A long mu­si­cal jour­ney to Carnegie Hall

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICAS - By AMY HE in New York amyhe@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

For cel­list Clara Tsang, the road to Carnegie Hall was paved with good in­ten­tions and many, many dis­ap­point­ments.

Hong Kong-raised Tsang played to an en­thu­si­as­tic crowd at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in New York on Tues­day, and the per­for­mance was an ac­cu­mu­la­tion of decades of lone­li­ness in her pur­suit of mu­sic.

Tsang’s cello per­for­mance of Sergei Rach­mani­nov’s Vo­calise, Op. 34, No. 14, Cello Sonata in G Mi­nor, Op. 19, and César Franck’s Cello Sonata marked her de­but in the US, a coun­try she hopes she can per­form in again in the fu­ture, but she isn’t go­ing to think much about the fu­ture yet.

“I have no spe­cific plans. I don’t plan,” she told China Daily. “Ev­ery­one thinks that I have all these plans, but that’s not the case.” Hav­ing no plan is the best plan, she said, be­cause plans go awry all the time.

Born in Hubei prov­ince, Tsang moved to Hong Kong with her par­ents when she was young be­cause of the op­por­tu­nity for work. But grow­ing up in Hong Kong was dif­fi­cult be­cause her par­ents didn’t have any fam­ily or friends and lacked re­sources, she said.

Tsang didn’t grow up with mu­sic; she fell into it ac­ci­den­tally. The first time she heard her el­e­men­tary school teacher play the piano, she was en­tranced. When she asked for lessons, her teacher told her it would re­quire money, money that Tsang’s par­ents didn’t have. She was told about in­stru­ment cour­ses that the govern­ment funded, so she ap­plied and tested, only to be told then that learn­ing the piano was not an op­tion.

Af­ter choos­ing the vi­o­lin as an al­ter­na­tive, Tsang was told that the cen­ter where she was go­ing to learn to play would close, and that if she wanted to learn an in­stru­ment at a dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tion, she would have to choose be­tween the cello and the dou­ble bass. Tsang ad­mit­ted that she chose the cello on whim — be­cause it looked more el­e­gant than the dou­ble bass — and thus her mu­sic jour­ney be­gan.

But re­sources were scarce and it took years be­fore Tsang could fi­nally learn how to play the cello. “I re­ally wanted to learn mu­sic but there was no­body to take care of me,” she said. “There was no­body to give me guid­ance.”

When she fi­nally was given the op­por­tu­nity to prop­erly learn, she had to play catch-up, prac­tic­ing for hours ev­ery day, “us­ing time to com­pen­sate,” she said. Even then, she didn’t have a method to her play­ing, hav­ing no foun­da­tion. But Tsang was se­ri­ous about the craft and per­sisted, even in times of ex­treme hard­ship. A half year be­fore she was ad­mit­ted into a mu­sic col­lege af­ter high school, her mother was di­ag­nosed with cancer, and her par­ents’ re­la­tion­ship un­rav­eled.

“At that age, I was so afraid. I felt apologetic to my mom be­cause dur­ing that time I was pre­par­ing for mu­sic school and I had no time to take care of her,” she said.

Mu­sic school it­self was a strug­gle too. Grow­ing up in a fi­nan­cially-strapped en­vi­ron­ment with par­ents who had no so­cial cir­cle and no spare time left Tsang un­pre­pared to deal with all the so­cial ex­pec­ta­tions of stu­dents her age, she said. She didn’t have the money to eat out or go shop­ping with friends, so she fun­neled all her en­ergy into study­ing and prac­tic­ing the cello.

Af­ter she grad­u­ated from the Hong Kong Academy for Per­form­ing Arts with a de­gree in mu­sic, Tsang said she worked “fever­ishly. I worked so much I be­came numb.” She taught classes, pri­vate lessons, free­lanced with or­ches­tras.

She de­cided she still wanted to pur­sue play­ing and was given the op­por­tu­nity to meet with an ac­claimed pro­fes­sor in Switzer­land. But upon ar­riv­ing, she was told that he may have taken her on as a stu­dent, but not at 27.

“He said that I couldn’t have a ca­reer at that age,” Tsang re­called. “I trav­eled all that way just to hear that. Mu­sic is so mer­ci­less.”

Tsang had es­tab­lished the Hong Kong Cel­list So­ci­ety as a way of bring­ing people in­ter­ested in clas­si­cal mu­sic to­gether. Af­ter the deeply dis­ap­point­ing meet­ing, she put her en­ergy into or­ga­niz­ing mu­sic events with the So­ci­ety, which cur­rently has more than 1,600 mem­bers, and en­cour­ag­ing people to per­form, on top of her other jobs.

For years she jug­gled this part of her mu­sic life, but Tsang said she still wanted more — to just per­form. So one day she went ahead and did it; she or­ga­nized four con­certs in 2013, which ul­ti­mately led her to Carnegie Hall.

An au­di­ence mem­ber at one of her Hong Kong con­certs sug­gested that she try to play in the US. She was granted a fel­low­ship by the Asian Cul­tural Coun­cil in New York and was in­vited to play at Carnegie.

“Ev­ery­one thought that maybe play­ing at Carnegie would be a huge pres­sure, but a week be­fore that, I per­formed in Hong Kong in prepa­ra­tion for the New York con­cert,” she said. “I played with the same mind­set I did in Hong Kong as I did at Carnegie Hall, so it re­ally doesn’t mat­ter where I play, I play just as hard every­where.”

AMY HE / CHINA DAILY

Hong Kong-raised cel­list Clara Tsang in front of Carnegie Hall, where she per­formed pieces by Sergei Rach­mani­nov and César Franck on Tues­day. Tsang founded the Hong Kong Cel­list So­ci­ety in 2004.

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