MUSIC : A Shift in Composition : Asian and Asian American musicians increasingly can be found playing in U.S. symphony orchestras. ‘This is a manifestation of a normal cycle in American musical life,’ says Joseph Polisi, president of Juilliard


Last fall, Ben Hong walked with his cello onto the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to play his first concert with his new employer, the Los Angeles Philharmonic. For Hong, then 24, it was a triumphant moment in an arduous journey that began 15 years ago in Taiwan.

The voyage was one of intense pressure: Hong remembers his parents sitting beside him as he practiced the instrument he’d taken up at the age of 9. “I love music now, but it would have been nice if I had had a chance to learn to love it myself when I was young,” he says wistfully.

It was also a voyage of loneliness: When Hong was 13, his parents sent him to New York to live with a guardian so that he could attend the Juilliard School of Music’s pre-college program on Saturdays. Of rebellion: In New York he often didn’t want to practice. And, at last, of pleasure and achievement: He followed his teacher, cellist Lynn Harrell, from Juilliard to the USC School of Music, where after four years of college and two of post-graduate study, he was hired into one of the eminent orchestras of America.


This young man is remarkable only for his early and striking success.

All over America, but especially on its West and East coasts, young people of East Asian ancestry are studying Western classical music in large numbers, the newest in a long line of immigrants to enrich the American musical scene with their talents.

“This is a manifestation of a normal cycle in American musical life,” said Joseph Polisi, president of Juilliard. “Various immigrant groups have been dominant in classical music in this century. First it was the Italians and Germans, and after World War I people from central Europe. After World War II we had the Israelis, and then by the mid-1960s people of Asian heritage began to become involved.”

Engaged heavily in strings (and increasingly in other instruments and voice), Asians and Asian Americans are in ever-growing numbers entering America’s symphony orchestras, whose style of playing they may well subtly but unmistakably alter.

“Where would the great American orchestras be without the Asian input?” asks Zubin Mehta, 57, conductor of the Israel Philharmonic and former conductor of the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Simon Rattle, 38, the conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England and frequent guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and other American orchestras, said he sees the future “face of the orchestra in America” in the students he worked with at the Tanglewood music festival last summer.

Many of them were of Asian descent, and many of those female, he says, and they were “very alive, alert, passionate.” Rattle predicts that as the younger Asians and Asian Americans increasingly work their way into American orchestras, the orchestras will play “with a faster burn.” He thinks that eventually most string players in American orchestras will be of Asian backgrounds.


At USC’s School of Music, 17% of the 827 undergraduate and graduate students are Asian American and 15% are Asians from abroad. At Juilliard, the figure is about 35% to 38%, divided roughly 50-50 between Americans and Asians from abroad. At the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston the percentage of Asian descent is 20. It’s 28% at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

With these numbers in music schools and conservatories, people of Asian descent are entering the leading American orchestras in increasing numbers. Of the 105 members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, 10 are of Asian descent. In San Francisco, 12 of 106 are; seven of 101 in Boston, four of 105 in Cleveland; four of 107 at the New York Philharmonic. When the 4,000-member Music Teachers Assn. of California presents its top students to play at its annual convention, the majority of them are Asian or Asian American.

These people of Japanese, Korean and Chinese backgrounds come from families that share the Confucian values of discipline, honoring parents and teachers, pride in family achievement and respect for culture. Nearly all of them have strong and supportive parents who encourage, or force, their offspring to do the countless hours of childhood practice without which few musicians, and certainly no instrumentalists, can achieve excellence later on.

“Asian parents do tend to push their children to do well and have a better life than they had,” says Nicole Lee, 21, a senior at USC’s School of Music who was born in Vancouver to parents of Chinese ancestry. In Vancouver, where she grew up, “the music world was 80% Asian,” she said. “There is a fierce level of competition in the society.”

