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Samuel Thompson

Zhang and Friends Music for the Planet

March 16, 2008 at 2:12 AM

On February 21, 2008 a member of the arts service organization Fractured Atlas wrote an article on emergency benefit concerts in which some very valid points were made, the most striking being that if the underlying causes of the problem for which the benefit concert is being held is not addressed, the problem will resurface.

Having organized and performed benefit concerts during the past few years, I did of course take pause to his statement and found myself agreeing in some ways - but the idea of "long-term care" - and "aftercare" as I call it - does seem to be something foreign to us in the United States.
More on that later, however, as this entry is not about "me". On Wednesday, March 12, 2008 the principality of Monaco witnessed the premiere of a new concert series. This concert, held in partnership with the National Museum of Monaco, was the first of the Zhang and Friends Music for the Planet Series, from which all proceeds will be directed to humanitarian and ecological causes.

Violinist Zhang Zhang, the creator of this series, and I have known each other since 1995 when we were both studying at the Shepherd School of Music. It is safe - at least - to call Zhang both a "fiddler's fiddler" and a "musician's musician": Zhang possesses a formidable technique and one of the best bow arms that I have seen, and in the three years during which we lived in the same city I heard Zhang perform works by Bach, Elgar, Debussy, Prokofieff, Ernst, Ysaye and Webern; however, the thing that we all remember about these performances outside of the "requirements of being a great artist" is their utterly convincing and inimitable quality.

By this I mean that one would walk away saying "Of COURSE it should sound like that! Thing is that no one other than Zhang can MAKE it sound like that!"

Zhang and I have, although not having seen each other since 1998, remained very close through the highs and lows that we call life. Since becoming a member of the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic in 2000, Zhang has continued to grow, contributing to the musical life of her chosen city as one of the founders of both the Monaco String Quartet and Baroc'co (a baroque music group with winds and harpsichord) and leader of the Zhang Zhang Band, which performs frequently throughout both the city and the continent of Europe, including performances for the biannual presentation of collections by AKRIS. Additionally, she has received numerous invitations from Prince Albert II of Monaco to perform for "important (word?)" events, including a 2007 concert for the Ambassadors held at the Royal Palace.

This is but a small list of her accomplishments, and while I will always say that I am incredibly proud and humbled to call a woman of this substance my dear friend, I am also grateful for modern technology as the latter has allowed me to catch up with her to find out how this series was born.

What inspired you to start this concert series??

I begin to organize and perform concerts dedicated to various charities after meeting Sister Emmanuelle, who is now over 90 years old. She was a society belle who gave up a privileged life to become a nun, spending her adult life in the slums of Cairo taking care of the poor. For decades she lived in a slum built on garbage heaps in a small shack, amongst all the people she was helping. Meeting her was the turning point for me, realizing, as a musician, besides the pursue of artistic excellence and career achievement, I can also help those less fortunate with my art.

For a few years I tried to organized and play monthly concerts with a few of my colleagues and friends in a small church in Monaco. Our first concert was to help the Tsunami victims in South Asia. It was a big challenge to be artistic director, publicist, personal manager, stage hand and performer all at the same time. I learned a lot, and one of the most important thing being: To be truly effective, I can't do it all on my own.

The new organization includes two principal associates/advisors whose work are in finance, their expertise in various domains has been essential in making the series a reality. The new series is dedicated to Humanitarian as well as Ecological causes. Since 2007 I have become an Ambassador for Defi Pour La Terre, proposed by Fondation Nicolas Hulot. I take this role very seriously and hope to bring more awareness and support to the global combat against further destruction of the environment, in any way I can.

Did you find it difficult to organize something of this magnitude?

My past experience in organizing concert series included many mistakes, this has helped me to plan my current ideas and projects better then ever before. My associates are superb, leaders in their own industries , fluent in areas of world finance, geopolitics and diplomacy, and being non- musicians, they have provided an objective and global vision which made my ideals possible. Having them on my team, I am confident we can go very very far.

Knowing that you have given concerts for charity now for many years - those efforts also involving "taking music to the people" via giving concerts for the prisoners at the Monaco Prison - how do you feel about "the benefit concert" versus something more long-term and specifically directed?

