ABOVE: Li-Kuo Chang (张立国) accepts congratulations from Maestro Bernard Haitink, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and an enthusiastic audience following the orchestra’s first-ever Shanghai concerts in 2009. | Todd Rosenberg Photography 2009
Li-Kuo Chang, assistant principal viola of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, embraces Shanghai, his home for his first three decades, like a virtuoso concerto. He indulges the gilded elegance of its old boulevards and battles the harrowing shifts of revolution, then rushes with the dynamism of its soaring skyline — a soloist in harmony with a frenetic ensemble of a city that sometimes drifts precariously off-tempo, then pushes forward twice as fast. That’s Chang and Shanghai.
The CSO’s Asia tour, its first with Music Director Riccardo Muti, returns Chang and the orchestra to Shanghai for the third time in eight seasons. Ahead of the orchestra’s departure, Chang reflected on his youth and musical development in a city refashioned with the revolutionary promise of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, then cast backward by the harrowing Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976.
In 1979, at age 30, Chang came to the United States, the year that diplomatic relations were resumed with China. “I was one of the very first — maybe the very first mainland China musician — to start considering an orchestral experience in the United States.”
He joined the CSO in 1988. “The whole orchestra opened its arms to welcome me,” Chang remembers, and so many seasons later, it’s his special privilege whenever he welcomes the CSO back to Shanghai — a city that’s still crafting resonant cadenzas for the evolving violist and a remarkable orchestra. That’s Chang and Chicago.
China’s Cultural Revolution and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music
It has been 50 years since the turbulent spring of 1966, when Chang and Shanghai were pitched into a decade of tragedy — China’s Cultural Revolution. Chang’s memory of its start is sad and succinct: “In my young heart I thought, ‘Everything’s finished.’”
Mao Zedong, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, was sensing uncomfortable rumblings — growing factionalism and a leaning toward Western perspectives. Concerned the 17-year-old regime and perhaps his primacy were at stake, China’s leader doubled down on his own Maoist ideology. He shut schools and universities, attacked “bourgeois” Western ideas and fostered a feared student cadre, known as Red Guards, to ferret out dangerous thought. The Cultural Revolution hit hard in Shanghai, China’s rich Western gateway, and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music drew especially intense fire.
Memories of that spring still haunt Chang, then a 17-year-old violin student at the conservatory’s high school; his mother was a pianist on the conservatory faculty. Chang recalls a “chaotic, tragic, horrendous experience.”
“Suddenly all the schools stopped, and there was a huge movement against Western ‘corrupted’ imperialism’s influence on the intellectuals. Our professors, even the administrators — many of them were Communist Party members — they were being persecuted as criminals who spread dangerous ‘anti-revolutionary’ thoughts and ideologies.
“It’s students against students, divided by class. They say if you come from a working-class family, if you were poor before 1949, you are considered a loyalist. If you’re from the bourgeois, like my family, immediately you become, they called it, the ‘six condemned types of people’ — and I belonged to that kind of family.
“So those from a ‘revolutionary’ background — that means the government officials’ and the party officials’ families and working-class families — those people become the first generation of Red Guards. And the Red Guards, at that time, control everything.”
Chang, like many Shanghai Conservatory students, remembers “being very, very scared that our home might be raided and our parents would be arrested and taken away, and we would just become wandering kids, like orphans. We wouldn’t know what to do. There’s no school. There’s nothing.
“It happened to me. My mother, overnight, suddenly disappeared. She was confined in the school; all of our teachers, professors put there together — stories thousands of people have already heard.
“That time as a teenager gave me such a deep scar of fear, of desperation. I didn’t know what to do. I felt it’s the end of the world. Gradually things started to change. The ironic thing about the Cultural Revolution was that, each year, a different group of people became persecuted. The very first generation of Red Guards, in the second year, became ‘anti-revolution’ criminals because they did too many horrible things.
“People committed suicide — people tortured to death by the first generation of Red Guards. Then when the Red Guards themselves become anti-revolutionary — they’re being persecuted — many of them commit suicide. Then the next year it becomes something else, like that.
“We were looking for survival in-between. Miraculously for my own fate — because I knew how to write well, and in school, people knew I was a person who wasn’t very aggressive — in the second year of the Cultural Revolution, friends started asking me to step up. They said, ‘Do something. Maybe join the administrative committee’ — the Red Guard committee — ‘to manage the school.’
“The school was paralyzed. There were no teachers. The teachers were being criticized. My mother was still in confinement and being criticized. The students just divided in different groups, fighting each other. So in the second year, 1967, I started to step up and do some organizational work. Gradually I became the No. 2 person on the Revolutionary Committee managing the music high school.”