“The Asian mother has taken the place of the Jewish mother,” Mehta said. “Especially in this country, I find the Jewish mother has taken herself out of the talent market”--meaning that as American Jews have grown more assimilated, some of the old drive has dissipated.

Indeed, Mehta’s father, Mehli Mehta, 85, said that in his American Youth Symphony, composed of 105 young musicians in the Los Angeles area, 40 have Asian names. When he founded the group in 1965, 99% were American-born, and 40% or 45% of them were Jewish. (The Mehtas, among the relatively few Western musicians from India, are Parsis from Bombay.)


If culture explains the requisite discipline, what explains the attraction of Western music for Asians?

The answers are various: The opening of Japan to the West by Commodore Matthew C. Perry in 1854 led to a fascination there with all things Western; for people in societies that to Western eyes may seem conformist, the desire to express themselves in the highly individualized medium of Western music; the hope that one’s children will do better than one’s self, a wish that becomes more possible to fulfill as incomes rise; for Asian immigrants to the West, a means to confirm one’s identity, and, in China’s Cultural Revolution, simply spiritual survival.

In the 19th Century a course of music study for schools published by Luther Whiting Mason of Boston was adopted by the Japanese government. Laurence Lesser, president of the New England Conservatory of Music and husband of the Japanese-born violinist Masuko Ushioda, said that his father-in-law remembers attending popular concerts of classical music in Tokyo in the early 1930s.

By this time Shinichi Suzuki, who had studied violin in Europe, was creating the Tokyo String Orchestra and developing the Suzuki technique for teaching the violin and other instruments to very young children at a high standard of performance.

Interest vastly increased after World War II. Suzuki founded his music school, which expanded rapidly and became an international model for his style of teaching. The eminent Toho Gakuen School of Music, from which Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa graduated, was founded in Tokyo in 1955. Today there are six concert halls in Tokyo alone; concerts are packed with serious, respectful audiences. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is standard New Year’s Eve fare in concert halls all over Japan. And as further evidence of the commitment to classical music, the compact disc was designed by its Japanese producer to be the length it is to accommodate a symphony.

In Korea, traditional culture values music and song. Western music was first introduced in 1885 with the arrival of American missionaries, but during the 40 years of Japanese occupation that began in 1905, it did not flourish. Interest grew with the liberation of Korea from the Japanese in 1945. The first Korean symphony orchestra was founded that year. The Korean War of 1950-53 halted musical development, but with the end of the war and the subsequent economic development Koreans increasingly turned to Western music, and now there are music schools in the universities and a National Conservatory of Music.


In China, classical Western music was introduced on a substantial scale with the turmoil in Russia that culminated in the 1917 revolution; Russian Jews fleeing pogroms and people fleeing the revolution, bringing their talents with them, sought refuge in China.

Such refugees taught the grandfather of Weigang Li, the 29-year-old first violinist of the young Shanghai String Quartet, based at the University of Richmond in Virginia. “People often ask me how I can understand Western music,” he said while in Los Angeles working on a recording session. “It’s a kind of silly question, since I am the third generation of my family in Western music. In my family we have a dozen violinists.”


The Soviet-Chinese connection brought a second round of Russian musicians to China after the triumph of the Communists in 1949, and Chinese students to the Moscow Conservatory. Then, in 1966, Mao Tse-tung’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” brought new peril and with it a kind of grim opportunity to China’s musicians.

Bright Sheng, 37, the Shanghai-born composer-in-residence at the Seattle Symphony, tells the story. (His name is the translation of his Chinese given name, Liang.) His parents were intellectuals; his grandfather, a large landowner. The family was denounced in the Cultural Revolution as enemies of the people, and their piano, which the boy loved, was taken away.

“Everybody from the city had to be farmers, he says. “The exceptions were artists, because Mao’s wife (Ziang Qing) encouraged the performing arts.” So the boy made it to remote Western Qinghai province, where for eight years he worked on the piano--”I was basically self-taught”--and collected folk songs. “At that time there were thousands of young people all over China playing the violin to avoid being made farmers,” he says.

