Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, August 24, 1999

Nancy Wilcox photo
Bass trombone player Choi Sau Yin rehearses
at the Asian Youth Orchestra's annual summer camp.

A musical

A unique, tuition-free summer
experience gives young people
from throughout Asia the chance
to study with music masters
from around the world

By Tim Ryan


HONG KONG -- Raymond Sarreal sits in a green and black chair gently blowing into an old flute on the cluttered second-floor hallway of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. The dark eyes of the promising 13-year-old Philippines musician appear crossed as he watches his fingers manipulate the flute while trying desperately to capture the notes teacher Bernard Goldberg has patiently prodded him to find.

Sarreal, the youngest member of this year's renowned Asian Youth Orchestra, doesn't seem bothered by the faint cacophony of orchestral sounds from the 15 music rooms lining the hall, teachers' instructions to students, even some laughter.

Sarreal over and over again attempts to find the note, frowning and shaking his head. Several minutes pass and the boy's eyes sparkle when he hits the chord.

"Yes, yes," the boy says with a grin.

Nancy Wilcox photo
Flutist Raymond Sarreal rehearses at the Asian
Youth Orchestra's annual summer camp.

Sarreal, like the other 105 members of the AYO, is part of a remarkable experiment conducted in a unique musical laboratory. A decade ago, American Richard Pontzious, a musician and former music critic for the San Francisco Examiner, wanted to stem the talent drain of fine young Asian musicians to the West and instill a pride for what can be achieved by Asian musicians in Asia, as well as develop opportunities for exchange and study with top international artists.

The result was the AYO, which this year has musicians ages 15 to 25 from 11 Asian countries: China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The musicians were chosen from among nearly 2,000 applicants in competitive auditions.

The players work together for up to seven weeks each summer -- this year meeting in Hong Kong -- with the first three weeks devoted to rehearsing and the rest of the time touring. The AYO will complete its Japan, Canada and U.S. tour in Hawaii with its first-ever concerts here Friday and Saturday at the Waikiki Shell and Blaisdell Concert Hall, respectively, presented by the Honolulu Symphony.

Nancy Wilcox photo
Bernard Goldberg has been instructing flute
students with the orchestra for five years.

Over the last nine seasons, AYO tours have brought the orchestra together with artists like Yo-Yo Ma, Elly Ameling, Leon Fleischer and Andre-Michel Schub. Conductors have included Yehudi Menuhin, Lukas Foss and the Honolulu Symphony's Sam Wong. The orchestra has performed in the White House, Hollywood Bowl, Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, Berlin's Schauspielhaus and New York's Avery Fisher Hall.

The orchestra played for the events marking the 1997 reunification of Hong Kong with China; in 1996, it traveled to Vietnam to become the first international orchestra in more than 50 years to perform in Hanoi.

Sarreal is the youngest member ever chosen for AYO and below the age limit of 15, but Pontzious was so taken by the youth's talent he arranged to have him attend the camp although he is not touring with the orchestra.

What Sarreal was most interested in anyway was the orchestra's tuition-free summer program, which allowed him to study with faculty from the Boston Symphony, Boston Musica Viva, Cleveland Orchestra, Empire Brass, Yale University, Indiana University, the Juilliard School, New England Conservatory of Music, University of Southern California, and the orchestras of San Francisco, Houston and Vancouver, B.C.

"Coming here is such for a dream for me," the boy said. "It is the first time I have ever played with an orchestra; I always play alone so I never know how to combine with others."

But Sarreal does not plan a career in music.

"It is very difficult to earn a living in the Philippines as a musician," said Sarreal. "My parents want me to be an engineer to live a good life.

"I have learned so much here about music that isn't taught back home. Mr. Goldberg has taught me skills I need to accomplish because I will always love music."

By the final week of rehearsals, teachers and students have become an ohana. Rehearsals begin early in the morning and continue through late afternoon.

Goldberg, 76, in his fifth year with AYO, started playing the flute at 11 and spent 46 years with the Pittsburg Symphony. There are five flute players in Goldberg's AYO class this year.

Clustered in a corner of Goldberg's classroom, Chuang Suet Wah, 20, of Hong Kong; Chen Li Fang, 19, of Taiwan; and Zhou Jia Yin, of China, discuss in English how the teacher wants them to play "in sync." The rehearsal camp roommates giggle as they try again and again, just missing the effort.

"We only met a few weeks ago and any differences we may have had have disappeared because we focus only on music," Chen said.

Nancy Wilcox photo
Rehearsal conductor Helen Cha-Pyo gets the
orchestra ready for maestro Sergiu Comissiona.

"Music is the bond; nothing else matters," Zhou interrupts.

Goldberg says the students are so eager to learn "they do everything you want them to do and quickly. They understand how precious little time there is here."

Then the career musician chokes back tears. "I love these kids," he says. "Can you imagine the joy it gives everyone involved in this?"

Thailand trumpet player Letkiat Chingjirajitra, 23, was 12 when he started playing a trumpet.

