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Q&A: Weigang Li on Making Music in Detroit

Weigang Li has lived in some of the largest cities in the world: Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Shanghai.

This week, he is here in Detroit. Is he disappointed? Hardly.

Li is one of two violinists for the Shanghai Quartet, renowned for its passionate musicality, impressive technique and distinguished collaborations. They have played at Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House and beyond. And for nearly two weeks, they will be here making the rounds.

Through Feb. 12, the Quartet will conduct the Chamber Music Society of Detroit's Two-Week Ensemble Residency Program. The ensemble will present tailored musical presentations and Master classes at metro Detroit area schools, Focus: HOPE and Latino Family Services.

The program's goal is to introduce participants – particularly students – to the highest caliber chamber music in a personal and interactive way. The Quartet's stops include Redford, Novi, Troy, Dearborn Heights and Farmington Hills. But they will spend the majority of their time in Detroit, visiting charter, public and private schools including Cass Tech High School to meet students and introduce them to classical music.

Here is what Li had to say about Detroit, music and more.

Q: Is this your first time here? Do you need a tour guide?

A: Oh, no. We've been doing this for eight or nine years. We come to Detroit every other year for the residency. (The Chamber Music Society of Detroit) is one of the best chamber music societies in the country in terms of the level of the people they hire and the organization itself. It is especially impressive because it incorporates not only the concerts but the program we're doing with the students together.

Q: Why would you want to come to Detroit? And in one of the coldest months of the year!

A:  We love Detroit. We know what to expect; we've been here for an extended period of time. Our first time here was about 15 years ago. We played in Orchestra Hall in downtown; it is a fabulous concert hall. We have a bunch of friends now in Detroit. Also, we have many musician friends who we've known for years. We get to know it better each time. ... I know the recent economic downturn has hit Detroit very hard. The unemployment rate – it's horrible. But I'm not an economist. … Actually, we just got back from Colombia; I like extreme contrasts.

Q: Who is a better audience: well-behaved adults or elementary students?

A: I can speak for the other quartet members when I say we believe strongly in education. We're very happy to do this with the Society. Our previous two times here we played for no less than 4,000 or 5,000 kids in two-week period at 10 to 12 schools. It varies from small kids in preschool to middle school to high school. We even played at a children's hospital for the kids who cannot travel. It's very good for the kids and at the same time very rewarding for us as well.

Q: How do you teach young people about classical music?

A: Normally, with a quartet you play concerts and don't do much teaching. When one has to talk to kids, you have to think of ways of making it very interesting. We do a pretty good job among the four of us. We focus on short, not long, movements suitable for young people to get associated with classical music. The last thing you want it for them to think it's boring. You don't want them to yawn and fall asleep! Many people may think classical music is boring because their first performances weren't high quality. That makes all the difference. … You have to imagine what would interest you as a kid. Our greatest ally is our music because a lot of it is the greatest music of all music. One of the greatest genres is Western classical music. We call it classical not because it's old; it's because it's the pinnacle of something. It's something very special. The kids get very excited and hopefully they'll want to hear it a second and third time. And they'll want to pick up an instrument and learn. … I always believe as a human being if you know music, your life is richer. You should more than one kind of music – good music ideally. The more important thing is if you have music in your life, it's like you have color in your life.

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    A friend of mine recently asked me if I got more out of the China trip than the King Band Members.

    That is hard to tell and may take a number of years to assess. In someways yes because I loved the food and saw things that I could only have hoped to dream about. There were way too many complaints about it.

    But I worked in a Chinese restaurant when I was in school in Ann Arbor and had two Chinese room mates. One was from Mississippi and the other from Hong Kong. The one from Hong Kong kept saying to the one from Mississippi, Jesus H. Christ Paul, you are more goddam Chinese than I am!

    But Paul took second place in the Place Pompidou competition so that tells you something.

    So China was wonderful for me. Actually Unbelievable, like a step into a science fiction movie or a Disney fantasy. To see Shanghai with 3500 high rise structures and 700+ skyscrapers was like seeing New York plus Chicago plus Toronto times 6. (Here we are tearing our Classics down.)The airport in Beijing by Norman Foster with 538 gates was pure fantasia.

    And the kids took it all in stride. I commented to our guide that the Imperial Palace had the color of art pencils known as sanguine and he said yes, it originally was painted with pig blood. Well it is stunningly beautiful and so enormous as to almost defy description with the golden color roof tiles and the polychrome ornamentation.

    The whole trip was as amazing and surreal as can be.

    But one of the things that was so fascinating is that the King Band had exchange performances with other high schools and in one exchange a stunningly beautiful young Chinese Girl announced in both English and Chinese and sang in Classical Chinese and played the Urdu. It was wonderful and you had to know that she would have a beautiful future.

    And in another exchange in Shiujiazhuang there was an performance that too was stunning. In one act about seven Chinese Girls dressed in Golden Costumes and classical make up stacked up behind each other Shiva like and waved their arms to classical chinese music. Breathtaking.

    But one of the most interesting happenings was that a Young Male Student sang some modern music, rock and roll and all, and the girls in the band started screaming. DW from the drum line jumped up and screamed and cheered and almost cried!

    He was good, and yes music transcends cultures.

    And the classical music from China is beautiful too.

    I wish that you could have seen her.

    I think that the photos of the King Band China trip are still in PhotoBucket.


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