With the death of Mao in 1978, China returned to more stable times, and Sheng went to Shanghai Conservatory, from which he made his way to New York, where he was a student of the late Leonard Bernstein. His music is intellectual and strenuously modernist, marked by both Chinese and Western influence.


Few Asian and Asian American musicians have experienced Sheng’s travail, but no matter how tranquil their lives, a respect for discipline and zeal for the subject prevail. Here are some tales:


“The scholar was a very highly valued person in society, while the businessman was at the bottom,” Yo-Yo Ma said when he was at the Hollywood Bowl in September to play the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the L.A. Philharmonic. Ma, born 38 years ago in Paris to Chinese parents, is one of the Asian superstars of classical music, like Ozawa, Japanese violinist Midori, the Tokyo String Quartet.

“Each piece of music presents a complete world,” Ma said. “Listening or playing means you have to go outside of yourself. . . . It’s an empathetic feeling that makes music powerful. Certainly for people who have to struggle, or who have suffered, or who have had upheavals in their lives, music is a healing force. Maybe this is part of the immigrant process.”


Michelle Kim, 20, studies violin at the USC School of Music. She was born in Korea, where both her grandfathers were Presbyterian ministers. The family moved here in the 1980s. She started playing the instrument at age 10, “fairly late,” she said, looking pensive. Her father, who now works in Los Angeles in Korean-language television, was a musician by training. Her teacher quickly put her in a competition. “I lost,” she says, “so I decided I would do better and beat the people who beat me, and I did. I’m very competitive.

“After a while, I hated the violin, but I couldn’t stop, because we had put so much money into playing it.” She had the same teacher, USC professor Robert Lipsett, for 10 years.

Kim says her mom was so tough she insisted on additional practice time to make up for a trip to the bathroom. “Asian moms are so tough on kids,” Kim says with a merry laugh, happy now that her mother insisted that she practice.


She says of her lofty goal to be a soloist: “If I aim for the highest goal, I can always drop back. If I don’t aim for the goal of soloist, I won’t be able to achieve anything else. If you just aim for the middle, you won’t be able to achieve what you should.” Her ultimate goal is to be a teacher--”to pass on what I’ve learned.”


Sam Wong, 31, born in Hong Kong to music lovers, studied piano from the age of 4. When he was 9, his family moved to Toronto. From there he went to Harvard College, where he took up conducting and led Harvard’s Bach Society Orchestra. After college he went to Harvard Medical School and got his MD degree even while conducting a local community orchestra.

He did not continue medicine, but instead moved to New York and became director of the New York Youth Symphony, where Zubin Mehta heard him conduct Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and invited him to become assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic. In his three years there, he conducted 30 concerts, including those scheduled for Leonard Bernstein when he died and those scheduled for Mehta when he went to Israel to be with his orchestra during the Persian Gulf War.

He is working through the repertoire, gaining experience. He has conducted in several Asian nations. In China, he says, he found at concerts “an electric atmosphere, spontaneous and real. This love of classical music is not studied or contrived.”


Roy Tanabe, American-born, has been a violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic since the 1960s, before the wave of musicians of Asian descent began to rise.

“I think of myself as different” from the younger Asian musicians, Tanabe says.

He and his family were expelled from Los Angeles by the U.S. government during World War II because they were of Japanese lineage; they were not sent to the infamous internment camps, but to Ann Arbor, Mich., where his father taught Japanese at an Army intelligence school.


Tanabe met music in the various accompaniments for children’s radio serials--Rossini’s “William Tell” overture for “The Lone Ranger,” Reznicek’s overture to “Donna Diana” for “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.”

“I wasn’t interested in the stories as much as I loved the music,” Tanabe says.

When the family returned to Los Angeles after the war, he was drawn into playing music by a grade-school music teacher, who persuaded Tanabe’s father to buy a violin for him. “It was a pretty sizable (financial) sacrifice.”

