Follow the musicians of the Chicago Symphony as we embark on our eighth tour to Asia. We'll be posting stories and photos, so stop by often.
We leave on January 11, 2016 for Taipei and continue on to Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing and Seoul.
On the plane, the trip home…another international tour, another tour of Asia, the third since 2009, the seventh of my career in the Orchestra. Every one of these types of tours, including the ones to Europe or South America and Australia, are always exhausting. The musical side of tours, the many performances in front of audiences that are hungry for the Orchestra, hanging on every note, exploding with applause and gratitude, is deeply moving, and, well, a lot of fun. For almost fifty years, and certainly in my 37 years with the orchestra, we have enjoyed success in almost every place we play. With our Music Director, Riccardo Muti, the CSO is enjoying the greatest success touring that we have had in many years. He has the ability to prepare and inspire the orchestra, and maintain the quality of what we do, every time we go out on stage. That makes a huge difference on a tour, but it means the Orchestra must meet that level of preparation and commitment, too. I think the results speak for themselves. Touring is a big part of my career and something for which I will be forever grateful.
But in tandem with the music, is the personal side of tours. While each tour is different, they are the same in one regard: each one takes you completely out of your life; your routines, your family. I think it is fair to say that each tour exacts a cost from all of us. Sure, on tour there are illnesses, injuries, and personal dramas. But for all of us, when we are so removed from our regular lives, sometimes for three, or up to six or seven weeks a year, the costs are deeper. While one is gone, life at home continues. There was one stretch where for seven years in a row, we were on tour during my son’s birthdays. We have all had to miss weddings, graduations, and other events. For my wife and me, this tour has been especially bitter sweet. Two days before we left we had to give our dog, Prince, what turned out be his final chemo treatment for lymphoma. He did well for almost three weeks, but now is very sick. We’ll see how he is doing in a few hours.
So in spite of the problems, many in the Orchestra try to fit in as much activity on tour as possible: sightseeing, exploring food and culture, and seeing old friends and family. For me, after over forty tours, frequently returning to the same places, it is more difficult to summon the energy for a schedule of tourism: a nap or a turn in the gym seems like a better alternative. Our travelblog has attempted to give you a taste of how our members enjoy, tolerate, and endure, a tour. If you have seen a lot of pictures of us at airports, dinner tables, and concert halls, well, that is ninety percent of touring. No matter what one does during the day before a concert or rehearsal (and I have done things like hiked up a mountain, getting lost along the way!), you have to be ready when the Maestro walks out and the concert begins. People always say, “oh, touring must be so much fun, going to all those places!” Well, yes, there is some fun, but you can never forget the rehearsal today or tomorrow, or the concert that night.
The Musicians have many people to thank for making this tour a success. It takes detailed planning from our talented and experienced staff, and our tour operator, Travtours, who make the hotel and travel arrangements. Our superb CSO stagehands handle all of the equipment that makes these concerts, continents away from Chicago, a success. Thanks also to Todd Rosenberg, whose photos you have seen on this blog, as well as the CSO.org site. We would also like to give a tremendous thanks to all of our Members who contributed their stories, photos, and energy for our travelblog.
Ultimately, it is the Music Director who is responsible for the success of a tour. Maestro Muti takes this responsibility very seriously. The response of the audience, critics, and presenters attest to the success of his preparation of the orchestra, and to the beauty of the music we make together. So our heartfelt thanks go to you, Maestro, Bravissimo!
by Melanie Kupchynsky
When my kids were little, they used to hide under the table on their birthday when it was time to have cake and sing. While other children would sit there proudly, basking in the attention, mine would have to be coaxed out of hiding to blow out the candles. It must be genetic. Even though I am on stage four times per week, I have never loved that feeling of "all eyes on me". What I do love is making music as part of an amazing violin section in one of the world's best orchestras led by one of the greatest conductors alive.
Who was at that very moment walking towards me with a bouquet.
In a lovely, old-world gesture, when our Maestro receives flowers at the end of a tour concert he usually hands them to one of the ladies of the orchestra. Tonight that lady was me.