The Shanghai Conservatory: “If you enter that school, your fate has been decided”
Chang’s mother, Sheng Jianyi (盛建颐) — “Clara” to friends and schoolmates — was a proud bastion of Shanghai tradition: elegant, worldly, prosperous and determined. An aspiring pianist from a prominent family, she attended Shanghai’s elite St. Mary’s Hall for Girls and continued her studies at London’s Royal Academy of Music. In 1934, Sheng returned home, ahead of the 1937 Japanese occupation that scarred the city through World War II. The unwavering loyalty that always pulls Sheng back to Shanghai — during war and revolution, at times of personal triumph and adversity — will define her family for three generations.
The future CSO violist was born in 1949, an auspicious year for family and nation. He arrived 500 miles up the Yangtze in Wuhan. Chang’s parents, who had fled upriver as far as wartime capital Chongqing, would sail home to Shanghai the next year.
If China’s door to the West was gradually closing, the tree-lined lanes of Shanghai’s French Concession neighborhoods showed scant evidence. Chang remembers his elegant childhood environs as “the crown jewel of old Shanghai,” and the pride of the French Concession was, and remains, the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Founded in 1927 and committed to excellence in Western and Chinese musical training, the conservatory’s history, like the cosmopolitan boulevard at its gate, recalls a world of shifting traditions that transited the international city — as often forced as voluntarily.
Chang shares the story of the conservatory’s evolution. “At first, the Shanghai Conservatory — all the teachers were foreigners. That means European musicians — Italians, Germans and lots of ‘white’ Russians after the Russian Revolution. Between the two World Wars, many migrants from Europe settled in Shanghai because it was China’s most Westernized city. … They trained the first generation of Chinese musicians, and some of the European musicians remained until the early ’50s.”
After Mao and the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries — “East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary, all sent their teachers to China. Mu teacher was from Budapest.
“Gradually the older European teachers all left, so they started to recruit a lot of Chinese musicians who had studied abroad to become new faculty members. That was the time my mother joined the Shanghai Conservatory — 1955, I think.”
Her prodigious son drifted away from the keyboard in 1957. “My mother made a mistake — brought me to watch David Oistrakh, the great Russian Soviet-era violinist, who gave a recital in Shanghai. After the recital I said, ‘I swear I have to switch to a violin.’”
In 1959, he entered the Children’s Music School of the Shanghai Conservatory, which his mother helped establish. When Chang started at the conservatory’s high school in 1962 — winning one of 20 positions sought by 4,000 applicants — the budding violinist embraced a “a very rigid, wonderful system” in marked contrast to most other models. He remembers “a very detailed routine” that emphasized plenty of time for practice.
“It’s full time, like a boarding school, and you practice all the time.” Lessons were a “very efficient” 45 minutes twice a week. “In the Children’s Music School, they still emphasized some academics. Starting from high school, they gradually reduced regular academics, then put a lot of emphasis on soloists in college. You’re completely specialized — composition, instrumental, conducting, vocal, whatever.
“It’s very different [than in the United States, which emphasizes] all-around education up to graduation from high school. Over there, if you enter that school, your fate has been decided — you will become a musician.” It’s a system Chang still admires.
The teenage violinist excelled, his natural talent launching him to Shanghai’s artistic forefront. But as the 1960s unfolded and the Cultural Revolution gained force, increasingly the artistic and political forefronts melded — often, for Chang, with searing immediacy.
Conservatory president He Luting, a celebrated patriotic composer and staunch defender of Western musical tradition, was publicly denounced — and forcibly coerced — during a 1968 televised show trial. Prosecution fell to Yu Huiyong — himself denounced two years before — a composer skilled in Chinese idioms and He’s junior colleague at the conservatory.
Writing from a distance of nearly 40 years, New Yorker magazine music critic Alex Ross lauded He’s courage: “No composer ever made a braver stand against totalitarianism.” Chang simply remembers “a chaotic social environment” — “I had personal relationships with both of them, in very strange and different contexts. With Mr. He, I was his student at the conservatory, and with Mr. Yu, I was a musician in his experimental orchestra.”
Professor He had recruited Chang’s mother to teach piano at the conservatory; composer Yu started recruiting the young violinist because he needed a new violist. Whatever the instrument, it wasn’t an era for second-guessing opportunity.
The newly minted violist’s artistic world grew — and grew inescapably politicized — when Jiang Qing, a Shanghai film and stage actress from the 1930s, invited composer Yu to help develop cultural repertoire in Beijing. “Meeting her in person was something I can never forget,” Chang says of Jiang, Mao’s wife, and the polarizing national icon known as “Madame Mao.” “Her hand was very, very soft when I shook it. Her voice? Very gentle.”
