Now that Cho-Liang Lin, one of the supreme violinists of our time and the director of two acclaimed music festivals, has reached the age of 41, it may be a good time to stop calling him Jimmy. The splendid Taiwan-born virtuoso, renowned for his soulful expression of emotion in classic, romantic, and modern music, acquired his nickname—used universally in the music world—during his student days at Juilliard, where he worked with Dorothy DeLay. An upbeat, energetic, and handsome man in his prime, Lin talks freely about his life and career.
"When I started in my early 20s," he says, "I insisted that everyone call me Cho-Liang, but Americans gravitate to what’s easier, and so my schoolmates and teacher called me Jimmy. Finally, I gave up." Back in the 1980s, Asian names were not as common on American concert posters as they are today, and referring to his longtime pal Yo-Yo Ma, Lin adds, "My parents didn’t give me an easy name like Yo-Yo. By the way, Yo means friend, Yo-Yo means friendly, and Yo-Yo Ma therefore means friendly horse."
As for his own name, Cho-Liang means brightness or a show of brightness. Lin means woods, but a given name in Chinese has more significance than the family name. A show of brightness might indeed sum up his career so far, with resplendent recordings of concertos by Sibelius, Nielsen, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev, all conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen—plus Saint-Saëns’ Concerto No.3 conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, and a French chamber music program accompanied by pianist Paul Crossley. All of these recordings were made for Sony, which has since dropped Lin along with many other artists at the top of their powers, a great loss for everyone who cares about music. Fortunately, the small but ambitious Finnish label Ondine asked Lin to follow up on a brilliant recording of Tan Dun’s "Out of Peking Opera" with a session to record Christopher Rouse’s new violin concerto, written expressly for Lin and premiered in May with the New York Philharmonic.
In addition to recording the Rouse premiere, Lin keeps up a busy touring schedule, runs a music festival in Taipei, and has just completed his first season as director of the chamber music festival Summerfest La Jolla (see News & Notes [[INSERT LINK HERE]]). He’s certainly not sitting around pining that he’s not recording the major masterworks of the repertory—but music lovers should be. His supreme technique and his lightness and grace in a great variety of music are rarely heard. These qualities spring from his own background and his great industriousness.
Lin was born in 1960 in Hsin-Chu, a quiet college town 60 miles south of Taipei, a research center where his father worked as a nuclear physicist. The city has since grown into the Silicon Valley of Taiwan, but in the ’60s it was still a quiet place. Lin’s brainy father, Kuo-Chin Lin, who played the traditional Chinese stringed instrument the ehr-hu, would quiz the boy on comparative recordings, supposedly to prepare him to be a music critic. Young Lin experienced the recorded art of Nathan Milstein, Isaac Stern, David Oistrakh, Jascha Heifetz, and Fritz Kreisler. He developed lasting admiration for all these players, with particular affection for Zino Francescatti. Lin recalls, "What I was most struck by was Francescatti’s sound, the most beautiful and glorious sound, so rich and sweet. His version of the Saint-Saëns third concerto is the one I grew up with. Everything he played was very sunny, even in more soulful or dark works. It was strange—he made the Sibelius concerto sound Italian or Mediterranean. That’s my only slight criticism of this wonderful artist."
In the early 1970s Lin went to Australia, where he studied with Robert Pikler. By 1975 he had become a precollege student at Juilliard, working with the legendary star-maker Dorothy DeLay. She later said of her student, "His thinking, if you can get behind his joking, is elegant, the way a physicist might say an equation is elegant." Lin’s physicist father specialized in nuclear and radiation research, and his wife Deborah Ho Lin is a pediatric immunologist, suggesting the important role that science has played in the world around him. "The funny thing is, I was never good at mathematics," Lin admits, "which would frustrate my father a lot. Mathematics required a huge amount of logic, and all my talent in logic goes into music. I think there is constantly a lot of logic in my analysis of the music I play, and in teaching and interpretive matters. I try to achieve a combination of heart and soul with a good sense of logic. Miss DeLay’s teaching is very logical, by the way—very organized and meticulous—and I benefited a lot from her sense of organization."
