A Violinist's Tribute To A Nobel Laureate

NPR's Melissa Block talks to violinist Lynn Chang, who will be playing at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony on Dec. 10, honoring Chinese writer and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo. Chang also teaches at the Boston Conservatory. The Chinese government will not allow Xiaobo to attend the ceremony, and Chang — who still has family in China — says he had to have a day to consider the possible personal and professional repercussions if he accepted the invitation to play at the ceremony. He also says Xiaobo's absence there dictated his choice of music.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

On December 10th at the ceremony to award the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, there will be an empty chair on stage. The peace prize laureate, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, is imprisoned in China. And the Chinese government has barred Liu's family from traveling to accept the honor. So the Nobel committee will postpone bestowing the actual medal and the $1.5 million award, but the ceremony will go on.

Actress Liv Ullman will read some of Liu's words, and violinist Lynn Chang has been invited to perform. Chang is Chinese-American. He teaches at the Boston Conservatory, and he joins me now. Lynn, what were your first thoughts when you found out you had been invited to perform at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony?

Mr. LYNN CHANG (Violinist): Well, I was naturally thrilled. And then I thought of my own professional and personal possible repercussions, and I asked them for a 24-hour period in which I can really think about this.

BLOCK: Hmm. Now, what repercussions were you worried about?

Mr. CHANG: First of all, I have family back in China. My father came to America in 1949, and I knew that if I did this, there might be problems with me going to visit. And in fact, my father would prefer that I not go, frankly.

The professional considerations are is that at the schools that I teach at, we have a number of very talented students that come from China, and I was very worried that the government could go so far as to prevent Chinese students from coming to our schools. So these two considerations weighed very heavily on my decision to go, but I spoke to the presidents of all the schools that I was affiliated with, and they said: Absolutely, you should do this. And my father respected my decision to go ahead and do this.

BLOCK: Well, how did you decide what you're going to play on December 10th?

Mr. CHANG: Well, I knew that there would be nobody to receive the award. I knew that music would probably play a greater prominence in the ceremony. So I came up with two selections. One will be a group of two Chinese folk songs, "Jasmine Flowers," which was composed some time in the Qing Dynasty in the 1700s, and it's become extremely popular in China.

The other piece I'll play is a more recent folk song called "Colorful Clouds Chasing the Moon," which uses the metaphor of clouds chasing the moon for someone who is missing their loved one. The other piece that I'll play is by Sir Edward Elgar, "Salut d'Amour."

I read the final testimony that Liu Xiaobo gave before he was sentenced to 11 years in prison, Liu speaking out on fundamental human rights. He gave this most touching and really just amazing love note to his wife, saying how she was the reason for his having strength. I thought that "Salut d'Amour" that I'm going to play would be a good reflection echoing what he was saying to her.

BLOCK: Do you think that it will be an emotional moment for you there in Oslo when you're playing these pieces that will have some sort of political overtone to them, I guess, or resonance?

Mr. CHANG: Oh, absolutely. An artist plays to educate, to entertain, to illuminate, but here, it's a much deeper purpose. We're trying to finish in music where words are left off. And I think through music, we just hope that we can enhance or continue what Liu Xiaobo's statements are - what he said.

BLOCK: Well, Lynn Chang, thanks very much for talking to us and all the best to you when you go to Oslo.

Mr. CHANG: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: Violinist Lynn Chang would be playing at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for Liu Xiaobo. He brought his violin with him when he spoke with us. Here he is playing the Chinese folk song "Jasmine Flower."

(Soundbite of song, "Jasmine Flower")

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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