Travels with the Cello – An Interview with Qin Li-Wei | The Flying Inkpot
From exotic Argentina to the majesty of the Alps, this concert might just satisfy the wanderlust in many of us who haven’t been able to travel since the pandemic. Aileen Tang has a chat with cellist Qin Li-Wei about his most memorable performance and his wish list for cello repertoire.
The Flying Inkpot: You just came back from your summer tour in China! How was that?
Qin Li-Wei: Unfortunately, I had to do the 3 weeks’ quarantine. But then I did 15 concerts in five weeks – 5 concertos and 1 and a half solo recitals. With this quarantine business now, this was the only way I could do it – 3 weeks’ quarantine out of the way and then stay there for a little bit longer. I was there a little more than a month and all the concerts were packed together.
TFI: I guess it makes sense then that you stay there for as long as you can to do as many concerts and go to as many cities as possible.
QLW: I was in 9 cities! In fact, many of the orchestras extended their season for me because they usually finish their season at the end of June. For example, the Hangzhou Philharmonic and Guiyang Philharmonic extended their season by two weeks so they could do their final concert with me.
TFI: I suppose your international performing schedule isn’t really back to pre-pandemic days?
QLW: Well, it’s only for China [that things aren’t back to pre-pandemic days]. After this tour, I won’t be back in China until 2024 – unless the quarantine time is reduced. Australia and Germany are basically back to normal. I was with the Melbourne Symphony this February and there were hardly any restrictions, so next year will be even easier. Next year will be mostly devoted to Australia. I didn’t think I could get to China so easily, so I planned my 2023 mainly for Australia and Germany. For most countries, it’s back to normal.
TFI: What – and where – has been your most memorable performance?
QLW: Probably my Proms debut in 2003 at the Royal Albert Hall in front of 5000 people with the BBC radio and television all going on at the same time! I played the Prokofiev Cello Concerto with the Ulster Orchestra. I was doing a concerto that had never been done before at the Proms [Editor: the Prokofiev Cello Concerto was a Proms premiere] and it was my first Proms, so it was quite memorable for me. It was so nerve-wracking! But it went pretty well so it was memorable for that reason too. I was so excited when my manager called me and said, “You’re doing Proms for the first time!” But then when I took the first step and walked onto the stage facing 5000 people – that’s when I said to myself, “Li-Wei, why are you doing this to yourself?” And at the end of the concerto, I said to myself, “it’s all worth it.”
TFI: Piazzolla’s work is electrifying, with inflections of jazz and tango, and you’ll be performing Jonathan Shin’s arrangement of Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires for solo cello and strings. What are your thoughts on the “repurposing” of the work for cello? How will you be approaching this piece, and how much of the original will influence your approach?
QLW: First of all, because the cello repertoire is relatively small compared to the violin and cello, it is always an interest for me – and I think the majority of cellists – to go outside our comfort zone. Of course, it’s nice to do Dvořák, Elgar, [Tchaikovsky’s] Rococo and Haydn’s C major – but it’s in our own interest to expand our repertoire. Jonathan has always been, in my opinion, one of the freshest and most imaginative and innovative young composers in Singapore. He composed the cadenzas for Haydn’s D Major concerto when I was recording it [with OMM]. He’s inspired me in a lot of the ways I’m approaching some of the conventional repertoire. Because Jonathan was a cellist, he knows our instrument very well – he knows how to bring out the best in the instruments. It’s not easy to transcribe a very violinistically challenging work for our instrument, but I think he’s done a great job.
TFI: What’s your personal take or opinion on the music of Piazzolla?
QLW: This Four Seasons, for me, is so typically Piazzolla. His music has a lot of freedom and a lot of possibilities for improvisation, and so that gives the performer a lot of opportunities to experiment. I had a cello quartet in Korea and we worked a lot with Piazzolla’s pianist, Pablo Zinger. He rearranged a lot of Piazzolla’s most well-known works, like Libertango and Oblivion, for our cello quartet, and we did tours in Korea and China. I’ve always wanted to do the Four Seasons with a string orchestra. It’s of course very different to Dvořák or Elgar, but I think as a musician, we have to be able to play many roles in our lives. And this is certainly one of those very attractive roles that I’m very willing to try out and to continue my journey with this composer.
TFI: The cello is a Western classical instrument but it’s incredibly versatile both in Western classical orchestras and Chinese orchestras. That’s something that you do too. Besides your solo recitals and playing with Western classical orchestras, you also collaborate with Chinese orchestras, like the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) this September. So, how different is that for you?
QLW: Well, yes, it’s very, very different and it’s a very interesting discussion. The piece I’m doing is Zhuang Zhou’s Dream by Zhou Jiping. It was originally written for cello and Chinese Orchestra. I played the piece with SCO about 6 or 7 years ago. They invited Zhou Jiping and he really loved my interpretation of the piece. 3 years down the line, I had the opportunity to record with the NCPA (National Centre for the Performing Arts) Orchestra and so I asked NCPA to commission Zhou Jiping to rearrange the work for Western orchestra. It worked out very well but t’s very different playing with a Western and a Chinese orchestra. With the Western orchestra, you can afford to play slightly more intimately. I actually have to be amplified with a Chinese orchestra because the instruments are all very high-pitched. The sound world of the Western orchestra also brings out a very different dimension to the Chinese orchestra. Again, because the range is slightly wider in the Western orchestra, it feels like it’s more horizontal compared to the Chinese orchestra which is slightly more direct. So it’s very different.
TFI: Wish list time! If you could choose any piece at all that’s been written for any instrument, what piece would you most want to play, rearranged for cello?
QLW: I wish some of the main composers wrote a cello concerto! For example, Beethoven. We have his spectacular Violin Concerto which is so balanced and so exquisite, but there was no cello concerto – although people say the Triple Concerto is basically like a cello concerto. And another example is Brahms. There’s his Double Concerto and a Violin Concerto which is, again, spectacular. So I wish there is an arrangement of the Brahms Double Concerto! I think there’s a piano reduction, but I wish there’s a proper edition for me to play the Brahms Double on one instrument.
TFI: Maybe we need to say that a bit louder so someone, somewhere can hear that!
QLW: I think maybe I’m asking for too much – 3 instruments into 1!
Tickets for Qin Li-Wei plays Four Seasons • Alpine Symphony are available from Sistic:
Qin Li-Wei plays Four Seasons • Alpine Symphony
Sun 28 Aug, 5pm
Esplanade Concert Hall
Orchestra of the Music Makers
Chan Tze Law, conductor
Qin Li-Wei, cello
ASTOR PIAZZOLLA (arr. DESYATNIKOV and SHIN) – The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, arranged for Cello and Strings (WORLD PREMIERE)
RICHARD STRAUSS – An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64