by Katherine Anderson, violist
Recently, Katherine Anderson sat down with Qianqian Li, who joined the MET Orchestra’s first violin section in September, 2014:
Katherine Anderson: Where did you grow up?
Qianqian Li: In Nanjing China.
KA: Why did you play the violin?
QL: My mom had wanted to play the violin when she was young, but her family couldn't afford lessons. I had childhood asthma and was very weak, but my mom thought that learning to play the violin would help me get physically stronger. When I started to play the violin at four and a half, I was too weak to hold it! My mom had to hold the violin for me and I could only play for ten or twenty minutes per day.
KA: Did your parents encourage you to practice?
QL: Absolutely! My mom was a typical "tiger mom.” She was a very important person for me, musically.
KA: In what way?
QL: When I was seven years old, I heard about a wonderful violin teacher in Shanghai, Lina Yu. In order for me to study with her, my mom took a six-hour train ride, each way, every weekend for five years!
KA: Wow, that's incredible! Where did you study after that?
QL: When I was 12, I went to study and live at the boarding school at the Affiliated Middle School and High School of the Shanghai Conservatory. It was the first time I lived apart from my family.
KA: How was that experience?
QL: It was great because it was the first time I didn't have my mom making me practice. I felt so free, like a bird that had just been let out of its cage! Over the next few years I began to realize how much I loved music and playing the violin.
KA: Did you miss your parents?
QL: Yes, but they came to visit me every weekend. I couldn't ask for better parents!
KA: When did you come to the United States?
QL: I came here for college in 2007, to study with Donald Weilerstein at the New England Conservatory.
KA: What were you doing before you took the MET Orchestra audition?
QL: I was in a graduate diploma program - I was Mr. Weilerstein's teaching assistant and also subbed in the Boston Symphony.
KA: Did you ever imagine you'd play in an opera orchestra?
QL: Yes, although growing up in China, I wasn't exposed to opera music. Mostly, I heard symphonic music. I have a childhood musical hero, Yang Xu. His parents were our friends and we attended the same school in Shanghai. When he won the job in the MET Orchestra’s violin section in 2008, I remember how excited everyone was. It’s amazing that he’s now my stand partner! My other childhood heroes were Xiaodong Wang and Le Zhang, violinists who both have played at the Met. Because of them, I always knew that the MET Orchestra was very prestigious.
KA: Did you get to hear the MET Orchestra in person before you won the job?
QL: Yes, I had the opportunity to hear Das Rheingold…I was amazed by the sound of the orchestra!
KA: What were your first impressions when you started last September?
QL: I remember how nice and welcoming everyone was
KA: How does it feel to play opera?
QL: It feels a lot like playing chamber music, which I love! Playing with so many great musicians and singers, there is this back and forth energy that happens. A lot of times we're on the edge of our chairs. I don't think it would feel quite the same in a symphony orchestra.
KA: Have you come to hear or see any operas since you started the job?
QL: Yes, I've seen Klinghoffer, Hoffmann, and I saw the double bill [of Iolanta and Duke Bluebeard’s Castle] twice!
KA: What do you find challenging about playing opera music?
QL: The long operas and the amount of music to learn. Unlike in symphonic music, where there is often a gradual build-up to a difficult passage, in opera the difficult passages come suddenly and without preparation.
KA: Did you know many operas before playing here?
QL: I had played two operas, Britten's Paul Bunyan and Don Giovanni, where I met my husband, Taylor Graham!
KA: I need to hear that story!
QL: He was a trumpet player in the orchestra at the New England Conservatory and I was the concertmaster. After intermission, I stood up to tune the orchestra and he kept playing even while we were tuning! I smiled at him and he said it was seeing my smile that made him want to ask me on a date. Besides being a trumpet player, he has a business background, and has been working for a software company from home
KA: What do you enjoy doing on a day off?
QL: I love cooking - I’m a foodie. My favorite thing is to recreate something great I had in a restaurant. I also love movies and hanging out with my two cats: Minton and Beanio.
KA: I'm curious, what does your name mean?
QL: I'm a little embarrassed to answer! Qianqian means beautiful and smart. My grandfather gave me my name. Both of my grandparents submitted a lot of names and then my parents chose the one they liked the best.