What Chairman Mao has to do with The Academy Awards and extracting passion from the cello.
It’s been a big week for music here at Brain Pickings. We started with 7 must-read books about music, emotion and the brain, then bowed before the deeply inspiring YouTube Symphony Orchestra, which brought together 101 of the world’s most talented amateur classical musicians in one remarkable performance, followed by a fascinating look at how musicians experience emotion. Today, we turn to a powerful testament to the cross-cultural power of music and a bridge-builder and heart-opener.
In 1979, shortly after the death of Chairman Mao, China reopened its doors to the West and the Chinese government invited iconic American violin virtuoso Isaac Stern to visit for a recital. But his visit soon turned into a full-blown goodwill tour, as Stern ended up playing a formal concert, touring two cities and, driven by his overwhelming love of music, teaching a number of classes to Chinese musicians, many of whom children. From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China tells the amazing story of Stern’s journey with beauty and tenderness as these two cultures collide and caress, from the inspirational encounter with a gifted adolescent cellist to the heartbreaking portrait of violinmaker imprisoned for over a year for the crime of crafting Western instruments. Interwoven with the musical story is a fascinating parallel narrative and rare glimpse of the Chinese countryside, culture and people at a pivotal moment in history after the final dismantling of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Stern’s style — passionate, empathic, lived to the bone — comes in stark contrast with the meticulously technical approach of the Chinese, but the warmth of their transformative exchange and the way in which the music brings them together bespeak a universal human language that transcends geography, politics and credo.
Their approach to Western classical music was somewhat limited. They were not accustomed to playing with passion and variety of color. They had an old-fashioned technical approach towards the manner in which they played their instruments, but with an almost instant understanding and reaction to a given musical stimulus, once they were shown what might be done.” ~ Isaac Stern
The film, which won the 1981 Academy Award for best documentary, is now available online in its entirety and we couldn’t recommend it more as your weekend viewing.
The DVD also features a wonderful postcript, Musical Encounters, chronicling Stern’s return to Beijing two decades later as he catches up with Wang, the young cellist, who by that point had made a name for himself as a successful international recording artist.
For a related cross-cultural bridge via classical music, don’t miss Herbie Hancock and Lang Lang’s incredible collaborative performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, which took place exactly two decades after Stern’s visit to China.