The Shanghai Quartet celebrates its 35th anniversary during the 2018–19 season by performing eight complete Beethoven cycles around the world. The players speak to Charlotte Smith about forming at a time when Western chamber music was barely understood in their native China, and about promoting the art form to Chinese ...
’When we formed the Shanghai Quartet in 1983 chamber music in China was almost non-existent,’ says the ensemble’s first violinist Weigang Li. ‘Western music had been introduced to the country in the 1920s and 30s, and the first generation of classical musicians included my grandfather, a violinist, who played in a quartet with Yo-Yo Ma’s father (also a violinist) before the latter moved to Paris. But most Chinese musicians, even by the 1980s, simply weren’t aware of the scope and depth of this fantastic repertoire.’ Li is speaking to me at the 2018 Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition, where he is serving as a jury member. His fellow quartet members are here too, providing the professional element for the chamber music round. The significance of the Stern name is not lost on Li, who in 1979, at the age of 15, was featured in the Oscar-winning documentary From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China. Meeting and playing for Stern was a momentous event for the violinist, who at the time was a student at the Shanghai Conservatory Middle School. Just two years later he was selected for a year-long cultural exchange programme with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, an eye-opening trip which introduced him to Robert Mann (later a teacher), Nathan Milstein, Henryk Szeryng and Efrem Zimbalist.
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