I think I know why it happened. Right before the last note of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony, as I was watching him for the final cue, our eyes met for a split second, and I could tell that he was pleased. I'm not sure if everything I was thinking and feeling showed on my face, but it went something like this: "Russian music sure sounds different to me when it is performed closer to Russia, without an ocean in between.....I wonder how the Chinese people feel about Russian music......Wow, I love how Maestro is really firing up this last page, it's faster than last time but it's like the orchestra isn't even breaking a sweat......the percussion section sounds fantastic.....let's see where he is going to put this last note....BOOM! applause......
In that endless moment between the realization that it was going to be me, a frumpy middle-aged second violin section player, and him actually handing the flowers to me, it went something like this: "there are so many women who deserve this more than I do.....there's Jen whose piccolo solo was absolutely dazzling.....Cynthia is killer great on that crazy hard cymbal part...Sylvia changed Baird's broken string during the first movement in nothing flat and TURNED HIS PAGE while doing so....and so many others....everyone, really."
And then I remembered. Maestro Muti isn't just a fantastic conductor, he is also a truly great leader. One who inspires us to better our best every chance we get. And who makes each of us believe that we have an important contribution to make to our art.
And all I could say to him was: "Thank you!"
By Andrew Huckman. Published January 7, 2016
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
Read the entire article at CSO Sounds and Stories.
My mom has not seen her siblings for five years, and the last time I was back in my hometown was three years ago. Stories were shared and new family members were introduced. It was profoundly moving to be in the same room with all of them. I will carry this moment with me until the next reunion.
By CSO violist Max Raimi, January 21, 2016.
Playing the viola is not exactly what the human body was designed to do. As a result, more than once in my life my body has complained rather loudly, resulting in pain that has made performing music and doing a lot of other things extremely difficult. I share this experience with a great many of my colleagues, and many of us have had success in attacking our problems in the same way. We consult a miraculously gifted occupational therapist named Stephanie Davies. Stephanie did not “cure” me—what she did was even more remarkable. She figured out why I was out of balance, and gave me the tools—strengthening and flexibility exercises, plus new ways of thinking about how I physically go through life—to heal myself. If Stephanie were not practicing, the Chicago Symphony you see on stage might well have a number of pieces missing from week to week, and a number of other musicians contending with pain.
Happily, she is joining us on the Asian tour as the guest of one of the musicians she has helped. I’m not sure how much of Asia Stephanie is actually able to see, since innumerable old and new clients find themselves in need of her services. I interviewed her for this Travelblog.
Max Raimi: What does an occupational therapist do?
Stephanie Davies: Most people are much more familiar with physical therapy, a traditional rehabilitation method. Occupational therapy tends to focus not just on the structural physical body, but more on the activities that an individual needs to accomplish in life and we value the benefits of success as a part of the rehabilitation. To be a successful human, we explore what is our occupation, not just our job. What are the tasks in our daily life that we need to accomplish, and how do we physically and mentally be successful in doing those? An occupational therapist can do everything on the spectrum from working with children to help them be successful in school, to working with highly skilled professionals such as athletes and musicians. We work in mental health as well, helping people to problem solve and to do tasks in different ways to create success.
MR: What are some things about working with musicians that you have found to be uniquely challenging and perhaps uniquely rewarding?
SD: I think it fits into so many of the categories I just mentioned. Musicians do not just have a job, they have a passion, They have a life style that’s very specific and very different from people who may be working a day job at an office. It’s very rigorous on their physical body, in different ways for different types of musicians. It also requires a mental clarity and a discipline to connect the physical body to both the psychological needs of performing and the requirements of the group working together.
My specialty, over time, honed in on the specific use of the neck, shoulders and arms as I started working with string musicians and really understanding how specifically trained the neck, shoulders, arms and hands are. Physical asymmetry inevitably develops. These are imbalances in the use of the muscles on the right and left sides of the body, often creating uneven forces on the joints and tissues. These forces can lead to cumulative trauma and injury over time. Yet, this asymmetry is actually important for a musician to develop in order to be skillful with the instrument. But how do you have longevity in your life overall and not cause structural damage when you are using your body so specifically and asymmetrically?