I hope to be able to do both. Besides the concert series dedicated to a variety of humanitarian and ecological projects, we are also working on regular series for the prison, as well as the retirement home and the hospital. Involving different sets of musicians depending on each project. I think whenever we play for people, either inmates or the general public, we must always 'bring the music to the people', even if they have paid to come hear us in the concert halls, we must not forget to 'give' the music to them. It is not enough to just do our jobs by playing all the right notes at the right moment, dressed in our evening black. If we don't really care about the people we are playing to, about the experience we are giving them, if we stop sharing by stopping to feel the music as we play them (even if for the 100th time), then we might as well erase all live performances. It is a treat for the public to hear and see us play, but it is also a privilege for us to have a public who would come to listen.

Looking at your activities, you are a very versatile musician. How did you come to study baroque performance?

I had the enormous fortune to have met Mr. Sergiu Luca when I was 18 years old. The 7 years I spent studying with him determined what kind of musicians I was to become later in life, both musically and humanly. A truly complete musician, he was also a master of Baroque and period performance. I learned that there was not ONE right way to play. Each style, each period, each composer had a language of their own. To become fluent in each of these languages is an essential part of being a good musician.

Do those stylistic considerations inform a lot of your musicmaking?

I am an instinctive player. Unlike some of my classmates and friends who are much more intellectual and analytical, I tend to play the way I feel. Its both a strength and a weakness. I really should study more.

You have, for the past seven years, performed as a member of the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra. Do you have a preference - that meaning would you prefer to perform solely as an orchestra member or do you enjoy exploring other performance media?

I always wanted to taste as many things as possible. Growing up in a classical music family where everyone is a professional, I did not have many opportunities to listen to anything other then classical music. So when I left that focused but narrow environment, I wanted to discover everything out there. During my freshman year in college, while being carefully taught by my teachers, I would regularly sneak out of the music school to play cymbals and keyboard with the marching band on week ends and during football games.

I also became interested in the art of improvisation. I have enjoyed playing with Jazz, Flamenco, Rock and Reggae musicians and I am especially keen on Tzigane music from Eastern Europe. The Monte Carlo Philharmonic has a great advantage for someone like me, being the only orchestra in the entire country, we play not only symphony concerts, but also opera, ballet, chamber orchestra, chamber music, religious mass, and even pop music through out the season. And for more then 3 years my jazz/blues/rock/patchwork band played weekly shows in a local bar called La Rascasse, where I played anything from Kreisler to Bob Marley.

Though I have stopped playing in the bar, the experience of making music in a different way, for a different public has been a very important part of my progression.

Speaking of Explorations, you are also a member of Ensemble Explorations, a group started by cellist and innovator Roel Dieltins. When did you first meet Roel and how did this come about for you?

I first met Roel Dieltiens in the mid 90's when he came to join Mr. Luca for concerts in Houston and Oregon. He was one of the most exciting and perfect musician my friends and I had ever heard. We would follow him around like groupies and wanted to know everything about him, even what kind of car he drove back in Belgium! He was like a rock star to us and we listened to his recordings of the six Bach suites with much devotion and admiration, he was only 30 something then, we all wanted to grow up to be like that!

In 2003 I received an e mail from the secretary of Ensemble Explorations asking me if I would like to take part in the project of recording and performing the Mendelssohn with the Ensemble. I jumped up and down and screamed the house down. It was like a kid who played rock guitar in the garage getting an invitation to play with the Rolling Stones! It was amazing. And the project was also incredible. The musicians of the Ensemble are some of the best artists in Europe. We all played on gut strings for this project (pure gut A and E for the violins) and the sound was extremely beautiful. The recording which was made by Harmonia Mundi won many awards, we are still playing it all over Europe.

Playing with Roel is always the highlight of my year. He is not only a perfect artist, but also a wonderful human being, natural and kind, fair and accepting. He is the ideal leader, able to choose the right combination of artists for each project, both musically and humanly. The musicians come from many different countries, all of whom are leaders in their own domain. Rehearsals are often in several languages, Flemish, French, German, Italian or English. Thanks to these sessions, I have now learned most of the numbers in German and Flemish. Everyone participates, exchanging musical ideas and the result is always fantastic. During each concert tour, not only have we created great music, we also have enormous fun. Everyone who plays in the ensemble feels this way, no matter what we do in our regular work: symphony, chamber orchestra, teaching, solo performance...etc , when ever we play with Roel, it is always the best thing we do all year.