"A teacher gave it to me," said Chingjirajitra, attending AYO for the third year. "I had no choice, but I have learned to like it very much.

"In Thailand we have few classical music teachers so I am mostly self-taught; mostly I have had to guess how to do things," said Chingjirajitra who now teaches music and plays with the Bangkok Symphony. "I can make a living if I can play with the symphony every month. It is not often like that."

Trumpet teacher Edmund Cord, a music instructor at Indiana University in his sixth year with AYO, has had Chingjirajitra as a student all three years.

"He has had tremendous growth," said Cord. "When he first arrived he was very raw."

Cord said the "remarkable aspect" of AYO is that "every single student has the attitude that this is a special opportunity and they really want to learn.

"I refer to (Chingjirajitra) as the spiritual leader of the trumpet section because he's not only quick to absorb most fundamental lessons but the profound things as well."

And it is that enthusiasm for learning that echoes through the halls of the Performing Arts building. Even during the brief breaks between classes, at lunch, before and right after full orchestra rehearsals, students are practicing or discussing lessons.

Nancy Wilcox photo
Viola instructor Liu Yun Jie rehearses
with an unidentified student.

"I never knew what my musical gift was before I came to AYO," Chingjirajitra said. "Now, when I go back to Thailand I can show what I have learned. It is here that I can think only about playing."

One of AYO's goals, Pontzious emphasized, is to help develop classical music skills in those countries with less developed instruction, like the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.

"In just 10 years, members of AYO have grown to be leaders of the arts in Malaysia, to conduct in Romania and Portugal, to transform ideas of teaching and performance in Vietnam," he said.

Outside the rehearsal hall, Le Hoai Nam, 19, from Vietnam, plays his violin alongside Lee Chen Jui, 22, of Taiwan. Nam is shy, soft-spoken, embarrassed about expressing his feelings. Jui is forceful, directed, self assured, even a bit impatient.

Violin playing is the equalizer. The pair are the first musicians from their countries to be selected as AYO concertmasters.

"I think my selection is a mistake," says Nam, in his fourth AYO trip. "I have so very much to learn."

Nam was taught, beginning at age 5, by his father, who played violin with the Vietnam Symphony.

Jui was not as surprised by her selection for a fifth time. She started playing piano at age 4 before starting violin at 8. She dropped the piano when she entered the university five years ago.

"When I was a little girl my father used to wake me up every day to Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons,' " said Jui, who will remain in the United States to study music after the AYO tour. "The standards of music training are much higher at AYO than in Taiwan."

In a room packed with clarinet players, instructor Guy Chadash leans over a muscular Pang Liang, 20, of China, who has been switched from clarinet to bass clarinet.

"He's the only one in the group (of four) with the strength and breath to be able to do it right," Chadash says during a recess. "He overpowers (the clarinet) so the bass will utilize that power properly. He's not happy about the switch ... yet."

Liang, who speaks through an interpreter, has been playing clarinet for 10 years after his family "just happened" to find the instrument at home. "The clarinet is very popular in China," said Liang. "AYO has given me the chance to learn techniques I never knew existed. The more I play (the bass clarinet) the more meaningful it becomes to me."

Rehearsal conductor Helen H. Cha-Pyo in a rehearsal hall is putting the full AYO orchestra through its paces before music director and conductor Sergiu Comissiona takes over. Cha-Pyo is principal conductor and associate director of music for New York's famed Riverside Church.

Students are dressed in a mixture of jeans, heels, tennis shoes and slippers, T-shirts and windbreakers. There's some nervous laughter and chatter until Cha-Pyo strikes the podium with her baton.

"I get them ready for the maestro," says Cha-Pyo, the first female Asian conductor most of the students have ever seen. "I know all the ingredients and I have to chop things up and prepare them so maestro doesn't have to do preliminary work."

When Cha-Pyo first addresses the group, some, including co-concertmaster Nam, look down. That's a cultural attitude, Cha-Pyo explains later.

"Some people are taught that it's disrespectful to look in their teachers' eyes or talk to them. But in conducting, when I look at the first oboe I want him to look right at me so I know he's listening."

Cha-Pyo tells Nam "Look at me when I talk; it's OK."

Cha-Pyo appreciates various Asian cultural attitudes "but when we're in a mass rehearsal we speak only one language; and that's music. I have to get them to play as an ensemble since most were trained as solo musicians. We develop their ears to learn what it means to blend in, to be part of this large wonderful sound, to show them that it doesn't compromise quality."

Several days of strenuous rehearsals in preparation for two evening performances before Hong Kong's elite at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall in Kowloon has created a buzz of excitement and nervousness among students and teachers.

An hour before the concert, maestro Comissiona rehearses the group again. This time, all the students' eyes focus on the unsmiling conductor, watching every movement; the group plays as one. The rehearsal even evokes a slight smile from Comissiona before he leaves the podium without a word.

Backstage, as the audience fills the hall, the student musicians are too nervous to eat, although they drink plenty of Evian water. Viola instructor Liu Yun Jie, associate principal viola of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, in a tuxedo, irons two of his students' wrinkled shirts.

