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Interview with Li Biao

Release time:2014-02-13Views:
My first encounter with Chinese Percussionist Li Biao won me over by storm. Visiting the Philharmonie Essen, Biao performed the Rite of Mountains" by his friend Guo Wenjing. For its entire duration, performer, composer and the audience, mostly composed of compatriots, were united in a whirlwind of grief and painful memories, collectively haunted by horrific images of the great earthquake whose tremors shook the nation. A hybrid of orchestral impulses and ferocious Percussion sequences, the Rite of Mountains" is as a work with a highly personal and regional background but a universal message - and its impact was fortified by following it up by heartbreaking instrumental "for eddi", written by Li Biao himself in the aftermath of the disaster. Despite the emotional intensity of the evening, the concert was essentially an insider event - a surprise perhaps, as Biao has played in front of vast audiences before. He reached millions with his performance at the closing ceremony of the 2008 Olympics, for example and has several extensive tours through Asia and Europe to his credit. A former student at Moscow University, Biao now divides his time between Berlin and Beijing, bridging the divide between the East and the West. introducing the public to works by some of the most promising contemporary Chinse composers - and taking them with the same stormy presence he displayed in Essen.

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Thanks, I am fine, I am now in Guangzhou (in the South of China) for several concerts.

What's on your schedule at the moment?
At the moment, I'm on a a Summer concert tour with my percussion ensemble in seven cities of China. Later in October, we will have another tour in eight cities of China, which will include the new National Grand Theater in Beijing, the Shanghai concert hall etc.

Your recent performance at the Philharmonic Essen was greeted with great enthusiasm. What makes it so enticing for you to perform at the Alfried-Krupp-Saal?
It was my fourth time to perform in this wonderful hall, the 1st time was my recital, 2nd time was Li Biao with friends and 3rd time I played a marimba concert with the Polish Chamber Orchestra. I really like to play here, and enjoy the acoustics very much.

The centerpiece of the evening was Guo Wenjing's The Rite of Mountains? In how much were you able to communicate directly with the composer about interpretational matters while preparing for the performance?
Guo Wen Jing composed this concert piece for me, he is a very well known composer in China, even overseas. We talked a lot about the instrumentation and music before he started composing the piece. I wanted to have some really Chinese sound in this piece (like the Chinese gong in the 2nd movement: ). He was working very hard for this piece, the original music was more than 45 minutes. After the 1st performance, both of us thought we needed to cut some parts. The final version was eventually finished four days before our Europe tour started in April this year.

How did you prepare for the performance?
I like Guo's music very much. This piece is very different than his other piece. It needs more time to read the score, and one must have a sound picture?of this concert. I studied it very hard. I now even know the score better than Guo himself when I play with orchestra. I think more about music myself when it inspires me very deeply.

To me, there was also a strong ecstatic element in the music and an electrifying, almost upbeat energy ...
Guo told me, that except of sorrow he felt anger when he wrote this movement. That's because of the shoddy school building, which first leaned and then collapsed during the quake. That finally caused so many lovely children deaths? Sorrow, anger, rite and hope were the center points he wanted to express to the audience.

When performing live, I was under the impression that you weren't actually looking at the Gongs while playing them in the high-tempo sections ...
This piece was very special for me, because the play technique is not normal. Normally I take four mallets to play a mallet-instrument of percussion, but this time I had to play four different mallets at the same time on ten gongs. Guo wrote three "play areas" for each gong which means that from each gong I can make twelve different colors of tine. It is very hard at the beginning of the practice. I spent three days for choosing the instrument, and two days to test the different mallets, and finally three weeks only for practicing this movement. Of course, I also spent lots of time for the other two movements -- but I practiced this movement the hardest, now I play this music from memory.

Guo Wenjing was just one of three Chinese composers on the program that night. How would you describe the scene for Contemporary Composition of the country at the moment? 
Two of those composers that night composed a concert for me, Guo and Fang Ke Jie composed a timpani concert for me. We performed in China and recorded this piece on CD and DVD. The contemporary music scene in China today is very active. In Beijing, we have a yearly contemporary music festival and some composers' meetings, but for such a big country, we even need to activate more for contemporary music. Contemporary painting is very popular in China today. I hope in future contemporary music can get more support from the government. 
In total there were five Chinese leading composers, who wrote percussion concerts for me, and I performed all those pieces - and most parts were recorded on CD. As for the next composition I will be working with Fang Ke Jie for a new marimba concert.

You currently divide your time between Berlin and Beijing, two cities with unique and distinct musical traditions. How would you describe your relationship with the two?
I still think like a classical musician: Berlin is the best area for concerts and education. Sometimes I go the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra to listen to a concert. I am enjoying it very much as well as teaching at the Hanns Eisler Hochschule fur Musik. I think we have one of the best combinations for the teaching staff of percussion. I teach solo and ensemble percussion, the other two teachers teach the orchestra instruments. They are both from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. In Beijing, I still need to teach all. For me this is extreme work: the classical percussion is still a very young profession in China. It takes more time to establish a basis. I like both cities.

By Tobias Fischer