When we look back on our formative years how many of us can count ourselves fortunate to have been guided and nurtured by an inspirational teaching personality? Such moments are even more significant in the musical world when future development and ultimate career success so often depend on life-changing encounters. As in the case of the Taiwanese violinist Cho-Liang “Jimmy” Lin, who as a young music student in Australia was so entranced by the playing of Itzhak Perlman that he determined to follow in that individual’s same path and continue his studies with Perlman’s own teacher at the Julliard School, the great Dorothy DeLay, whose centennial year this is.

Cho-Liang Lin © Sophie Zha
Cho-Liang Lin
© Sophie Zha
I asked Lin to explain what made her teaching ability exceptional. She had a very positive streak about her, embodying the proverbial American can-do attitude, always seeing “possibilities and never hindrances or difficulties”. She never imposed a set way of playing on her students but actively encouraged them to seek out other approaches. In this she was poles apart from the more rigid line taken by many Korean teachers today, summed up in the admonition, “Do it my way or get out of my class”, who are often relentless in their quest for picking talents that can win competitions rather than nurturing students as musicians. DeLay was certainly helped by having so many highly motivated individuals but she didn’t just aim at producing winners.

Which took us on to the subject of competitions. Lin readily acknowledges that the Leventritt, Moscow and Queen Elisabeth events no longer have the impact they once had, joking that the Brussels contest could almost be renamed the Queen Asia Competition because of the large number of entrants and winners from that continent. However, he believes very strongly in exposing young players to competitive rigours, just as he is grateful for the pressure he was put under at the Julliard, enabling him to take a sneak peek at the outside world. Many of the teachers he talks to currently “over-pamper their students, keeping them in a warm, fuzzy cocoon”, instead of giving them a hard-edged dose of reality. He pushes his own students to perform as much as possible and to enter competitions big and small, arguing that this will prepare them more effectively for any challenges that lie ahead, whether the individual is hoping to launch a solo career or land a successful audition for an orchestral job or become a music pedagogue. Born in 1960, Lin now gives some eighty concerts a year for which he prepares meticulously, similarly expecting his students to give of their best all the time.

Cho-Liang Lin © Hong Kong Chamber Music Festival
Cho-Liang Lin
© Hong Kong Chamber Music Festival

He shares my view that many young artists and competition winners, though highly accomplished technically, lack the individual personality which marked out some of the great names of the past such as Heifetz, Milstein, Stern and Francescatti, and recalls how distinctive in their different ways the sound of the Leningrad Philharmonic under Mravinsky or Cleveland in the Szell era was, not to mention the playing of Parisian orchestras in his youth. Though the generation of budding stars performs with good taste and a perfect sense of style, the individual voice that seems to be saying “Listen to me – I’m really unique” is now quite rare. This “sameness” is sometimes a problem when he sits on competition juries, since there will be little that separates finalists in technical terms. Lin agonises over every decision he makes, since any six that are selected could potentially win on the night. He feels sorry for those that crash and burn due to pressure, but once in a while he hears someone “so compelling that you would pay to hear them in concert.” If there is one thing that he looks for, it is a sense of connection with the audience. In a competition, he admits, it’s much, much harder because young players are under a microscope, but “they have to communicate with those listening and not just play for the jury.” 

It is a truism that western classical music has long stopped being the preserve of the old world, in much the same way that the English can no longer make any claim to exclusive ownership of their language. Nothing illustrates this shift better than Lin’s experiences when visiting Japan for the first time in 1982 during the Christmas period. In Europe there might be endless Messiahs and Nutcrackers, but the Japanese were going crazy for Beethoven’s ninth. Every symphony orchestra was giving this work and there were endless daily performances throughout the season. He quotes an observation made to him by Yo-Yo Ma, that if you are a young man in Taiwan these days and you are dating a girl, you no longer take her to the movies. You take her to a concert of classical music. This receptiveness towards an art-form that was once regarded as very culture-specific is quite extraordinary. Even more extraordinary are the lengths that parents take in order to sow the seeds of interest in the younger generation. Lin was recently at the Seoul Arts Centre and was initially puzzled to see adults carrying strange bulky objects into the hall with them, until he realised that these were booster seats. They are provided free of charge by concert-halls and enable eight to twelve-year-old kids, “remarkably well-behaved”, as Lin says, to be on a par with the adults around them.

Cho-Liang Lin © Hong Kong Chamber Music Festival
Cho-Liang Lin
© Hong Kong Chamber Music Festival

One of his most enterprising projects is as Artistic Director of the Hong Kong International Chamber Festival, due its ninth incarnation in January 2018. When it originally began, there was almost no interest there in chamber music. Now half its audiences come from the 30-50 age range, which is testament to the transformation Lin has helped bring about. This is despite the considerable resistance in the East to anything outside the big-ticket events featuring top symphonic ensembles and internationally recognised soloists. Lin tells the story of three prominent Chinese musicians who when touring the country as a trio found box-office response very poor, only to discover when they went back to those self-same venues as individual soloists that they were playing to packed houses.

A specific problem which Lin has lies in the geography: it takes a long time to get to Hong Kong from Europe and even from the United States, so he inevitably invites musicians from China, Japan and Korea. However, the promise of fantastic culinary delights is a sufficient lure to attract both established artists and rising stars from farther afield. Among those appearing in 2018 are the Jerusalem Quartet and the Sitkovetsky Trio as well as the French flautist Patrick Gallois, and Lin himself takes part in many of the events. Repertory is on the conservative side and rarely strays beyond Bartok and Stravinsky, since the primary aim was to establish a reputation for quality and win the trust of local audiences, but there are tentative plans to broaden the festival’s focus and commission smaller pieces from contemporary composers. Lin says he “didn’t want to be painted into a corner” with a thematic straitjacket, so individual programmes often involve a colourful and eclectic mix. One event that caught my eye is a family concert with Viva! Pipers, a group of five musicians from Hong Kong, aimed at a crossover audience.