"Part of the job," Jie says, laughing.

Co-concertmaster Jui and dozens of other female students gather in a large dressing room applying makeup, sometimes to each other, sometimes several times. Cheung Ying Hung, 20, of Hong Kong, polishes his tuba.

A perspiring Nam is cornered by violin instructors, sisters Alice and Eleanore Schoenfeld, who show him how to correct what has become a repetitive miscue. Nam smiles and nods; smiles and nods.

Liang photographs friends and teachers just minutes before the orchestra takes the stage, slipping the camera into his jacket pocket. As the group walks out, Liang gives an instructor a thumb's up; Nam clinches a fist then kisses his violin; Jui tilts her head back, brushes her short dark hair to the side, then makes a tight, elegant smile.

In the audience, flute teacher Goldberg follows the group's entrance. He scans the stage left to right, looks down, lets out a deep breath and closes his eyes.

When the first note of Beethoven's Concerto No. 3 in C minor is struck, Goldberg looks up beaming. His eyes are full open; and tears roll down both cheeks.

Asian Youth Orchestra

A Hawaii debut, featuring Sergiu Comissiona, conducting, and pianist Jon Nakamatsu

Bullet In concert: Friday, Waikiki Shell; Saturday, Blaisdell Center Concert Hall
Bullet Time: 7:30 p.m. both evenings
Bullet Tickets: $10-$25
Bullet Call: 538-8863
Bullet Honoring: Drs. Ben and A. Jess Shenson

Young Asian
musicians flourishing

Hong Kong -- The number of Asian children labeled as musical prodigies has increased significantly since 1980, not because they have more natural talent, but their education begins at an earlier age than Western children, they are more driven, and parents are intimately involved in the process, according to a recent gathering of music instructors, musicians and artistic directors.

A prodigy is defined as a child of highly unusual talent, or genius. Itzhak Perlman, the renowned violinist, says a prodigy is somebody who "can step up to the stage of Carnegie Hall and play with an orchestra one of the standard violin concertos with aplomb."

Perhaps the most significant factor is that more Asian parents see a musical career as an acceptable profession.

"If you just look at the sheer number of this young Asian talent, then it's true there are more prodigies today," said Helen H. Cha-Pyo, rehearsal conductor at the recent Asian Youth Orchestra Rehearsal Camp in Hong Kong. "I saw this trend in New York at the Juilliard School of Music even when I was a student there. And today, Asian students are the majority."

"Asian children are introduced to music at a much earlier age because a career in music is more acceptable to Asian families," Cha-Pyo said. "It's a pendulum swing. It certainly doesn't mean there aren't prodigies from other parts of the world as well."

For decades, Asians have excelled in math and science, but scholastic discipline "be it math or music is just on a higher level in some Asian countries than in the west," said the Korea-born Cha-Pyo, who came to the U.S. at 13.

"Our teaching methods are different, but at a certain age all students develop, equalizing any differences."

Bernard Goldberg, flute instructor at the AYO gathering and retired Pittsburg Symphony flutist, remembers when the most prodigious music students in the U.S. were Italian and Jewish children.

"Now when I conduct a youth orchestra in Pittsburg, sometimes the only musicians auditioning are Asians, not Caucasians," he said. "Asian families have decided their kids must play an instrument."

No ethnic group possesses a special talent for music over another, Goldberg and Cha-Pyo agreed.

"Musical talent exists every place, in all people," Goldberg said. "But the Asian approach to teaching is different philosophically from ours; that's the big difference.

"Asians seem to learn by rote. They just memorize the whole piece."

Wayne Rapier, an oboe instructor at AYO this year who has played with a number of U.S. symphonies, said Asian students "learn to play an instrument before they read music."

But it's the sheer number of Asian children studying classical music that puts them on top of the prodigy list, Rapier said.

"Sooner or later you're going to pick up somebody with a heckuva lot of talent," he said. "Asian children possess an undeniable eagerness to learn. They don't take education for granted."

Pianist Jon Nakamatsu, 30, a Van Cliburn gold medal winner in 1997 who will perform with the AYO Friday at the Waikiki Shell and Saturday at the Blaisdell Concert Hall, acknowledges more Asians are excelling in music.

"Once (Asian families) find out something good is coming out of a certain activity they ... go for it," said Nakamatsu, who lives in San Jose.

But Asian families also are seeing music not just as a profession but part of the overall education of "a complete person."

"Many Asian parents I meet on my tours know their kids won't be professional performers or teachers but want their children to have all the benefits a music education ties to it," he said.

Asian "prodigies" are the result of children being exposed to music at an early age when they are "more likely to reach peak potential sooner," Nakamatsu said.

Richard Pontzious, the AYO's artistic and executive director, said Asians' current musical prowess also can be attributed to Asia's appreciation for the arts.

"What kind of public school music programs are there in the United States these days? What programs are first to be cut? Is music education being nurtured in the United States like it is in Asia?"

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