So advanced was this organization that by the age of 18 he was invited by his European management to play the Tchaikovsky concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Riccardo Muti, an offer DeLay promptly turned down for him. "Miss DeLay felt I wasn’t ready to play the Tchaikovsky Concerto under those circumstances," Lin explains. "In the 1980s, 18 years old was considered young for a violinist, not like today. When I was signed to ICM Artists, the late Sheldon Gold said I should not be exposed to major orchestras until I was ready. Child prodigies were not in fashion then. I think Midori broke that mold, and now people are eager to hear child prodigies—and if an 18-year-old got an offer to play with the Berlin Philharmonic today, he or she would jump at it!"
Beyond protecting her young pupil, DeLay offered precious advice about dealing with the fierce egos of professional musicians. As Lin politely puts it, "Miss DeLay warned me of musicians who try to impress you at the first meeting and dominate you."
A case in point is the veteran Eugene Ormandy, longtime maestro of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who first invited Lin to perform when he was 20 years old, as a last-minute replacement for Henryk Szeryng in the Sibelius Concerto. Lin was called about 36 hours before the concert, and went quickly to Philadelphia with no time to practice, stopping at Ormandy’s apartment to go through the first movement with a pianist. Ormandy looked at the fiddler and said, "You know, young man, I’ve conducted this piece with Heifetz, Oistrakh, and Francescatti." Lin replied, "I know—I have all your records of this piece," and tried to look impressed but thought, "No need to pour it on!"
At this early stage of his career, he began to long for an ideal instrument. In 1983 he bought the 1707 Dushkin Stradivari, his first purchase of a quality instrument. The Dushkin Stradivari, says Lin, was "a marvelous sounding violin that perhaps did not have the very best pedigree in terms of preservation, but it sounded terrific for seven years of my career. But I wanted a violin that was closer in quality to a Stradivari called the ‘Soil’ which had been loaned to me for a year before I bought the Dushkin. I had the image in mind that I would get something like the ‘Soil’ and when I tried the Huggins, it reminded me of the Soil. It’s from the same year—1708—and it has a very similar back, with an almost identical varnish. It’s a very ravishing-looking violin. The sound was the problem. The 1708 Huggins Strad had been sitting in a bank vault for 30-odd years before I got it. It took a while for that violin to sound good, but it only developed so much and wouldn’t go further. I tried different adjustments like a new bridge, a new sound post, and working on the angle of the neck, but it never quite satisfied my expectations. In the meantime, I played concerts and recordings but never felt quite comfortable with it. "Then I saw the 1734 ‘Duc de Camposelice’ Guarneri ‘del Gesu’ in the Charles Beare shop in London and fell in love with it. The sound was immediately brilliant. Charles Beare had me in mind and knew I wasn’t happy with the Huggins. I knew the owner, a very dear friend, the very same person who loaned me the ‘Soil’ Stradivari years before. I sold the Huggins with Beare to get the Guarneri. The former owner of the Guarneri had insisted that the violin go to a performer, not to a collector or an amateur. I wish all transactions were that wonderful. I’ve had it for nine years now."
The "Duc de Camposelice" Guarneri "del Gesu" requires a certain amount of upkeep, and every so often Lin takes the instrument to a shop for what he calls its "10,000 mile checkup." Fiddler and fiddle head for the subway to Brooklyn, getting off at a stop near Atlantic Avenue to see Sam Zygmuntowicz, an instrument builder and restorer. Lin leaves his precious cargo there for a few days, most recently in hopes that the methodical craftsman would build him a new fingerboard. "Sam’s fantastic," Lin says, "and such a brilliant maker that I’ve commissioned him to build a violin for me. I commissioned it five years ago, in fact, and I’m still waiting! He has an old warehouse loft, so spacious and with the right lighting—northern exposure—ideal for violin-making."
