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Violinist and Music Director Cho-Liang Lin: A Decade with Jimmy

Cho-Liang Lin
La Jolla Music Society

By Benjamin Ivry

While classical music is a domain of eternal values, musicians themselves, as mere mortals, necessarily belong to the history of their times. A violinist like the great Belgian master Arthur Grumiaux (1921-86), whose laser-like purity of tone and pliantly sensitive musicianship on recordings and in concert, charmed generations of listeners, had a career experience which is necessarily different from a comparably gifted musician today. So it is impossible for Cho-Liang Lin, the American violinist born in 1960 in Hsinchu City, Taiwan, a majestic violinist fully in the Grumiaux tradition, to exactly reproduce the latter's trajectory. The classical music recording industry is not what it was in Grumiaux's heyday, and so unlike his Belgian predecessor, Lin has yet to preserve his interpretations of the solo works of Bach, or Mozart sonatas, and posterity will be the poorer for that. Yet Lin has found ingenious and generous performance alternatives. Not least of these has been his stellar decade as Music Director of La Jolla Music Society's SummerFest, alongside his founding of the Taipei International Music Festival (1997-2003) which Lin has good hopes of reviving by 2012.

The tenth anniversary of Lin's direction of SummerFest, coinciding with his own half-century, is a good milestone for taking stock of how this violinist has expanded his musical horizons and development both as a performer and human being in the past decade. Anyone who has met Lin, or seen the 2007 Australian documentary film "4" from Vast Productions/ ITVS International, in which he is interviewed about Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, relishes the quiet, low-key charm which he radiates. Lin's hectic educational path, from ardent studies with the demanding Hungarian virtuoso Robert Pikler in the 1970s to the pressure-cooker of the Juilliard School, where he was taught by star-maker Dorothy DeLay, could easily have made him into, like so many other violinists, a high-strung personality. Instead, as we see in the film "4," Lin retains serenely unruffled good humor, even amid a raucous, extroverted group of New York musicians gorging at the Upper West Side mecca for smoked whitefish, Barney Greengrass' "The Sturgeon King" delicatessen. Anyone who retains reposeful tranquility at Barney Greengrass' estaminet possesses genuinely stellar self-possession. We can easily understand how Lin comfortably fit into the many diverse milieus he has thrived in, from demanding conservatories to the circle of musicians surrounding the late Isaac Stern, a cohesive group fondly nicknamed the "Kosher Nostra."

As we know from Chinese landscape painting, inner peacefulness does not equate with a lack of expressivity, and the qualities that make Lin an ideal festival director are closely allied to those which make him a much appreciated teacher at the Juilliard School, and since 2006, at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music in Houston. A questing intelligence and emotional thirst for more profound musical understandings have motivated Lin ferociously over the past decade. I well recall talking with Lin circa 2001 about the new-found pressure for classical artists to record crossover works of all varieties,  which did not seem to be his own preferred path at the time. Lin explained that it was a question of comfort and familiarity, and in the ensuing ten years at La Jolla, he has indeed grown more familiar with composers like Lalo Schifrin, Astor Piazolla and Mark O'Connor who represent both classicism and contemporaneity. Now Lin tells me: "In my early 20s, anything beyond Stravinsky was too touchy to contemplate, whereas now I feel more at ease. [SummerFest ] itself was beginning to stretch and push the envelope and we made a concerted effort to engage jazz musicians and film composers, and audiences loved it."

From the videos available on YouTube of live renditions of Ravel and Bartók from the La Jolla Music Society SummerFest, Lin visibly brings out the best in his fellow chamber music performers, as an inspirational colleague. Comfortably thriving as well in the community of today's composers is much rarer, for a musician who happens to be a supreme interpreter of dead masters. Last year's SummerFest featured the world première of a sonata for violin and piano by Paul Schoenfield, which Lin describes to me as a "seriously terrific work, very substantial, with typical allusions to Jewish music, bebop jazz, and certain pop tunes. Its 1930ish jazz allusions do not conceal a very serious structure."

Other composers of today whom Lin has recorded in recent years (see box of suggested listening below) include Bright Sheng and Gordon Chin. Of the former, Lin says: "Bright thinks of himself as a sort of Chinese Bartók... Chinese composers are very mindful of history, both in the past and today." Gordon Chin, from Lin's native Taiwan, is a student of noted composers Samuel Adler and Christopher Rouse at Rochester's Eastman School of Music. Lin premièred - and recorded for Naxos - Chin's Formosa Seasons, intended as a companion piece to Vivaldi's Four Seasons. For a collegial musician like Lin, actually knowing composers as people results in more sagaciously humane perceptions about their music. Take the married couple of superbly gifted composers, Chen Yi and Zhou Long, whose music Lin has magisterially recorded for the Bis and Delos labels, respectively. Of the couple, both of whom were born in China in 1953, Lin says with amusement:

"They're polar opposites. [Chen Yi] is very bubbly and outgoing, while Zhou Long is very much the philosopher, with pipe in hand." Lin adds that Zhou Long's Secluded Orchid, which is on the Delos CD label, is a "very philosophical piece, whereas Chen Yi is very urbane, eager to engage in all things that are current, and can compose anywhere, on an airplane, in a hotel room, or on the bus, while Zhou Long must be at home, at his desk, to write. The two are a wonderful couple; I love talking to them together, and usually Chen Yi does all the talking."

Their music is also captivating, Lin continues, describing Zhou Long's scores as "very colorful, very evocative... a little of Messiaen, a little Prokofiev but very beautifully atmospheric." Genuinely relishing other people's personalities, as well as their works, is not necessarily a given in the world of musical virtuosos, some of whom barely acknowledge the existence of other human beings, let alone see composers as humans possessing individual personalities.

In a famous anecdote, the sometimes boorishly self-obsessed master violinist Mischa Elman so ticked off the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu, from whom he had commissioned a concerto, that  when he asked Martinu to describe or characterize the new work before its première, the composer limited himself to a tersely unhelpful one-word reply: "Violin."

By contrast, Lin's perceptiveness and relish of the way others behave and create has clearly inspired his own, ever-evolving, musical expression. Some of Lin's recordings over the past decade have literally been products of friendship, as when a former roommate from his student days, violinist Kurt Nikkanen, asked if he would sit in for a Naxos CD of the music of Steven Gerber. Another Naxos recording, of a violin sonata by the Austrian-born conductor/composer Georg Tintner, Lin describes as a "filial obligation," not towards Tintner, whom Lin never met, but towards his teacher Pikler, a friend and associate of Tintner's when both lived in Australia during the 1950s. Pikler was a student of the string pedagogue Jeno Hubay, a Hungarian pupil of Joseph Joachim, Brahms' friend and colleague. Across the generations, as if by magic, Lin has absorbed not just the middle-European collaborative warmth of the chamber music ideal, but also the humane emotional aspirations which it incarnates.

On a personal note, a decade ago I wrote in an article that it was time to abandon the nickname dating back to Lin's student days, "Jimmy," and show the man some respect due to an adult artist in his prime by pronouncing his full name "á la chinoise." More recently, hearing Lin introduced on a 2009 Taiwan TV newscast, as diffused on YouTube, I heard a name which sounds nothing like the way I have been virtuously - and with a degree of self-righteousness, I admit - saying his name all these years, rather more like "Leeyin Zhow Leeang." Given Lin's unfailing graciousness, I trust he will understand if I abandon any attempt at "correct" pronunciation of his name in a language of which I remain sadly ignorant, and henceforth think of him instead as Jimmy, after all, as his English-speaking admirers have done for lo these many years.