Ap­pas­sion­ato: A life en­riched by mu­sic, and vice versa

China Daily (Canada) - - EXPATS - By CE­CILY LIU ce­cily.liu@chi­nadaily.com.cn

There are few greater gifts than to dis­cover one’s true pas­sion in life. As such, the award­win­ning Chi­nese bass-bari­tone Charles Cao Quin said mu­sic has brought joy to his life — but only now, af­ter the var­ied ex­pe­ri­ences he has had over time, has he been able to fully com­pre­hend and take ad­van­tage of his mu­si­cal abil­i­ties to the fullest.

“I have much to be grate­ful for. It (mu­sic) has given me pur­pose, ac­com­plish­ment, and spir­i­tual well-be­ing,” said Cao, 58. He cred­its much of his per­sonal de­vel­op­ment to his pas­sion for mu­sic, and be­lieves his ap­pre­ci­a­tion and un­der­stand­ing of the art has im­proved with time.

While he has taken part in nu­mer­ous per­for­mances both at home and abroad, on Sept 13, for the first time, he will sing with the Lon­don Chi­nese Phil­har­monic Choir, stag­ing a con­cert in Lon­don to com­mem­o­rate the 70th an­niver­sary of the end of World War II.

It will be the pre­miere in the United King­dom of The Yel­low River Can­tata, writ­ten by Chi­nese com­poser Xian Xing­hai in 1939, set dur­ing the War of Re­sis­tance against Ja­panese Ag­gres­sion (1937-45).

Born in Bei­jing, Cao ini­tially went to Bri­tain at age 28, in 1986, to take part in the Grimsby In­ter­na­tional Com­pe­ti­tion for Singers rep­re­sent­ing China. Hard work and a sen­sa­tional voice won him first prize, much to the amaze­ment of the Bri­tish mu­sic com­mu­nity. It changed his life.

Af­ter­ward, he ac­cepted a schol­ar­ship to study at Lon­don’s pres­ti­gious Royal Col­lege of Mu­sic be­fore be­com­ing a free­lance mu­si­cian, per­former and voice tu­tor for a decade — pro­fes­sions that took him all over the coun­try and be­yond.

Fate took another turn for Cao in 2000, when he spent a cou­ple of years in China on a schol­ar­ship as a spe­cially ap­pointed pro­fes­sor with a se­nior man­age­ment po­si­tion.

Then, in 2002, he ac­cepted a new chal­lenge as di­rec­tor of the East Coast Mu­sic Academy in Grimsby. Since then, he has been vice prin­ci­pal at the Grimsby In­sti­tute of Fur­ther and Higher Ed­u­ca­tion, Croy­don Col­lege near Lon­don, and at War­wick­shire Col­lege in the Mid­lands, and has worked in­de­pen­dently as an ed­u­ca­tion spe­cial­ist.

De­spite the shift from pro­fes­sional mu­si­cian to teach­ing, Cao said he has al­ways found joy in mu­sic. “Mu­sic is a re­flec­tion of life, for it takes the most dra­matic emo­tions from life ex­pe­ri­ences. As a young man, I thought I un­der­stood the mean­ings be­hind songs. But look­ing back now, I was merely singing the words,” he said.

In Septem­ber’s con­cert, Cao will sing the solo Ode to the Yel­low River, which praises the history and pres­ence of China’s Yel­low River, sig­ni­fy­ing cul­tural pride.

While it’s a song Cao per­formed many times in China be­fore he left for the UK, he said that this time will be dif­fer­ent. Af­ter three decades of liv­ing over­seas, singing the fa­mil­iar words have made him feel nos­tal­gic. Cao said he has seen how China has be­come a stronger na­tion, and his pride comes through when he sings the words.

“When Ode to the Yel­low River was writ­ten, the words rep­re­sented the mu­si­cian’s dream and his hope of China achiev­ing great strength some­time in the fu­ture. How­ever, singing them now, I know this dream has be­come re­al­ity. I now sing with con­fi­dence and pride.”

He likens the role of the per­former to that of the crafts­man, who tire­lessly strives for per­fec­tion, and in the process adds his own in­ter­pre­ta­tion and artis­tic style.

“The mu­sic is the same, but ev­ery per­former’s artis­tic treat­ment of it is dif­fer­ent. Ev­ery pause, punc­tu­a­tion and the loud­ness of the words can con­vey some­thing spe­cial about the per­former’s own unique emo­tions,” said Cao.

He pointed out that a per­former can­not fo­cus his time purely on the words and mu­sic on the page, but needs to use his life ex­pe­ri­ences to bring depth and in­ten­sity to his mu­sic. Look­ing back at all his ups and downs, Cao said his life never lacked va­ri­ety, which made him a bet­ter mu­si­cian.

Born into a mu­si­cal fam­ily, he was inspired by his un­cle, a Chi­nese vo­cal pro­fes­sor and also an out­stand­ing bari­tone who be­came his tu­tor dur­ing his days at univer­sity.

Be­fore go­ing to the UK, Cao was a soloist with the Bei­jing Song, Dance and Opera Com­pany and sang with the Bei­jing Sym­phony Or­ches­tra, where he was ap­pointed and re­mains an artis­tic ad­viser since 1998.

He re­flected that he fur­ther dis­cov­ered the depth and breadth of clas­si­cal mu­sic dur­ing his time at the Royal Col­lege of Mu­sic in Lon­don, where he also fell in love with English mu­sic.

“English mu­sic is very dis­tinct from con­ti­nen­tal Euro­pean mu­sic. I per­son­ally feel that the English lan­guage is highly syn­chro­nized with the mu­sic that great English com­posers have writ­ten, and I ad­mire them enor­mously,” Cao said.

But his fa­vorite is still Ital­ian com­poser Giuseppe Verdi, whose op­eras’ dra­matic qual­i­ties con­tinue to in­spire him.

From 1996 to 2000, Cao of­ten pre­sented weekly mu­sic pro­grams for the BBC World Ser­vice, and from 2004 to 2010, he gave Chi­nese lan­guage com­men­tary for the BBC Proms con­cert live from the Royal Al­bert Hall in Lon­don to a Chi­nese au­di­ence ev­ery sum­mer.

Cao said he has also de­rived great en­joy­ment from watch­ing his stu­dents grow in their mu­si­cal ca­reers and be­come con­fi­dent in­di­vid­u­als in the process.

In man­age­ment, Cao has done a great deal to help stu­dents from China, in ad­di­tion to pro­mot­ing Sino-Bri­tish co­op­er­a­tion through ed­u­ca­tion.

Per­haps some of Cao’s care for his stu­dents re­flects his role as a fa­ther, and speak­ing about his own four chil­dren, his eyes sparkle with pride.

“I love my chil­dren, and it makes me proud to see them grow­ing up and hav­ing a life of their own. I have so many rea­sons to be happy about life, and one of my great­est joys is see­ing that my chil­dren have been inspired by my pas­sion for mu­sic in their drive to suc­ceed in what­ever they do.”


Charles Cao Quin said the mu­sic is the same, but ev­ery per­former’s artis­tic treat­ment of it is dif­fer­ent.

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