Shanghai musicians steer Beijing’s Eight Model Operas
Jiang met and married the future Communist Party chairman in 1939, taking particular interest in the party’s cultural and propaganda efforts. During the Cultural Revolution, she was closely associated with the “Eight Model Operas,” a core repertoire of evolving popular works that reinforced Maoist precepts. Jiang encouraged Yu, the Shanghai composer who brought Chang to Beijing, to refine this repertoire “to perfection — a little too much, sometimes,” Chang recalls.
In 1969, “Jiang decided to experiment with combining traditional Chinese Peking opera and Western instrumentation to create something never before seen in Chinese history,” Chang recalls. “Something Chinese, yet modernized, with revolutionary content.
“Her assistant [Yu], the composer from the Shanghai Conservatory, hand-picked about 30 young musicians my age,” Chang says, “and just took us from Shanghai to Beijing and established a new orchestra, combining it with singers, dancers and actors from the traditional Peking opera. Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe — it became a new entity.”
(“Shanghai” refers to the troupe’s hometown, although the company frequently stayed in Beijing. “Peking Opera” refers to the art form.)
“We start to be treated like a royal court orchestra of the [Communist Party] Central Committee, something like that. While everyone else — like my sister, my mother, everyone in the Shanghai Conservatory, universities, colleges — was sent to farms to be re-educated, we were in Beijing.
“We could still practice classical music as long as we were not practicing in public. They would treat us to see Hollywood movies, everything, because our responsibility was to put on a new drama — Peking opera accompanied by a chamber orchestra, combined with traditional instruments. These become what they called ‘model revolutionary compositions’ — eight of them.”
Chang spent 1969 through 1971 in Beijing and returned again in 1974. He was one of the few musicians in a country of 800 million people with “a wide range of access to lots of repertoire, because nobody can touch it. Just a few of us are allowed to see it. … It’s all locked. It’s all sealed to the public, to everyone else. But to us it’s open.”
The violist never “seriously stopped practicing and playing. Many of my peers, they were forced to do that. For many years, they didn’t touch their instruments — not able to, not allowed.”
In public, Chang and the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe performed only Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, one of the eight model operas, about a People’s Liberation Army soldier who infiltrates a circle of bandits his comrades eventually destroy. “We went to the countryside, we went to the army — we went to many places to perform,” he remembers. The work was filmed in 1970; Chang’s viola solo underscores a key scene.
Mao’s wife personally supervised the production. The violist respected her “very innovative, very daring thinking” but knew “she was the only one standing — everyone else had been condemned. She had the absolute power to find the best people. There’s no money concern and no time concern. This is why we stayed for two years to shoot one movie. Of course the result was great.”
Today Taking Tiger Mountain’s plot is easily dismissed, but Shanghai composer Yu’s paring of violin, viola and Western string ensemble with traditional Chinese instrumentation still has admirers, Chang included. “Despite all the content — it sounds silly because it’s propaganda — the music itself is very attractive, I think. Basically you’re playing the same thing, but it’s with a Chinese melody. It’s not that much different. The difficult part is the repeated performances — one piece, one opera for so many years.”
Some of the Cultural Revolution’s rigid dictates were relaxed in the era surrounding President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing and Shanghai, but its policies remained in force through Mao’s death in 1976. Right away, reformers pushed back against the widowed Jiang and her so-called Gang of Four, all of whom shared Shanghai political origins. Composer Yu, who became China’s culture minister in 1975, was linked to Jiang’s alliance and arrested in 1976; he was a prison suicide in 1977. Jiang herself was imprisoned until 1991, then released on medical grounds, ailing from cancer; she was a suicide the same year.
Overtures from the fabulous Philadelphians and a stern Isaac Stern
The first major cultural exchange after Nixon’s visit was the Philadelphia Orchestra’s 1973 trip to Beijing and Shanghai, part of China’s expansion of 1971’s “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” (which used tabletop sports to foster U.S.-China relations) to create new channels through classical concerts. Chinese premier Zhou Enlai sincerely believed his American counterpart Henry Kissinger, soon to become the U.S. secretary of state, was a music fan who might literally welcome an overture.
Chang attended the Shanghai concerts and was overwhelmed by maestro Eugene Ormandy and Philadelphia’s celebrated strings: “Huge impact — I remember every piece they played. All of these incredible performances are forever in my memory. How overwhelming. It was like opening a window to the world. We didn’t have any movies at that time. We didn’t have any other type of Western culture, except classical music. That was the first thing the Chinese government allowed to open.”
In 1979, American violinist Isaac Stern visited a Shanghai Conservatory still recovering from the impact of the Cultural Revolution. Film crews captured the trip for the documentary “From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China,” including Stern’s controversial assessment that Chinese instruction overemphasized technique at the expense of artistry.
