Jian Wang

Written by: Colin Anderson

The Chinese cellist Jian Wang says he “wasn’t really given a choice!” During the so-called Cultural Revolution, Jian’s parents “were separated by the government: in those days you were sent to wherever the government wanted you to work. I went to live with my father. My mother was in a different city and it was a long time before she got permission to join us. My mum’s a flautist and my father’s a cellist. My father didn’t know what to do with me, so he gave me a viola when I was about four and I started imitating him. He discovered I had talent and he then taught me seriously. If I’d been left to my own devices I don’t know if I would have chosen music. But I don’t regret it. I love it.” In Jian’s formative years, the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich made a big impression. “The string-playing tradition in China is very much Russian because we had a lot of Russian Jews running away from Germany. They came to Shanghai and started orchestras and conservatories. Then China had close contact with Soviet Russia and they sent teachers and recordings.”

Jian’s in London on the 28th, at the Barbican, to join the China Philharmonic. “It’s a new orchestra, five years old, and well supported by the government. All the players are Chinese, as far as I can tell! It’s a prominent orchestra and one of the few in China that has a full season. It has an impressive roster of conductors and soloists going there.” At the London concert, Jian plays Dvořák’s Concerto, one of the pinnacles of the cellist’s repertoire? “I hope it’s not the pinnacle. I hope something even better will come along. But, so far, you probably could say that it’s one of the richest cello concertos. It is very much a symphony with a very prominent cello part. There are not many moments where the cello is overpowered, not if the conductor and cellist know what they are doing! It’s not an easy piece, but it is very well written.” Composed in New York, Dvořák’s Concerto is a “sweeping work, it doesn’t get stuck. The melodies are from his Czech background and are also influenced by America; certain parts remind of simple happiness and others are very melancholic and tragic. The ending is special; only the Elgar Concerto compares.”

Jian Wang has just recorded Bach’s Cello Suites. “If I could do one thing right in my life it would be to play these Suites well; they are a little treasure that you have in your heart. When I play Bach I play it to feel well; it has all the fundamentals of music in it. It’s very liberating. You just need a chair and a cello. Then you play!” There are so many ways of interpreting this timeless music. Jian’s is quite Romantic and story-telling? “Yes. I think all music should tell stories, not necessarily in words, but at least it should convey some kind of an emotional and, hopefully, spiritual message. If music does not convey an emotional content to soothe listeners and let them know that they are not alone in this world, what’s the point of it?”

The movements that make up Bach’s Cello Suites are based on dance forms. “But they don’t accompany a dancer; that’s wasting Bach’s genius. It’s like asking a painter today to paint a picture exactly like a photograph. If you want to see something beyond mere images, you go and look at a painting. Bach’s music is so much more than dance forms.” There’s a welcome spontaneity to Jian’s recording. “I don’t make plans. It comes naturally. You should not impose your will on music. Every time it’s slightly different and the flow of the music is so important.” Jian’s recording is on Deutsche Grammophon 477 5228 (2 CDs). It makes a splendid showcase for a musician who believes that “one of the qualities a musician must have is sensitivity and be responsive to messages in music. Musicians are a reflection of those things that we absorb and then project.”


  • Concert at Barbican Hall, London, on 28 March
  • Barbican
  • Universal
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 23 March 2005 and is reproduced here with permission

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