‘There has to be some risk in order to feel the thrill of performing’

Ahead of his LSO Eclectica performance on Friday 6 July, cellist Li-Wei Qin told us about his surprising first foray into the cello, the perils of playing along to sped-up Rostropovich recordings, and how he banished any nervousness when performing live at two Olympic games.

Li-Wei first picked up the cello as a practical joke

I first started to learn the piano when I was four years old. My mother was a professor of piano at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and my father was Principal cellist with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. When I was seven years old, my father played a practical joke on my mother when she was away on tour. He secretly had a small cello made and taught me how to play as a little surprise gift when my mother returned. She was really shocked when she walked through the door. She had only been away for two or three weeks, so I could only play something very simple, but it was enough for her to see some possibilities.

He performs on a 1780 Guadagnini cello

Obviously it’s a very old piece of wood and all the old Cremona Italian cellos are very special because, apart from the craftsmanship, it’s the varnish they’re famous for now. The projection on the instrument is very strong and yet this Guadagnini has quite a mellow and subtle voice. Unfortunately it’s not mine - it belongs to a private donor who very kindly loaned it to me over eight years ago. But it’s a cello I’m really used to, and now I can find multiple layers in its different sounds.

He has many special memories of studying and living in the UK

I’ve spent over ten years of my life living in England. I studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester for my Bachelor’s degree, and then at Guildhall in London. Since then, I have returned to teach at RNCM and was a lecturer at Guildhall.

I have a lot of beautiful memories of London and a lot of friends here, including Rebecca Gilliver [LSO Principal Cello], who was my classmate in Manchester. This trip to London is going to be very special, as I’m bringing my two sons. They were born in Singapore and haven’t been to London before. As I’m a big Chelsea fan, we’re going to go and see them play at Stamford Bridge. When I lived in Manchester, I lived quite close to Old Trafford. After a Manchester United game, it was such a nightmare to get through the crowds and back home after college. After that, I was never going to be a Man U fan!

A malfunctioning cassette player caused him to learn Haydn’s C Major Cello Concerto at super-speed 

My relationship with the Concerto has changed a great deal over the years. When I was younger, all I was aiming for was speed, and seeing how fast I could play it. When I was 12, I had a cassette tape of Rostropovich playing the concerto and I would sweat so hard trying to keep up with the recording on my own cello. And so I practised and practised and eventually I caught up to the speed. It was only later that I realised the rotation speed of the tape was set very high, and that’s why the piece was so fast!

Of course I’m over 40 now, and for me piece is really about collaboration, telling a story finding all the fascinating lines and voices in the piece. Even now after so many years of studying this work, I’m forever discovering, forever learning from it.

Haydn’s C Major Concerto is a very spirited and joyful concerto. As the ensemble will not be full-LSO size, it will be nice for the audience to hear the different dialogues within the music - Haydn’s famous for creating these interesting musical dialogues between the soloist and the orchestra.

Xiagonag Ye rearranged his Poem of China for Li-Wei and the LSO Ensemble

Poem of China is quite an early composition of his, and was originally scored for the cello and the piano. This is the first time that we’re going to hear it with the chamber orchestra. Maestro Ye actually rearranged it for the cello and the chamber orchestra specially for this project with LSO. And it’s a piece that is full of different colours. One has to have a strong internal vision when listening to to Poem of China because it describes a collection of different regions in China. The first part is very melodic, contemporary, and very much southern China. It’s like a walk near a lake – very zen, very calming. And then the second part of the piece is very fast and quite technical. It’s very absorbing and captures whole spirit of a robust and rustic folk-dance.

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Li-Wei made his LSO debut last year with composer and conductor Tan Dun

When I was studying in London, everybody thought that, once you have played with the LSO, you’ve made it. And luckily I made my debut with LSO last November with maestro Tan Dun at the Barbican. Little did I know that six months later I would be working with the orchestra again.

When we began rehearsing, we started with the Haydn. It was one of the most inspirational starts from an orchestra which really inspired me to do my best. And of course the Orchestra version of Ye Xiagong’s Poem of China was a world premiere when we performed it in China two weeks ago. Everything went incredibly well and the piece began with the beautiful opening section, and concluded with the most exciting finale. I had a great time and I’m very much looking forward to the second outing with the LSO in London.

How he kept his cool when performing at two Olympic games and two BBC Proms

First, I kept on telling myself that it makes no difference if it’s one person or ten thousand people down there. You just dive into the music-making rather than worrying about how many people are there watching or listening to you.

And second, music – or any form of art – is not art if it’s not risk-taking. It’s always about taking some risks and enjoying the ride. In all forms, we have to challenge the conventional way of thinking, and to live on the edge a little. There has to be some risk in order to feel the thrill of performing. So I always keep those two points in my head before I perform a piece even to the biggest audience, it helps me a lot.

The advice he gives to young cellists

I think this is actually true for all musicians, you have to love it. Because there are always going to be days when you’re sitting at home, with your next concert weeks away. But because you love it so much, you actually can’t stop yourself practicing and playing it. And that will generate a lot of new opportunities – in learning new repertoire, or learning to play cello music with different people – because you have the hunger for new things on the instrument and new music.

Hear Li-Wei Qin with the LSO Ensemble on Friday 6 July at LSO St Luke's. Fusing Chinese folk music with classical compositions, the concert brings together pieces by Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Ye Xiaogang, and Raymond Yiu.
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