Zygmuntowicz, who has been making violins for about 20 years, is equally thrilled with his illustrious client. "He’s part of a circle of people I’ve got close with, part of the upper rung of Juilliard-trained people who play at international festivals like La Jolla—the violist Toby Hoffman, violinist Danny Phillips from the Orion Quartet, cellist David Finkel from the Emerson Quartet—a kind of energized, very intelligent group who enjoy playing solo and chamber music. That kind of community has become the core of what I do. I started taking care of Jimmy’s Guarneri, a really fabulous instrument. This fiddle’s workmanship is from Guarneri’s most refined period, the early 1730s, arching like the Kreisler Guarneri, an instrument I’ve studied and reproduced. The f-hole is beautifully cut and proportioned. The Guarneri sound from this period is very concentrated and direct. Some later Guarneris can sound almost woolly, but this one has a good, centered sound with lots of carrying power, and it fits Jimmy well because it’s a very elegant, articulate sound, not overly dramatic. It’s very balanced and graceful, like Jimmy’s artistry. As a person he’s extremely gracious—when you meet him, you feel he’s an almost natural aristocrat, with an old-fashioned graciousness. The new violin he’s commissioned from me was designed in terms of his playing style, the personal way a player has of drawing out sound from a string. I don’t rely on recordings for that kind of thing. When he comes to my studio, he plays for me. I wouldn’t rely on electronic equipment for that."
As intense as Lin’s relationship with fiddles is his focus on bows. In his earlier teens and 20s, he couldn’t afford French 19th century bows, so he relied on modern bows. The first he bought were by John Norwood Lee of Chicago and Lloyd Liu, a Chinese bow maker from Los Angeles who used to be in New York. When Lin accumulated enough money, he started to buy French bows and now plays them exclusively. One of the four primary bows he carries on tour is by Dominique Peccatte; it’s a 19th-century item that is "a kind of Stradivari of bows," Lin says. A Guillaume Maline, an Etienne Pajeot, and an E. A. Auchard complete the quartet, purchased all over the world. He uses them for different repertoire: Because the Pajeot is more supple and delicate, it is ideal for Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach. The Peccatte and Maline are stronger, and are therefore used for heavy-duty concertos by Bartok, Sibelius, and Brahms.
Depending on the weather and time of year, his violin seems to "prefer" one bow to another. In the more humid months of summer, the violin can take a heavier bow with a little more digging and heavy playing because the wood is more expanded. But in winter months when the wood is dry, he uses a slightly lighter bow. Lin is ever-precise about such matters: "I noticed that when I buy a bow in the summertime, it tends to weigh a little more than in the winter, maybe a gain or loss of two grams. As a result, I have a fairly full complement of bows with different weights and stiffnesses, so I’m well set for any season of the year."
His choice of strings has been far less complicated. After growing up with gut strings, he became a faithful user of Dominant strings for many years; he switched recently to a newer version of Dominants (made by the same company) called Thomastik-Infeld, which he finds are a little more consistent in quality. "When I’m on tour," he says "I don’t want a string to go false in a concert, so I’m always looking for something that will last me a little longer."
What is certain to endure is his evolving artistry, anchored in awareness of his own gifts. For instance, his La Jolla festival featured Mark O’Connor playing his work, "Appalachian Journey," as well as a tribute to Stephane Grappelli—but Lin himself steers clear of any attempts at "crossover" music, despite intense record industry pressure on all artists to do so. "I think if I had the talent of Mark O’Connor," Lin explains, "I’d be thrilled to play jazz, blues, and bluegrass with ease, but it’s not in my blood, I’m afraid. Yo-Yo is very adventurous, but I have a feeling of possible failure—if I tried jazz, it might sound half-baked, and I feel I might sound pretty miserable."
If no Joe Venuti or Jean-Luc Ponty in the making, Lin still has plenty of hair on his bow, and a real understanding of a repertory that suggests a bright recording future, even if it is not with Sony. The company holds two as-yet-unreleased recordings. One is a set of works by Fritz Kreisler with the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Litton. Another hidden treasure is a program of chamber music, including the Brahms viola quintet, with Isaac Stern, Jaime Laredo, Michael Tree and Yo-Yo Ma. "Since these people are also being kept waiting," Lin notes dryly, "I somehow don’t feel so bad." Whether the recording future is with Ondine or some other small label, Lin will certainly land on his feet.
In recent years he has intensified his work with accompanists—vocalists as well as instrumentalists. "In terms of piano accompanists," says Lin, "the more I play, the more I crave input. In early days I wanted someone who strictly accompanied me, but now I really want an equal partner who can contribute directly in the interpretive process." Pianist Sandra Rivers was his first regular accompanist, playing with him for ten years. He then began an association with Andre-Michel Schub, in which both musicians are keen to explore new works. He also plays regularly with Li Jian, a pianist originally from Shanghai who is now on the faculty at Curtis; and most recently he has done concerts with Jon Kimura Parker, another old friend. He performed a Mozart concert aria with Sylvia McNair a few years ago, and also did Beethoven’s Scottish songs with the tenor Robert White. For his triennial Taipei festival, being held next in 2003, he hopes to perform some more Mozart arias "with a super-duper soprano."
