Instrument of destiny

Jian Wang and Bernadette Harvey at Llewellyn Hall, Australian National University School of Music. July 4, 7pm. Tickets: rear stalls $36-$77; front stalls $54-$77. Bookings see musicaviva.com.au or phone 1800 688 482.

In 1979, Polish-born violinist and conductor Isaac Stern was invited to visit China for a series of concerts and masterclasses, just as the country was emerging from the Cultural Revolution. Stern was a keen mentor of emerging talent and among the vignettes he filmed of his tour was a cello performance by a 10-year-old student at the Shanghai Conservatory. The account of that tour, From Mao to Mozart, won an Academy Award for best documentary in 1981 and the young boy, Jian Wang, is now recognised as one of the world's finest cellists.

Cellist Jian Wang.
Cellist Jian Wang. 

Wang is touring Australia in July for Musica Viva, together with pianist Bernadette Harvey. He has enjoyed an international reputation for more than 25 years but has never forgotten the difference that Stern made to his career nor, indeed, the financial support of a Chinese-born businessman who was entranced by the film. More of that later.

"I had been enrolled as a student in the primary section of the Shangai Conservatory at the age of nine," Wang recalls. "The following year, I was chosen to play for Mr Stern at a children's concert. I remember him watching me intently. It was only later that they decided to make a documentary and my life was changed."

Wang had been learning music from the age of four, encouraged by his father - also a musician - who fashioned a mini cello for his son out of an inverted viola with a stick as a makeshift endpin.

"At first he was looking for a diversion for me. The viola has its strings tuned to the same pitch as the cello, only an octave higher, so it was quite convenient. But, after a while, he realised that I had some talent so he taught me more seriously."

When From Mao to Mozart was released, a Chinese businessman, Sau-Wing Lam, then living in New York, offered to finance the young boy's studies in the US.

"Mr Lam was also a musician," Wang says. "He'd left China after the 1949 revolution and become very successful in the US. The movie was very important for Chinese people living overseas, like him, who had not seen their homeland for 30 years. Mr Lam loved music and collecting instruments. He approached the Chinese cultural ministry several times to sponsor me to study in the US. Eventually, when I was 16, I was allowed to go. It's just amazing to recall his generosity.'' The instrument loaned to him was a rarity, a 17th-century Amati, no less.

In 1985, Wang began studying the cello at Yale University under Brazilian-born Aldo Parisot. An initial challenge was to undo the rigidity of the young student's Chinese training.

"In China, classical music was very much a foreign art form and the focus was on being exact. It was pedagogy-based rather than performance-oriented. In the West, especially the US, classical music was regarded as a performance-based art form that people used to express themselves.''

Wang's first professional concert performance was at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1986. After Yale, he moved to New York to continue his studies at the Juilliard School. In the years since, he has become one of the most sought-after cellists on the international circuit, equally comfortable performing in concerto, chamber, solo and festival concerts.

He first worked with Australian pianist Bernadette Harvey at the Huntington Estate Music Festival in 2006. "I remember that playing with her brought out the best in me. It's very stimulating to play with her. She can follow, lead or challenge. It's like having a conversation with a friend." His touring program with Harvey, for Musica Viva, will include works by J.S. Bach, Brahms, Schnittke and Carl Vine.

Despite his achievements and acclaim over many years, Wang admits that the pressure of performance is unrelenting.

"It doesn't matter how well you played yesterday, you have to do it again. Musicians are constantly challenged by themselves to be as good as before and even better than yesterday. We have to keep practising to keep our muscles in shape and playing cello is very physically challenging. In a sense, we are half artists and half athletes. But the harshest challenge comes from ourselves."

His home life is divided between his family in Shanghai, and Helsinki, where his girlfriend - also a musician - lives. He still makes time to practise up to four hours a days or, as he puts it "until my mind becomes tired because, after that, it's counter-productive."

It's only now, more than 30 years after the release of From Mao to Mozart, that Wang can sit down and watch the film without discomfort.

"For so many years, I felt awkward watching myself. Now I can separate myself from the child and I think, 'Hey, that boy is pretty cute and plays the cello well.' I now realise that the playing then wasn't technically so good but what strikes me is that, for a child of 10, it's unusually melancholic. So perhaps that's one of the aspects that Mr Stern recognised back then. I was later told that he was asked, 'Why did you choose Jian?' And he replied, 'His playing touched me.' I've never forgotten that."