The year was 1984. And it was
summertime in Beijing. Those were the days not so far from the end
of the Cultural Revolution and China was very different from today.
It was my second concert tour of my home country. The first time was
in 1981 when I met pianist Liu Shi-kun. He arranged for the Central
Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra to accompany me in Beethoven's 4th
Piano Concerto that summer of 1984 and personally coached me many
hours without pay. The venue of the concert was at that time the
largest hall in Beijing, The Cultural Palace. In the audience was an
outstanding 3rd year conducting student of Central Conservatory of
Music. His name was Shui Lan. We were introduced by the daughter of
composer Tin Shan De. I was very impressed with this bright boy with
shining eyes. He asked me if I would collaborate with him in a few
weeks' time in Hangzhou, his home town and where he has been invited
to conduct two concerts with the Hangzhou Song and Dance Troupe. He
wanted to direct me in the same Beethoven Concerto No. 4 there. I
agreed and stayed with his parents in their home near the West Lake.
I became instantly fast friends with all his family. And in the
course of 15 years visited his home and his family at least that
many times. We discovered that Shui Lan shared the same lunar
calendar birthday with me, being 16 years my junior. His directing
of the Beethoven 4th Piano Concerto was excellent. I still have a
tape of that performance. I recall he also did a Brahms Symphony
--quite a feat with such a small ensemble. I knew immediately that
he would one day carve an important niche in the annuls of
conducting--at least of the stature of Ozawa of Boston Symphony!
Shui Lan would have been an excellent violinist but an accident
while playing soccer (football) damaged his hand so that he turned
from violin to conducting. That was perhaps a very fortunate
decision! The world might have lost a virtuoso violinist but gained
a great maestro! In the summer of 1986, I again give concerts in
Beijing and Shanghai. Shui Lan by then has graduated from Central
Conservatory and was the conductor of Beijing Symphony Orchestra. He
asked me to help him to come to the U.S. for graduate studies. I
became his financial sponsor and personally accompany him to the US.
Consulate. The consul refused to grant him visa saying that someone
of his caliber would never return to China but would stay in the
U.S. I had to beg and beg the consul who finally agreed to let him
come to the U.S. for his Master's degree in Boston. I tried to help
him as much as I can financially for several years, which he never
forgot. Although neither of us kept a record as to how much money I
gave him, there is a record of gratitude in his heart. Even while he
was a graduate student in the U.S. he entered international
conducting competitions. The first one was Besamcon in France which
he took second place. He also went to Japan and another European
international competition and placed highly in both. We always kept
in touch with each other no matter where we were and sometimes met
in New York or Boston and once he drove all the way down to North
Carolina where I lived to visit me. After he graduated, he became
the assistant conductor of Baltimore Symphony and then the Associate
conductor of Detroit Symphony. Eventually he landed the main
conductorship of Singapore Symphony and has been in that position
for 20 years. During these years he was also engaged to conduct in
many European countries. The last time we met was when he came to
Greensboro, N.C. for the Eastern Music Festival and conducted the
summer orchestra in 1997.
In the meantime I decided to enter Duke Divinity School in 1995 to
embark on a 4 years' study for the ministry with a Master of
Divinity degree. At that point, there are 4 Chou's in our family and
3 of us were engaged in college study! So one can imagine the
expense. My husband was the only bread winner! How vividly I still
recall, one night Shui Lan called me while I was at Duke Divinity
School in Durham, N.C. It was during finals and I was studying hard!
I told him I set the alarm clock every 2 hours so that I get up and
study 2 hours and then sleep 2 hours, so on, so forth. Lan asked me
why must I insist on getting A's, can't I have a C in a course once
in a while. I was already in my mid-50's in those days when I
embarked on my 4th degree. I told him that I must make all A's and
B's in order to stay on the Dean's List and enjoy full scholarship.
Duke is expensive! For the following seven semesters, Lan faithfully
sent me $3000 per semester to help with my tuition! Is the slate
clean? Did he pay me back all that I had supported him during his
years in Boston? No one knows because we did not keep record.
But all these years we never lost touch. There would be an e-mail
or a phone call. Many times Lan invited me to wherever he is
conducting to hear him. The first time was in the winter of 1995 at
his inaugural concert with Detroit Symphony. He did a super job!
Then, as I mentioned, I heard him again in Greensboro, N.C. 1997.
Since then he has invited me many times but I always had to decline.
My husband was elderly and required my care so I could not get away
easily. Now he has gone to heaven. When Shui Lan e-mailed me at the
beginning of this year, informing me that he will be guest
conducting Shanghai Symphony and would I come to the concert. He
will take care of my plane ticket. I really could not say "no"
anymore especially since some one arranged for me to have
accommodations with a lovely lady and also for me to have a concert
myself in Shanghai Normal University.
So on April 5th, Lan and I had a wonderful reunion in the new
Shanghai Symphony Hall in the conductor's room! That morning I came
to hear him rehearse. The years rolled away. It seemed just like
yesterday that I heard him conduct a summer orchestra for the
Eastern Music Festival in North Carolina. Now he is a mature artist,
a maestro with finesse and control. The orchestra is a willing
instrument under his baton. On April 8th the night of his concert I
stepped into the new Symphony hall (new to me because I have not
performed in Shanghai for exactly 10 years!). The last time I played
in Shanghai was in the old Symphony Hall.
I know how hard Lan has worked-- the thousands of hours of preparing the
score. The concert was magical. The sound of the orchestra was so
much improved from the rehearsal that I heard. I was particularly
impressed with the performance of the second half: the almost hour
long Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 1 which Shui Lan conducted from
memory. He has total control of the orchestra. One can tell every
member in the orchestra was following his direction -- the sound was
incredible! So much improved from just a few days ago at rehearsal!
Each movement got better than the one before, which seemed
impossible because how do you improve on perfection!? Shui Lan has
total control of the music and the orchestra. He is indeed a master!
I cannot describe the pride that filled my heart. If I didn't do
anything else right except giving a genius like Lan a helping hand
when he needed it--I have fulfilled my purpose in life. I can still
recall my selling an antique jade ring given to me by Mrs. Alexander
Tcherepnin (Lee Hsien Ming--the first woman graduate of Shanghai
Conservatory, who was my teacher, mentor, and godmother) because Lan
as a student needed dental work. I am particularly gratified because
success has not changed Lan as a person. He is still so pleasant and
humble and do not put on airs. I have always believed that to be a
great musician you must first be a great human being. For we play
what we are, said the most famous teacher of Juilliard, Madame
Lhevinne. Beautiful music only pours forth from a noble soul.
When I bought my 7' Fazioli grand piano 10 years ago, a hand-made
piano that cost a lot of money, I had to borrow $20,000 from Lan. Of
course I paid him back within a year or two. But between us there is
a bond of friendship and no favor is too big to ask.
When one made a good investment in realty or other material
things, it is a good feeling. But what can surpass the true joy and
satisfaction of investing in a worthwhile person?