If the career of Taiwan-born violinist Cho-Liang Lin ever falters, he might consider moving into the delicate world of international diplomacy. He has already displayed quite a flair for it.
In 1981, the New York-based musician received and accepted a startling invitation--to play and teach for three weeks in China.
"I am the first musician from Taiwan to receive an invitation from the Peking government," Lin says with obvious pride during a phone interview from New York.
The 24-year-old violinist appears as soloist in Beethoven's Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this week (in place of Kyung-Wha Chung, who is on maternity leave), and again for his local recital debut at Ambassador Auditorium Jan. 27.
Recalling the China trip, Lin says of his artistic coup: "I like to see the visit as bridging the gap. Of course, it takes more than what I'm doing (to lessen the hostilities between China and Taiwan)."
Despite his apprehensions ("I still had a Taiwan passport"), Lin's tour proved a success. "There really is no hostility among the general public. The mainlanders are very curious about us. I think if they had their way," he says with a laugh, "they'd keep me there for a month and interrogate me."
Lin--known to friends as Jimmy--explains that the tour came about as a result of an earlier visit he made to China as a private citizen. Contacts were made with teachers and musicians there.
When the Ministry of Culture extended the invitation, he was well aware of the political overtones. "I made it clear to them that this was to be a musical tour," Lin notes. "I would be there to exchange ideas. Still, they tried to make hay out of it with a lot of 'coming home to the mainland'-type propaganda."
And how did Taiwan react to this visit? Rather than condemn it, the government likewise took political advantage: "They boasted about it," Lin recalls.
This was not the violinist's first experience with the perplexities of the Taiwan government. At age 12, he had requested an exit visa to study in the United States. He was turned down. "The government has strict exit laws, and they looked closely at my application. They thought it was fraudulent--the idea of someone my age with offers of college scholarships."
The offers, in fact, were real. Lin's late father, a physicist, had visited the U.S. and brought with him a tape of his 9-year-old son's playing. The universities of North Carolina and Mississippi expressed interest. It was not to be.
"Instead, I went to my second choice, Australia," Lin says. "My mother felt it was important for me to leave Taiwan to get a good music education. My uncle arranged a scholarship for me at a music high school down there. The Taiwan government believed that one."
In Australia, Lin pursued his studies with no notion of a concert career. "My parents made it clear that they didn't expect me to be solo material. They just wanted me to appreciate good music."
All that changed when Itzhak Perlman made his first Australian tour. "I was 13," Lin remembers. "I had never heard first-rate playing before. I suddenly thought it would be great to play as good as my abilities would allow."
At 15, Lin finally arrived in America to study at Juilliard. While a student, he began concertizing, making his New York debut at 19. He made his local debut with the Philharmonic at Hollywood Bowl the following year--with the same concerto he plays this week.
Since graduating from Juilliard in 1981, Lin says, "my career has moved up gradually.
"I was talking with a colleague about the rigors of performing, and I suddenly realized I've been on tour for six whole years.
"I'm only 24 and I feel like an old-timer."