Appassionato: A life enriched by music, and vice versa
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.