mr. Salonen gave him a solo bow.Thomas Stacy, the veteran English horn player, also noticed. He sent Mr. Wang a bottle of sparkling wine afterward and a note praising the “myriad colorings and spontaneous subtlety” of his performance, closing with, “Damn, what a talent!”

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