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Bing Wang's Long Journey Into the Concert Hot Seat

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Within the sprawling fabric of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which kicks off its season Thursday, there lurk countless human interest stories--individual stitches in the tapestry.

Take, for instance, the case of Bing Wang, the Philharmonic's newly appointed assistant concertmaster. The 27-year-old native of Shanghai came to the United States on a scholarship in 1985 and has spent the last 3 1/2 years with the Cincinnati Symphony. The distance she's traveled can be counted in more than mileage: Wang's career began under a culturally besieged regime.

Sitting in the plush office of Philharmonic Executive Vice President and Managing Director Ernest Fleischmann for an interview last week, Wang recalled how the repressive conditions of her early training served to strengthen her resolve.

She descends from a strong musical lineage via her violinist parents, who have moved with her to Los Angeles. Her father was a violinist and concertmaster with the Shanghai Symphony for 25 years, and her mother taught violin.

Her older brother now plays violin with the Shanghai Symphony, and it was the sound of his practicing as a boy, in the family's one-room dwelling, that shaped her early musical memories. "I started to sing and hum the music at just about the time I started to speak," she said.

Outside the home, though, the musical landscape was limited. "I was born in 1967, right when the Cultural Revolution started. My father had to stop playing the violin. My mother had to stop teaching and play in the Chinese Opera, sponsored by Mao Tse Tung's wife. Western music was not allowed to be played."

At the time, many young people were shuttled from cities to farms, for "re-education." Many of Wang's friends and relatives, barely into their teens, were relocated "to dig the ground, be farmers." Her parents encouraged violin studies, so that "if worst came to worst, we could play Chinese music."

By the time the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, Wang had been studying Western repertoire--heavy on the Mozart--from the age of 6, undercover. "We practiced at home. We wouldn't perform it. You could say we played Western music in hiding.

"The classical and romantic composers were what we heard most in China. The more contemporary composers we never even heard of at that time."

In fact, Wang didn't even hear that staple of modernism, Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps"--which is on this week's L.A. Philharmonic program--until she came to the United States to study at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. "It was a big shock," she said, laughing. "I can't say if I enjoyed it or not, because I didn't have time to hear it. I was too busy counting. I thought, 'Gosh, everyone is great. They can play these strange meters.' "


The impressive caliber of the young Wang's musicianship came to the attention of violin virtuoso Berl Senofsky, a professor at Peabody Conservatory who visited Shanghai and met her when he taught a master class there. Senofsky wound up securing Wang a scholarship to Peabody in 1985. She later spent a summer at the Music Academy of the West, and also earned her master's degree at the Manhattan School of Music. While in New York, she studied with Glenn Dicterow, former concertmaster with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and now with the New York Philharmonic.

For the most part, Wang's focus has been on working within the ensemble rather than the spot-lit life as a soloist. "Everyone's dream is to be a soloist," Wang commented. "But at some point in my student career, I just aimed more toward an orchestra. I thought if I could be a member of a great orchestra, I would feel very good about myself.

"Maybe I look at it differently than other people, but being a member of such a great ensemble making music, you get a satisfaction that you don't get from playing a solo."

After gaining what she sees as valuable experience as principle second violinist in Cincinnati, Wang auditioned for the assistant concertmaster position in Los Angeles last May, when she was first seen at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in a trial period. She also played with the orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl this summer, and she had her first taste of what it means to help direct the orchestra's string section on the Philharmonic's summer tour of Europe.

"It was intense, because I was sitting in the hot seat," she said, "but it was easier than I expected. It was a great honor to get this position, because it's such a great orchestra. I'm looking forward to many years of music-making here." In her new job she is assuming the position previously held by Irving Geller, who is currently on a one-year sabbatical, and who will play in the rotating first violin section when he returns.

Although attitudes and employment practices are shifting, it's still a rarity to see a woman, let alone a young Asian woman, in a position of such prominence within a major orchestra.

Wang believes that her will to achieve comes from her family. "Chinese are usually very modest. My parents told me, 'We know you are not a virtuoso, but you have such a great training and background and you've worked hard. We know you can do better.'

"I've always aimed for that. That's why, after being in Cincinnati for three and a half years, I've kept working and taking auditions. That's kept my level up high."

As for cultural conditions in today's China, Wang noted that "it's more open than any time before. Too bad that a lot of us are out."

"After I came to this country, I realized why people want to come here. You work hard and you get rewards. Life keeps getting better. You can really see the change. That's not what it's like in China. There are a lot of restrictions and policies."

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