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Mr. Popular: Cho-Liang Lin has a reputation

Cho-Liang Lin
San Diego Union-Tribune

By James Chute

Though he won’t boast about it, Cho-Liang Lin ensures SummerFest attracts top talent

LA JOLLA — Every year, La Jolla SummerFest music director Cho-Liang Lin writes a welcome letter in the festival’s program book. But this year was particularly challenging. With Lin celebrating his 10th anniversary as the director of the festival, which opens Friday at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, he was encouraged to toot his own horn (or maybe in his case, play his own violin).

“I was urged by the senior staff to write something to recount my accomplishments, and I feel very uneasy about that,” Lin said. “I think accomplishments are achieved sort of naturally. I don’t want to say, ‘This is what I’ve done and look at how great it is.’ I feel terrible about that sort of chest-thumping. I prefer to think, ‘Gee, 2010 is wrapped up, we’re ready to go on stage and play; what can I do in 2011 that’s even better and more interesting?’ ”

Lin, who also turned 50 this year, is not someone to look backward. He’s one of the most highly regarded violinists in the world, regularly performing with the top orchestras in the United States and abroad. He teaches at the Juilliard School and at Rice University. And he performs with the preeminent chamber music organizations, from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center to SummerFest, which he has helped elevate to national, even world-class, status.

Maybe he could be encouraged to thump his chest just a little bit.

“I don’t want to brag about it, but I play all over the world, all over the country, in many chamber music festivals, and I think on a regular, concert night, La Jolla is as good as anything I’ve experienced,” Lin said from Aspen, where he was performing and teaching last week. “There is a lot to be proud of.”

Part of the secret to Lin’s success in La Jolla is his relationships. He has the connections, the friendships and the reputation to get artists of the caliber of cellist Lynn Harrell (on Aug. 8) or pianist Emanuel Ax (on Aug. 11) to come and play for an audience that even with a full house and people sitting on the stage rarely exceeds 500 people.

“I’ve managed to bring many of my colleagues to La Jolla,” said Lin, who is affectionately known as “Jimmy” throughout the music world. “I think that is a wonderful thing, when I can hear them play, when the La Jolla audience can hear them play, and I get to make music with them. We’re very lucky. These colleagues are very much in demand.”

Is it luck or is it Lin?

“When I call agents, and I say the phrase, ‘and my music director, Jimmy Lin …,’ everybody knows him,” said Christopher Beach, the president of the La Jolla Music Society, which produces SummerFest.

Carter Brey, who balances his position as principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic with an active chamber music career, has known Lin for nearly a quarter of a century, and tries to make a point of coming to SummerFest every year.

“Over the years I’ve played a lot of festivals, but it’s sort of come down to one or two, and I always try to include SummerFest on that very, very short list,” said Brey, who performs Aug. 10, 11 and 14. “It’s because of the incredibly consistent high level of playing of the musicians, the incredible beauty of the place, and the long friendships I’ve developed. It’s just a place I feel very welcome in and I feel very at home in.”

Chamber music is essentially a musical conversation among colleagues. And music festivals like La Jolla, Aspen and Santa Fe are built around bringing in musicians of a certain stature who may not normally play together (or play certain repertoire together) in the course of year. Chances are good you are going to get a more lively conversation among friends than you are among strangers, no matter what their level of musicianship.

“With Jimmy, there’s a very, very high comfort level, but not the kind of comfort where you just sink into doing something like you’ve done it before,” Brey said. “Because Jimmy is such an accomplished instrumentalist, and an experienced performer, you are going to be goading each other into trying something special, and there’s always going to be an element of challenge in that. The high technical level is going to be taken for granted.”

Of the approximately 75 musicians who will come through La Jolla over the next four weeks, Lin will be the only one (besides the student artists) to stay for the entire festival. When he’s not performing, he’ll be in the hall with his wife, Deborah Ho Lin (a pediatric immunologist) and 9-year-old daughter, Lara. But just as often, he’ll be on stage, performing on half of the festival’s 14 concerts. And in many of those concerts, he’ll be playing a secondary role.

“Playing second violin is not a problem,” he said. “I do it gladly. I consider myself a very good second violinist. I grew up playing second violin to Isaac Stern. That’s not a bad thing to do.”

Lin has been playing the violin since he was 5, although his father, a nuclear physicist who lived in Taipei, thought he might have some potential to be a music critic or a historian. But, as Lin puts it, “my interest in violin overtook everything.” At age 12, he moved from Taiwan to Australia to take lessons with master violinist and conductor Robert Pikler, and then three years later to New York, where he studied with the legendary Dorothy DeLay for six years.

“With Miss DeLay, it was about learning to play the violin well,” he said. “I often joke with my colleagues, you can go on stage filled with musical ideas, you can have the loftiest interpretation in your mind, but if you can’t execute it on your instrument, the performance is a failure.”

Lin hasn’t had much of that. While still in his teens, he made his New York debut with the Mostly Mozart Festival, and after that, he never looked back. His more than 20 recordings include chamber music (some with Isaac Stern) and the masterpieces of the solo violin repertoire (many with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic for Sony Classics).

But with the changes in the recording industry, he finds himself on a new, perhaps unexpected, path.

“The reality of the recording market is you don’t really get a chance to record the warhorses anymore,” he said. “All of the companies have stopped recording Beethoven, Brahms, unless you have a special angle, like original instruments, or some sort of new edition. So my attention has gone to contemporary music. It’s a wonderful sort of process of evolution for me.”

His position at La Jolla and his stature as a concert artist have allowed him to form relationships with many of the primary composers of our time. This year’s festival includes new works by Bright Sheng (on Aug. 8) and by Chinary Ung, Wu Man , Brett Dean and Christopher Rouse (all on Aug. 20). He also has a strong relationship to Tan Dun, who recently wrote a violin concerto for him. And Steven Stucky and John Harbison are writing violin sonatas for him.

“For me, it’s a personal passion,” he said. “But also I find it’s a duty. If all the performers in the world stuck to only the warhorses, and stopped at, say, Stravinsky, nobody would get to hear what’s written today. How will we know what’s good 50 or 80 years from now? If the second Prokofiev (violin) concerto, which is so beloved now, didn’t have (Jascha) Heifetz to push the piece in its early goings, that piece could have been neglected. Even the Beethoven violin concerto was neglected for a long time after it was written. I believe in the cause of a composer.”

Like seemingly everybody else, composers also believe in Lin.

“A couple days ago I received the completed score of a quartet dedicated to me by John Williams (the Oscar-winning composer of numerous beloved film scores, including “Star Wars”),” Lin said. “And we will present that piece in the 2011 SummerFest.

“He wrote a very gracious, beautiful letter to me. I thought, good lord, this is John Williams, asking me for my opinion about the music, and telling me not be shy about not playing it if I didn’t like the piece.

“I’m thinking, come on. I was very touched.”

Look for Lin to mention Williams’ piece in his 2011 SummerFest welcome letter. Just don’t expect him to toot his own horn.