Would you like to have Roel play on your series in Monaco?

Absolutely. I am already working on that with the concert manager of Ensemble Explorations. Due to my high regard of Explorations and Roel, I want to provide the very best when I receive them.

Orchestras in the United States seem to be experiencing incredibly turbulent times: one of the most "memorable" seasons being the 2002-2003 season during which the Tulsa Philharmonic, San Antonio Symphony, Savannah Symphony, Colorado Springs Symphony and Florida Philharmonic all closed their doors. While the San Antonio Symphony has reorganized itself quite beautifully, it does seem - quite unfortunately - that contract negotiations in the United States may always be contentious, with many ensembles continuously finding themselves teetering towards shutting down. Working in Europe as you are, does this "American phenomenon" cause you some concern, or does the crisis seem to be solely based on mysterious financial circumstances as opposed to what many have called (for many years) the "death of an irrelevant art form"?

I wonder who are the people saying things like that. The idea that an art form must die seems absurd to me. Everything comes from something. Classical music will never die, not as long as there are human beings with souls.

But I do acknowledge the fact that there has been or is still a decline in the 'popularity' of Classical Music concerts in the western world. Compared to the past centuries.

I do not think it is the 'fault' of the Music.

In Europe, governments give much support to art and culture, because they know it is essential that these establishments remain present in current times. They do not need the orchestras or museums to make money. That is not the purpose of their existence. In Monaco, the orchestra is supported nearly 100 percent by the government. Being a small country, the halls are often only half full, but we know the orchestra will always exist, because it is a symbol of meaningful culture and worthwhile tradition, an essential part of this country. The government would never abandon it. I believe this conviction exists in other countries in Europe as well, in my personal experience, musically speaking it is especially true in Belgium, Holland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and France. Where the continuation and presence of artistic excellence is linked closely to the national pride.

Having lived - throughout the world - would you advise students and those auditioning for positions in the United States to consider working in Europe - and do you ever at times long for the North American continent?

Having been uprooted quite young and ending up having a nomadic life, first due to circumstances, then probably curiosity. I never knew the realities of a stable and settled life. So there are some essentials I have missed, especially in childhood.

North America is home to some of the best orchestras and music schools in the world. Providing excellent training and rigorous preparations of professional musicians. And the scholarship system is not to be matched anywhere on earth.

I do feel that given the possibility, a young musician would benefit most positively by traveling to Europe, either for studies or professional work. To hear the organ inside St. Thomas church where Bach worked each Sunday, to touch the walls of the St. Florian Abbey where Bruckner is buried, to stand in front of the house where Mozart lived in when he move to Vienna (eventually marrying the land lady's daughter), to walk over the bridge where Vivaldi took daily walks from his house in Venice are just some of the things that we can only experience by being there. To be playing or listening music in the great halls in Salzburg, Paris, Berlin, London, Amsterdam, Naples, Venice, Florence and of course Vienna, to be hearing the languages both spoken and musical which inspired and influenced the great composers, to watch and listen to real gypsy musicians busking on the streets of Llubjana or Prague, are the things which we may never miss, unless we have had a taste of it.

I love living in Europe. It has all the essentials of life for me. In about two hours one can travel from Berlin to Rome, Zurich to Paris, Amsterdam to Vienna, Nice to Barcelona.

Though the future may bring me back to North America or Asia for personal reasons, I hope to always keep a place in Europe and return as frequently as possible. The richness of culture in such close proximity is something I continue to treasure.

For more information on Zhang Zhang and her activities, please visit Zhang Zhang.

From Drew Lecher
Posted on March 16, 2008 at 4:53 AM

GREAT INTERVIEW and wonderful perspective — THANKS!


From Jim W. Miller
Posted on March 16, 2008 at 9:42 PM
Samuel, nothing to do with this, but I saw this this morning. Read the description of the photo in the 3rd post :)


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