I entered the Shanghai Conservatory of Music after the Cultural Revolution, around 1978. Two years after, I got a scholarship from the city of Mons in Belgium. At that time, there were no private scholarships yet, so it was the Ministry of Culture which selected the musicians. When I arrived, I was 23 years old and I didn’t speak a word of French. A few years later, I entered the National Orchestra of Belgium, at the same time I taught at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels. In 2008, 28 years after, I returned to Shanghai to open my own cello school. In the between, I was principal cellist at the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra from 1987 to 1988, then of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic until 2003.

Gao Xuewen playing the èrhú (二胡) © Gao Xuewen
Gao Xuewen playing the èrhú (二胡)
© Gao Xuewen
You started by learning the èrhú, tell us about the transition to cello.

Xuewen Gao : I learned music completely by chance, when I entered my primary school’s music group, at age 9. I had no talent whatsoever for singing or dancing, so I tried the èrhú. I was self-taught for a year and then found a teacher. There weren’t any study books back then, so he used to invent exercises for me. One day, the Shandong Song and Dance Orchestra came to my hometown, Qingdao, looking for an extra cellist. After a while, they were still empty-handed, so they came to my school as they had heard of a “rather gifted boy” who played the èrhú: me. They immediately told me “We want you in the orchestra. Ask your parents. If they agree, we're leaving in three days”. A few days later, I had done the health check, grabbed my suitcase and arrived at Jinan, the capital of Shandong. They gave me a cello too big for me and a teacher. I was 14 years old and had no knowledge of music theory, yet, I made a living as an orchestral musician. Instead of attending school, I played ballets, operas, symphonies. But we only played Chinese music, as this was the Cultural Revolution.  

Gao Xuewen in 1978 at Shanghai Conservatory © Gao Xuewen
Gao Xuewen in 1978 at Shanghai Conservatory
© Gao Xuewen

Dropping a traditional instrument to learn a western instrument is still fairly common, as most music conservatories do not accept traditional instruments. Fortunately, switching over to cello wasn’t so difficult : I merely had to learn a couple of new positions and scales ; but I already knew how to play with vibrato. Yet I had to start all over again, while I already had status as a èrhú soloist. When I didn’t play well enough, they would punish me by sending me to the countryside to do the harvest. That was my incentive to play well.

In 1979, Isaac Stern made a famous journey to China, which was well documented. Do you think his journey changed anything on China's policy of openness ?

Isaac Stern giving his celebrated masterclass © David Bridges, Nick Knowland
Isaac Stern giving his celebrated masterclass
© David Bridges, Nick Knowland

X. G.: I don’t think this journey changed anything at all, the country was already increasingly opening its borders. Yet, there were only very few soloists and orchestras that could make their way to China: Isaac Stern, Ozawa with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic. At that time, I was already studying in Shanghai: it was nearly impossible to get into these performances, but as students of the Shanghai Conservatory, we could attend rehearsals. I went to Isaac Stern’s public masterclass, in a gigantic Congress Hall; the student wasn’t very inspired and he would ask her to sing her part, an excerpt that appears in the “From Mao to Mozart” documentary. Isaac Stern kept saying he did not like the weather in Shanghai, which was too humid for his violin. For various reasons, he did not play very well at his concert. Yet, he would say: “We are human beings, not machines”, words of wisdom I often remind myself of.

You have known both systems, both in education and professionally. What are the biggest differences?

X. G.: In Belgium, the children get to choose their own instrument, often because they want to be part of an orchestra. In China, it is the parents who choose the instrument, whether the child likes it or not. The way of doing is similar to that of forced marriage: “love comes after the event”; in other words, the results, ten years later, are often similar. In the West, we are used to explaining the musical meaning of any phrase, any section, and the background. In China, it’s mainly a question of playing the right notes. The principle of Chinese education is learning by heart: if one word is missing, the whole answer is marked as false. As a result, everyone plays the same things, the same way. In China, there is only one recognised cello edition, the one revised and fingered by Emanuel Feuerman and by other 1930s greats. It has been 50 years that the entire country uses the same bowing, the same fingering, no matter our own technique or our morphology! Likewise, no one has ever heard of historically informed performance; we still ask our students to steer clear of open strings in Bach Suites, and to throw in some romantic vibrato, like in Tchaikovsky or Brahms!

