Cho-Liang Lin: Strings tuned to joyful sounds

02.12.10
Cho-Liang Lin
Salt Lake Tribune

By Catherine Reese Newton

Humor might not be the first word that pops into your mind at the mention of a violin recital, but Cho-Liang Lin says that's what listeners can expect from his performance in Salt Lake City this week.

"One thing these pieces have in common is that they're all very funny pieces, very positive and joyful," Lin said in a phone interview from Houston, where he is on the faculty at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music.

On the program are Stravinsky's "Suite Italienne," taken from his neoclassical score for the ballet "Pulcinella"; Brahms' Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major; Dvorák's Op. 100 Sonatina; and the Ravel Violin Sonata.

"Suite Italienne" is unusual because it's so retro, especially for Stravinsky, Lin said. It is based on music attributed to 18th-century composer Pergolesi and "sounds kind of Baroque," the violinist said. "If you'd never heard 'Pulcinella' or the 'Suite Italienne,' I'd probably wager that a well-informed listener might have a hard time placing it [as Stravinsky]. It's immediately very tonal ... yet it has piquant harmonic and rhythmic touches that could only come from someone with as great a skill, or set of skills, as Stravinsky."

The Brahms sonata is "almost self-evident in its beauty," Lin said. "It's not dark and stormy like the D Minor sonata that followed it. It's so lyrical. ... [Brahms] was evidently in a very good mood. It has a good-natured, amiable quality."

Lin said it's a funny coincidence that the Brahms and Dvorák works on his program were the 100th published works by their respective composers, but neither makes a grand statement. "They're both very intimate," he said. Dvorák wrote the sonatina with his children in mind, and "it can't be any sunnier or more beautiful."

The Ravel sonata that closes the program "is one of the standard violin pieces," Lin said. "It's colorful, jazzy, brilliantly written ... a new set of colors."

Lin has performed several concertos with the Utah Symphony, dating back to the Varujan Kojian years in the early '80s. It's been nearly that long since he gave a Utah recital. "I wish I could do more recitals," he said. "A full-length recital is not only the most enjoyable for me, it gives the audience a much stronger sense of how I play and interpret works, much more than a concerto."

His current tour consists of two dates: one in Aspen, Colo., where he has been a regular at the resort's summer festival, and the evening at Libby Gardner Concert Hall. His recital partner will be Akira Eguchi, whom he said he has long known as "an incredibly nice person -- effusively so."

Even so, the two hadn't played together until a couple of years ago, when Eguchi stepped in on two days' notice at a Carnegie Hall recital with violinist Gil Shaham and cellist Lynn Harrell after pianist Yefim Bronfman's father died. "Akira stepped in, learned the entire program and played brilliantly," Lin said. "We barely had time to rehearse, and apparently he didn't sleep for those two days. To play in New York City at a major venue and come through with flying colors -- I've wanted to play with him again ever since."

Lin said he has many fond memories of Salt Lake City -- playing with the Utah Symphony, catching up with musical friends, visiting the Peter Prier violin shop -- but one experience stands out. Staying at the Hotel Utah, he inadvertently left all his cash in the desk of his room. When he called the next morning, hotel management told him the housekeeping staff had turned in the money and asked for his address so they could send him a check. "It was really wonderful service," he said.

Lin lives primarily in Houston with his wife, pediatric immunologist Deborah Ho Lin -- whom he met when she was a page turner at one of his concerts -- and their 9-year-old daughter, Lara. Between concert engagements and his duties at Rice, he teaches at New York City's Juilliard School of Music, where he came to study with the legendary Dorothy DeLay at age 15. Lin was born in 1960 in Taiwan and began studying violin at age 5.

"My parents didn't expect me at all to become a professional musician," he said. "I was pretty motivated, but they were as far from stage parents as possible." His nuclear-physicist father thought music was a nice hobby, but historian or writer would be a more likely vocation. As for Lin's own daughter, she studied violin for about a year but has switched to piano.