I also think that in working with musicians, there is this incredible opportunity because you tend to be highly disciplined. You all have very skillful ways of accomplishing what you need, so I love the opportunity to bring another skill set and open up an idea of how to best balance your bodies. It’s not how to change your playing, or how to have better posture with your playing, but how to bring the balance of your life back, especially physical and structural balance to help with that longevity.
I also find that musicians have an incredible ability to follow my instructions. Not all my clients listen to my directions and take them so seriously. Each specific sensory cue. It’s really like being able to taste the flavors in coffee and wine—you hear the differences in what I am saying, and those nuances are a real benefit in being able to teach and work with all of you.
MR: Are there things about working with musicians that create unusual difficulties?
SD: I won't say too much (laughter), but I think that there is a challenge…maybe the challenge is my own. I am not a musician myself and I do not have the ability to give you or any other musician direct instruction on how you should sit, how you should move, how you should play. With another professional, I may teach the ergonomics of sitting at a desk or standing at a station in a factory. But with musicians, what I can do is guide you better towards what you need to accomplish physically, and maybe relate it to when you are not playing. Not interfering with your training but enhancing your understanding of your bodies while playing and after.
Another challenge of working with musicians—I'm not sure how to say this exactly right, but it does seem as if there is a worry about acknowledging an injury. So maybe people put off getting help. People have a lot of worry around having a problem; I respect that it is a very sensitive scenario but I really want people to recognize that they can get help sooner, so they won’t have to suffer from any of the downsides of not being able to play. All the while I respect the need for privacy.
I think a lot of my interest in musicians comes from the fact that you are trained so early on to do what you do. When we hit a limitation in our bodies, as everybody will, whether it is injury or just age, it can be so uniquely threatening to a profession that has such longevity. I am fascinated by the possibility of helping my clients take away the worry and the fear around hitting a limit in our bodies. There is so much possibility that can open up again, and my goal is to bring more and more efficiency, longevity and endurance to the tissue and to our overall structure We don’t only age and become limited.
Therapies, especially holistic therapies, can bring musicians so much ease and longevity. I’m just fascinated with the continuum of stopping the worry and the fear that might arise that something is changing for the negative, and transforming that into success and comfort for years to come.
MR: You’ve had an interesting bird’s-eye view of the orchestra—travelling with us, spending so much time with us, attending rehearsals. Was there anything about it that was very different than what you had expected to see?
SD: Everything (laughter). I actually had very minimal expectations because I had almost no idea what to expect. Of course I have worked with people who have gone on multiple tours and it seems exotic and exciting and all of that. I am amazed at how organized the process is and how such a humungous group functions so well together. Also, there is something fascinating about how individual and how unique everyone is and yet how beautifully it all comes together. I think one of the treats that I’ve had is traveling with a group where everyone is so interesting to talk to. Every conversation I have had has been really lovely; it is an extremely passionate group of people who have so many interests both within their profession and outside of it.
MR: Are there specific issues with specific instruments that seem to keep appearing?
SD: Absolutely. Wind musicians are newer to me but I’ve worked with several . There tends to be some interesting things around the organization of their diaphragm musculature and how it affects their shoulders and their neck. They are incredibly well trained in things like breath control where I cannot offer advice, but there is something about when the diaphragm might have a little spasm and its affect on shoulder and neck pain—there are these referral pain patterns, and someone may not know that a problem may be coming from the diaphragm.
Obviously, violinists and violists have a real challenge with neck and shoulder issues, and different nerves that are traveling down the arms. Cellists have a very subtle but different problem in how they organize their spine and their neck in order to accommodate such a large instrument, in a way that is a bit more asymmetrical than it appears, in addition to problems with the hands and arms over time.
Besides the experience of traveling the world and performing with this great orchestra, one other perk of touring is to see old friends. Tonight I saw my teenage friend 钟莉文, who moved to Tokyo a few years after I left Shanghai. She showed me several of the many letters I wrote to her. I used to write several letters every week to friends and family, and I used white-out!
Here also are two photos of us: a celebration for her 22nd birthday in 1989, and tonight after listening to the CSO's concert in Bunka Kaikan.