And there are his groundbreaking collaborations with contemporary composers like Christopher Rouse, Bright Sheng, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Tan Dun. Lin revels in their diversity. "Rouse is a very dramatic composer and loves big gestures," Lin says. "Even if the music becomes bombastic as a result, he doesn’t care. He wants the utmost effect, with music that is louder and faster all the time. He is very exact in the effect he wants to achieve. I find it fascinating to see what end result contemporary composers want, what they notate, and this can also help in interpreting past generations of composers. The Barber Concerto, for example, is scored in a Mozartian way, with very few indications, and you can develop the way you want to play it. By contrast, Bartok and Elgar’s works are very precisely marked down, to the slightest detail. Rouse means every metronome marking he puts down, no matter how hideously fast it may be for a performer. So it’s very frightening for a performer to encounter it for the first time; he can’t believe the composer really means what he has written. Kernis is generally sweeter and more romantic, more like Mendelssohn, whereas Rouse is more like Berlioz. In fact Rouse thinks he’s Berlioz reincarnated—big gestures and everything grand. Kernis is more intricate, delicate, transparent."
Different still is the work of Tan Dun, which Lin calls "very theatrical music—so theatrical that I wonder how it translates onto CD. His ‘Ghost Opera’ for string quartet and pipa, which I have performed, is a multimedia work, with extra props. How can that be conveyed on CD? A composer like Tan Dun needs a more visual medium. I prance around the stage and recite excerpts from Shakespeare and play with stones and metal. I find it very liberating."
Also liberating are his roles as husband and father. His little daughter, Lara, born in January 2001, makes a healthy amount of noise through trivial things like interviews. "Yo-Yo told me many years ago that once you have kids, all your priorities in life change," Lin says, "and he was right. She is a very welcome anchor in my life now." Another anchor is his wife Deborah, whom he met when she was a page turner at one of his concerts in Atlanta. Asked if she was a good page turner, he chuckles. "The reason we got to talk backstage was that she was so conscientious about turning well that she came to the dress rehearsal, instead of just appearing at the performance. So when we had a pause and began chatting backstage, I found her enchanting. Had she only come to the concert itself, I probably would have been preoccupied and not have noticed her. So it was fortunate she was such a conscientious page-turner!"
Lin relishes friends like the irrepressible Yo-Yo Ma, who told one interviewer that Lin knows more swear words in Chinese than he does. "Yo-Yo is much more devious than I am with the bad stuff," Lin says. "To Yo-Yo, swear words in Chinese don’t carry the same meaning for him as for native speakers of the language, since Chinese is his second or third language. If an American swears in Icelandic, for example, he does it without guilt. Yo-Yo spouts off these words in Chinese and it is very entertaining for him, whereas I cringe. But he feels just great!" An avid sports buff, Lin was a great fan of the elegant tennis player Stefan Edberg, always honored as one of the most gentlemanly competitors in the sport. Now that Edberg has retired, he perhaps revealingly follows with most enthusiasm great, if slightly less gentlemanly, players like Pete Sampras and the Australian Patrick Rafter. "He looks like a samurai on the tennis court," says Lin of Rafter, "really wild and entertaining." He is also a "diehard fan" of the not-at-all-gentlemanly New York Yankees. Long years on the international concert circuit may have made this virtuoso prize toughness and winning ways over mere polish.
Yet he retains personal compassion, notably in defense of abused animals in America and his native Taiwan. In 1998, at the height of his acclaim for his new festival, he wrote to Premier Vincent Siew of Taiwan, on behalf of an. organization called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, stating that dogs in the country are ill-treated. He never received an answer, nor did he expect one. "I believe in the cause of PETA," Lin says, "and I wanted to do something. There’s another organization in Taiwan that collects stray dogs, and during my Taipei festival Yo-Yo posed with handicapped dogs that had been abandoned, and the photo was circulated widely." One hopes that Cho-Liang Lin’s magnificent artistry will again circulate widely on CDs. In the meantime, at least, his concert career is flourishing.