One of the most globally renowned Chinese musicians, cellist Wang Jian is back home in Shanghai.
The 54-year-old musician has been active in the international music scene for decades. He first came to public attention in 1981 as the serious-looking little boy holding on to the cello that seemed too big for his arms in the Academy Award-winning documentary From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China.
Through the past decades he has had a successful career, performing with leading orchestras all over the world, such as the London Symphony, Zurich Tonhalle, NDR Elbphilharmonie, and Stockholm Philharmonic, among others.
In March, he moved back from Europe to Shanghai with his family, taking a teaching job at the string department of his alma mater, the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Last week, his grand comeback concert with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Salute to Wang Jian, took place at the Shanghai Symphony Hall, when he played Hymnus for 12 Cellos by German composer and cellist Julius Klengel with the 11-piece cello section of the orchestra.
"It was musicians like Wang Jian that showed the world Chinese culture and music since China's reform and opening-up," says Yu Long, artistic director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and conductor of the concert.
On Friday, Wang gives a recital with pianist Xue Yingjia at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center.
"I have been returning frequently to Shanghai in the past 10 years, and witnessed the great changes in China," Wang says ahead of the concert at the Shanghai Symphony Hall. "Ten years ago I would not have been able to give a cello recital," he says, as chamber music did not attract an audience in those days.
China has made dramatic progress in the socioeconomic development and the cultural scene has seen rapid growth in audiences for classical music.
Tickets for his recital at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center sold out within two hours.
He recalls that his father, who taught him the basics of the cello when he was 4, used to take him swimming in winter, at the outdoor diving pool located at today's Shanghai Symphony Hall. "It was bone-piercing cold," he says. "But it really benefited my health."
Wang moved to Shanghai from Xi'an, Shaanxi province, at 4, to live with his father who was a cellist with the yangbanxi (model play) troupe under the Shanghai Peking Opera Theatre. It was, at that time, one of the most important cultural institutions in China, and it provided a venue where a large number of outstanding musicians, singers and composers could work together.
His mother, a flutist who graduated from the Xi'an Conservatory of Music, managed to join them in Shanghai nine years later.
To keep his toddler son company, his father borrowed a viola from a colleague, so that the boy could imitate him when he practiced on the cello. That was how Wang began to learn to play the instrument. The dormitory room where he lived with his father was so tiny that he had to practice in the courtyard.
When he was 9, Wang was enrolled into the primary school attached to Shanghai Conservatory of Music. He was an outstanding student, and was often sent to perform for important foreign visitors to the city. In 1979, Isaac Stern, a celebrated violinist from the United States made a historical visit to China. Wang saw him at school.
He had no idea whom the maestro violinist was, because at that time Chinese students only had access to classical music from Russia. He remembered the musician in an orange shirt, his face red from the sunburn, with a pair of glasses pushed to the forehead.
The boy only played a few stanzas when Stern called on the camera team to come over. "They rushed up, turned on the flash and while I played on, Mr Stern kept applauding, and saying 'bravo!'"
In 1981, the documentary about Stern's visit — From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China — was released and won an Oscar for the best documentary. Wang became known internationally as the child prodigy playing the cello with a big frown and his eyes often closed.
"I had this bitter and serious look since I was a child," Wang told the media recently. "Such facial expressions even I didn't like. But then I realized it reveals my effort. … When you play you have to open your heart and remove all the masks, so that you concentrate on the deepest and strongest emotion from the bottom of your heart. You can't possibly have a smile on your face at times like this."
In 1981, Wang played with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra for the first time. It was a concert for Children's Day, and he was picked by the conductor Huang Yijun to play a concerto by Camille Saint-Saens. "Those grandpas with the orchestra asked how old I was and I said 12.They said 'no way, you must have a girlfriend. You have the feelings of a grown-up, and a grown-up who had suffered'."
In 1985, he went to the US where he studied with the renowned cellist Aldo Parisot at Yale University for eight years. In 1992, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra went on a tour to Europe and Wang joined the company as a soloist. The next year, he completed his studies and came back to Shanghai to play with the orchestra again.
Now that he is back home, Wang hopes to play more concerts, and take more cello music to cities that he has never been to before.
"There are all these new concert halls, and people are picking up new aesthetic interests for chamber music. We will be able to bring more pieces that were previously never heard there," he says.