“I was blessed by the fact that I came into the Los Angeles public school system in those days,” he says. “It had a large and active music program.

“There is no doubt in my mind,” Tanabe says, “that if we had the music education in the schools now that we had then, there would be an enormous number of persons of color in the field.” But as it is, the field is left open to those whose parents have ambition and some means.


By no means is all the ambition for the love of music itself. Fung Ho, 38, born in Hong Kong, teaches violin from his studio in Monterey Park. He encounters many parents--Asian and non-Asian--who don’t care much for music, but believe that if their children are disciplined to study it they can organize the rest of their lives better. They believe it also helps their children to get in the best schools.

“When I have a student who really doesn’t like the violin and is good at something else, like baseball, I tell the parents to let him do baseball and just quit the violin.”


Ho himself started at “8 or 9 . . . but I never liked it, I never practiced. My parents got very mad at me for that.” He took the violin up seriously in his middle teens but nevertheless studied biology and got a master’s degree in hematology Long Island University. Then he switched to the Manhattan School of Music and got a master’s in violin. Now he teaches half of the time and works as a free-lance violinist. With friends he founded the local Olympia Philharmonic Orchestra to feature Asian and Asian American musicians and to “promote more classical music among the Chinese community” through performances.


Heiichiro Ohyama’s parents were not as indulgent about baseball as is Ho. Now 46 and the conductor of the Japan America Symphony of Los Angeles, Ohyama longed to play baseball with his friends in Japan instead of practicing the violin after school. “In the Orient,” he says, “when a parent says, ‘Do this,’ you don’t say, ‘No.’ ”

Ohyama went in 1968 to England for three years, then to America. He switched to the viola and was principal violist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 13 years and assistant conductor for three. Perhaps more than the younger musicians, Ohyama says he found that being a foreigner in this country is “not easy,” though the West Coast, with its large Asian population, is more hospitable, he says, than the rest of the country.

Tanabe says, though, that he never felt discriminated against. “It was our parents who had to fight that,” he says.


The increase of Asian musicians in America is not matched in Europe, the birthplace of the art. Rattle, the conductor, says he knows of a couple of free-lance Japanese musicians in London but of no Asians on the roster of any English orchestra. The concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic, Tooru Yasunaga, is Japanese, Rattle says, and there are some Asians playing in the Netherlands, but “the vast majority are in America,” adding that “it’s perhaps because you pay better.”

It is widely believed by musicians that the Asians and Asian Americans coming increasingly into the profession are of high quality. As USC music school Dean Larry Livingston put it, “They have what we musicians call ‘chops’--horsepower.”


Then why do people outside the profession still ask whether Asians have the “soul” for Western music?

One contributor to the question may have been the familiar international sight of young children playing so neatly in unison in the Suzuki method.

Another, curiously, may have been the 1979 documentary film about Isaac Stern “From Mao to Mozart,” which traced his three-week trip through China teaching and giving concerts at the invitation of Chinese Foreign Minister Huang Hua.

Stern himself said in the film: “Their approach to Western music was somewhat limited. They were not accustomed to playing with passion and color. . . . They have not had the experience of living with Western music, as we have, for hundreds of years.”

But Dorothy DeLay, the eminent violin teacher at Juilliard, whose students have included Midori and many others of Asian descent, says “if you have musicians play behind a screen, I would defy anyone to pick the Asians out.”

Rattle talks about Yo-Yo Ma’s “staggering talent” with the cello. “It is not possible to finger scales the way he does,” Rattle says. “Any cliche you say about musicians of Asian descent completely dissolves with talent like that.”


Polisi of Juilliard said: “I have heard thousands of musicians. That talk about Asians is a very old stereotype that should be discarded.

“There are very few musicians before the public who can uplift the human spirit. That is a very special gift. It has nothing to do with ethnic origins.”