Last month, a Chinese student who was studying in Royal Conservatory of Brussels failed her Music History exam. She had reproduced by heart, word for word, the content of her textbook. The jury members thought that it was impossible, so they came to the conclusion that she had cheated. No matter what she said to defend herself, they did not believe her.

Chinese students and Belgian students: you've taught both; what are the differences as seen by a teacher?

X.G.: In Belgium, the students work less but they are more active in social life. I often say that to play well, you ought to read, to travel, to have some experience outside of the classroom. In China, they only work for class, they don’t care about cultural self-improvement; I sometimes have some 8 years old students whose mothers force them to practice 6 hours a day. Their fingers work fine, but their music has no soul, and they don’t understand what they are doing; playing the same thing over and over, faster and faster, this is not the way one plays music. The Belgians, it’s the exact opposite: they have a lot of imagination, but their fingers aren't always able to express it.

Gao Xuewen in concert at Durbuy (Belgium) © Gao Xuewen
Gao Xuewen in concert at Durbuy (Belgium)
© Gao Xuewen

Who was your most talented student? What sort of skills do you seek in a young cellist, for instance as a member of a jurist in a competition?   

X. G.: In the late eighties, I had Eckart Runge as a student for three years, when he was 17. Nowadays, he is the Artemis Quartet’s cellist. In the Sixth Beijing International Music Competitions of 2013, there were two of my students among the ten prize-winners.

Music is like going to a restaurant, you don’t want to come back if you had a poor experience. If you wish to win a contest, you don’t need to be a virtuoso of instrumental technique: all you have to do is to make the audience want to listen to you again. Better hear the audience say “how beautiful” than “how well executed”.

How would you assess the culture of your Chinese students? Is the appreciation of classical music something taught at school?

X. G.: In China, there isn’t any curiosity regarding artists. Some cello students don’t even know Casals or Rostropovich and only listen to Mischa Maisky (because he plays a lot in China), Jacqueline du Pré or Yo-Yo Ma. But they don’t care about the past of cello playing. In general, a piano student will never listen to cello, and no cellist would go listen to a pianist. They see no purpose in doing so.

In ordinary school, we only learn to sing songs. We never learn to listen to things, even less so when it is western classical music. It is not at all similar to music lessons in the West.

What is the role of family, of the “Tiger Mother” throughout the career of a young musician?

X. G.: “Tiger Mothers” attend each and every music lesson, they write down everything that is being said, they have no hesitation in telling off their child in front of the teacher. Yet, we have to acknowledge their contribution to increasing the number of bums on seats, by filling concert halls with children, even though the latter are often inexperienced and inattentive. Sometimes, the “Tiger Mother” has a better understanding of music than the student; by dint of diligence and watchfulness, they start to become experts. Others keep on repeating every single word I say, as if the student didn’t understand Chinese. I have no alternative but to tell them to sit down and keep quiet.

In China, no one wants to be an orchestral musician. In general, it’s the parents who push their child towards competition. I never encourage my students to compete. When the student has become a real musician, he generally doesn’t need competitions to further develop his career. And there is a second problem: if you actually win, don’t expect to make a career with only three works in your repertoire! But the “Tiger Mother” doesn’t care about these problems: she is treating music like the Olympic Games and just wants the prestige. In China, we don’t say “classical music” but, literally, “high-class music”.

Gao Xuewen, soloist at the “Weekly Radio Concert” at Shanghai Concert Hall © Gao Xuewen
Gao Xuewen, soloist at the “Weekly Radio Concert” at Shanghai Concert Hall
© Gao Xuewen

How do Chinese audiences behave? Are they more interested by foreign artists than by local artists ?

X. G.: The audience is always a bit distracted in China, and it’s even worse in the provinces. When I make a pianissimo in Belgium, I can’t even hear the public breathing. Here, it’s impossible: people keep speaking or leafing through their programme. The typical Chinese listener doesn’t go to a concert because it has sentimental value for him. While In Europe, one can go deliberately to listen to one particular work, or because he tries to remember an atmosphere. Chinese audiences never weep because of the beauty of the music: out of 80 students, I've only seen two who had tears in their eyes because something was beautiful.

The Chinese prefer foreign soloists, they are convinced that foreigners are better than locals. What matters to them is whether the musician is well-known. They will systematically say it was fantastic without knowing how to explain.