Friday, September 11, 2009

Sylvia Shu-te Lee’s violin students fall into fond reminiscences as her 80th birthday approaches

By Nancy T. Lu

When violinists Lin Cho-liang, Hu Nai-yuan, Hsin Ming-feng, Chen Tai-chi and Michael Wei-chung Shih along with bassist Cho Han-han gathered on Thursday, September 10, to begin the countdown to the big celebration of the 80th birthday of their beloved music mentor, Sylvia Shu-te Lee, first in her hometown of Pingtung on September 12 and then at the National Concert Hall in Taipei on September 13, vivid memories of their childhoods came back in a flash. Laughter accompanied their walk down Memory Lane.

New York-based violinist Hu Nai-yuan, often asked to talk about his childhood days as Lee’s pupil, had one favorite account, which frequently sent everyone laughing out loud. He recounted with mischief: “In those days, parents gathered under the stairs while their children went through violin lessons with their strict music teacher on the second floor. The parents waited anxiously for the teacher to lose her patience and start throwing down the score sheets, then the bows of the violins, and finally the boys themselves for them to catch.”

Lee, listening closely, interrupted, saying: “You are ruining my reputation!”

Hu’s career really kicked off after he won first prize at the Queen Elisabeth International Violin Competition in Brussels, Belgium, many years ago.

Regarding Sylvia Shu-te Lee’s strictness, some of her disappointing students were not spared the rod.

Lin Cho-liang revealed proudly that, according to his mom, he was never on the receiving end of such physical punishment due to poor performance. But Lin described on hindsight the only occasion when Lee was driven to beat him. His disobedience was the reason.

The gifted children taught by Lee had the honor to play at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1969, the year the concert venue was inaugurated. Lee took the group of children to Manila.

“On this trip,” remembered Lin Cho-liang, “I was told not to go swimming. But refusing to heed advice, I went ahead and jumped into the swimming pool. Because I strayed unknowingly into the deep part of the pool, I nearly drowned. Somebody had to get into the water to rescue me. Guess what, I nearly lost my life but I still got beaten up by my teacher.”

Apparently Lee at that time was extremely frightened by such close shave. The boys under her care were like her own children.

Hsin Ming-feng, first violinist of the New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, had a funny anecdote to add to the Philippine tour experience. He recalled: “For some reason, I was always asked to sing a patriotic song for encore at the end of a program.”

Lee’s earlier batch of students remembered very well her outings with them. She took them to the beach. The rambunctious kids got into trouble, ending up in the local police precinct. But they bowed their violins, entertaining and winning over the police officers on duty.

Michael Wei-chung Shih, Lee’s former student at Kuang Jen School and now concertmaster of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in Texas, said he never experienced such fun outings with his teacher. However, Shih has remained ever grateful to his mentor for encouraging him to find his own way to grow and develop as a violinist. Lee would put a hat on his head, affectionately telling him when he was still a child to relax whenever she found him to be too serious in learning to play the violin.

Now grown up with successful professional careers to make their teacher feel truly proud of them, many more musicians will return to play together like the “Little Angels” of a distant past at two concerts. Participants in the two performances will even include their children, also taught by Lee.

Did she think the orchestra was better than what it used to be? She was asked after a morning of rehearsal. “Maybe the adult violinists played much too fast for the children to catch up with them,” she quipped.

“Without our mentor, we would all not be where we are today,” remarked Chen Tai-chi, a second violinist of the Minnesota Orchestra.

The concert program drawn up by Lin Cho-liang since a year ago will include Seitz’s (arr. Hope, Lee) “Student Concerto No. 2 in G Major, Op. 13”; Accolay’s (arr. Hope, Lee) “Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor”; Piazzolla’s (arr. Milone) “Oblivion” and “Libertango”; Vivaldi’s “Concerto in b minor for Four Violins, Op. 3, No. 10 RV580”; Sarasate’s “Navarra for Two Violins and Orchestra, Op. 33”; Sarasate’s (arr. Milone) “Carmen Fantasy, Op. 25”; Maurer’s “Sinfonia Concertante in A Major, Op. 55, for Four Violins and Orchestra”; Fiocco’s (arr. Hope, Lee) “Allegro”; and Boehm’s (arr. Hope, Lee) “Perpetual Motion.”

The reminiscing about life with Sylvia Shu-te Lee will go on and on.

Top photo with Sylvia Shu-te Lee on the stage at the National Concert Hall was posted after the Taipei performance on Sunday, September 13. The other picture shows (from left) Hu Nai-yuan, Chen Tai-chi, Hsin Ming-feng, Michael Wei-chung Shih, Lin Cho-liang, and Cho Han-han rehearsing in Taipei for the program in honor of their teacher.

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