Chang respected Stern’s knocks as necessary reminders for a struggling institution: “At that time the conservatory was just starting to revive from the ashes. Not physically, but in every other way. Because it was stopped — completely stopped.”
The conservatory’s pedagogical shifts were evident before the Cultural Revolution. “Starting gradually from 1962, the teaching direction seemed to change,” Chang says. “They felt you had to clean up the complete Western influence over the repertoire. They added a lot of new Chinese elements, so the system became eroded in a way. Isaac Stern really brought back the high standard — returning to the full content of Western-style musical education. That was an eye-opening experience.”
With eyes open and doors reopening, the 30-year-old Chang departed Shanghai for study in the United States.
A Shanghai violist nudges the CSO’s great leap forward
Summering at a Colorado music festival in 1984, Chang shared a stand with CSO violist Max Raimi. “Immediately Max said, ‘You should audition for the Chicago Symphony.’
“I applied twice and chickened out twice — didn’t dare to come. Finally Max told me, ‘You have never been to Chicago. You have never seen Orchestra Hall. You’ve got to see it. Just think about taking a trip here.’ He even gave me the key to his apartment.
“With his help and encouragement I finally came — and was brave enough to walk on the stage and audition.”
Music director Georg Solti appointed Chang to the assistant principal viola post in 1988. Chang’s parents, who had just moved to Chicago with their son, attended their first CSO concert right away. It’s a night Chang never will forget. “Maestro Solti made a special effort to meet them, to greet them, and he said to them, ‘How proud you must be because your son is here.’ That, I think, was probably the happiest moment in their entire lives.”
Chang’s arrival heralded a new era for the CSO, paving the way for mainland contemporaries, then protégés, to share their talents with Chicago’s increasingly international ensemble. Chang knew violinist Sando Shia from their days in Beijing — she played in the orchestra for The Red Detachment of Women, the model opera selected for Nixon’s visit (reimagined in American composer John Adams’ own opera Nixon in China). Shia aced her CSO audition in 1989.
Yuan-Qing Yu, the CSO’s assistant concertmaster and a Shanghai Conservatory standout whose audition Chang encouraged, joined the Chicagoans in 1995; sisters Lei and Qing Hou — Lei trained in Shanghai and Qing in Beijing — were welcomed to the CSO violins two seasons later.
Rong-Yan Tang, in 2003, and Ni Mei, in 2009, continued the Chicago lineage of Shanghai violinists taught by conservatory professor Zheng Shi-Sheng — briefly Chang’s instructor, too — who also counted Lei Hou and Yu among his students. (Yu writes movingly about Zheng, her conservatory mentor, in the recent essay “A Tribute to My Two Teachers.”) Chang, now dean of the CSO’s China contingent, gained hometown company in the viola section when the conservatory’s Weijing Wang — later his pupil here — joined the orchestra in 2012.
‘Someday I will tell my son all of that’
Whenever the CSO arrives in Shanghai, the city reaches new pinnacles — the 101-story Shanghai World Financial Center ahead of the orchestra’s 2009 debut, Shanghai Wheelock Square tossing shadows across the French Concession in 2013, and 2,000-foot Shanghai Tower topping this year’s tour. A rushed, whiplash glance at Shanghai’s soaring skyline might miss the shifting foundations Chang will always notice.
His family is still pulled home at times of adversity. Chang’s mother returned once more to live in Shanghai in 2002, shortly after the death of her husband, Chang Weiyi.
The family returns at times of promise, too. Chang’s first trip with the CSO, which he helped shape, was an unabashed triumph. “Come to the end, what’s the most rewarding thing?” He asks. “To come back to your hometown with this world-class orchestra. Nothing can beat that experience.” Whatever doubts that might have remained when the childhood pianist turned from keyboard to strings, a proud Shanghai mom in her late 90s was more than willing to forget.
Chang, who lives in Chicago with wife Sun Yi, made sure his mother’s sole oversight — denying her son a Shanghai birth by delivering him upriver in Wuhan — won’t mark the family’s third generation. His own son, Daniel, now 8 years old, arrived in the world in the city that matters most to his family, Shanghai, where Sheng Jianyi welcomed her new grandchild.
Chang reflects: “All this effort, all these years of human suffering, of difficulty, struggle.” He pauses. “Later on, someday, I will tell my son all of that. Right now? Not yet. He’s a happy American kid, but he has the Shanghai tie.”
Andrew Huckman is a Chicago-based lawyer and writer.
A note on names: CSO musicians are identified as they appear on the orchestra’s roster, where given names appear ahead of surnames. Many other persons in this article are identified surname-first, the common practice in China.