by Katherine Anderson, violist
Violinists Shenghua Hu and Quan Yuan, both originally from China, joined the MET Orchestra in 2015, where they quickly discovered a camaraderie centering around learning dozens of new operas, Chinese food, and billiards. Violist Katherine Anderson recently caught up with them to learn more about their early experiences with opera, their audition for the MET Orchestra, and what hobbies they enjoy outside of the pit.
Katherine Anderson: What year did you join the orchestra?
Quan Yuan: We joined in the fall of 2015. It was my colleague and friend [MET Orchestra violinist] Qianqian Li who texted me to let me know that there were two openings and encouraged me to take the audition.
Shenghua Hu: I still remember the moment when I told my wife I won the position. We held each other and wept tears of joy outside the stage door.
KA: What were each of you doing before you came to the Met?
SH: While I took auditions, I was playing in the Albany Symphony Orchestra and was the Assistant Principal Second Violin in the Hudson Valley Philharmonic. I took more than 30 auditions before I won a position in the MET Orchestra!
QY: When I took the MET Orchestra audition, I was in a graduate diploma program at New England Conservatory, studying with Donald Weilerstein and working as his teaching assistant. I was also subbing in the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in Minnesota.
KA: Did you know each other before you joined the orchestra?
SH: I had heard about Quan and met him once, but I didn't know him very well.
QY: When Shenghua and I met, my impression of him was, “Oh, that guy looks like me - only without glasses!” Well, he is also taller than me, but I ignored that...
KA: How did you become such close friends?
QY: After the semi-final round of the audition, there were just two people who advanced to the finals, Shenghua and me, and there were two openings at that audition! We wondered, "Why don't they just cancel the final?" (They didn’t.) What did happen is that we snuck into each other's warm up rooms and chatted before the final. It was the least competitive audition final ever! That experience made it feel more like we were friends, not competitors.
SH: We've also discovered that we have many of the same hobbies. Besides playing the violin, we have a mutual love for playing billiards and eating really good Chinese food. After an especially busy week, we'll go to a Chinese restaurant to have a big meal and then play pool. That is definitely the best way for both of us to relax!
KA: Did you have any experiences playing or hearing operas before starting the job?
QY: To be honest, Western opera is not a big part of Chinese musical education, especially for instrumentalists. My first opera experience was watching a tape of Maestro Levine conducting the Met production of Carmen, sung by Carreras and Baltsa, from the late ‘80s, with Chinese subtitles. I was 14 at the time and I liked it so much I watched it more than 10 times! Who would expect that I would become a member of this legendary orchestra? After the audition, it felt like a miracle. Now, since my wife, Wanzhe Zhang, is a soprano, opera has become a huge part of my life.
SH: My first experience with opera was when I was in high school. I listened to many classical CDs and DVDs. One day I bought a DVD of La Bohème, and that was my introduction to opera. After that, I watched a number of opera performances conducted by Maestro Levine. I found his unique perspective on the music really touching - he is my idol. I dreamed of playing with him someday, and when we played Tannhäuser, my dream came true.
KA: What has surprised you about playing in the MET Orchestra?
SH: The MET Orchestra is such fantastic musical family! There are absolutely great musicians and everyone is so friendly. Being a opera musician has a way of making you more sensitive. In my first season, when we performed tragedies, the endings made me cry every time, and when I returned to “real life,” I was always reminded of how grateful I am for everything I have in my life.
QY: Yes, the orchestra does feel like a big musical family. I love the atmosphere here! I have also discovered that it's not an easy job, not only in terms of the length of the performances, but also how well-prepared and sensitive one has to be in order to be a good opera musician. Playing opera is like being a great driver in New York during rush hour. One has to be so careful, so proficient, so vigilant, so resolute, and, most importantly, so passionate.
KA: That is a great analogy!
SH: Being part of opera productions has taught us a lot about how the stories influence what is written in the music.
QY: Both of us try to get to know each opera's background, characters, and plots. I remember the first opera that we played, Otello, has the beautiful aria at the opening of the fourth act in which the soprano sings, "Salce, Salce, Salce..." I asked Shenghua, who was my stand partner at the time, “What does that mean?"
SH: Oh yes, I remember that, and I said, "I have no idea!"
QY: So I looked it up and found out that it means "willow.” Finally, the repeated, painful "Salce”s made sense musically!
SH: After that, I realized that I needed to learn not only the music to the operas, but the stories, too. I started to collect books and recording of operas, and now my opera books fill up the bookcase at my studio.
KA: What are some of your other interests?
QY: First of all, playing chamber music! I am a huge record collector as well, with over 8,000 CDs and vinyl records in New York and about 3,000 records back in Beijing. Also, I'm an avid reader. I read about two or three books per month. My most recent favorite books are The Razor's Edge and The Moon and Sixpence, both by Maugham. I couldn't put them down! Besides that, I love Crosstalk [a traditional Chinese comic performance] and calligraphy.
SH: Making recordings of music is one of my hobbies. I am crazy about microphones; I have seven microphones and two mixers. I love sharing my music with people; also, recording my own playing helped me prepare for the audition. I recorded the excerpts and listened over and over again to find mistakes and to check sound quality. Another hobby I enjoy is photography, which I find is a very special art. I've taken lots of pictures of my wife, Ludongchen Li, and my son, Lucas Chengle Hu. Incidentally, “Chengle” means “happy forever.” In general, I'm not very good at expressing my feelings to them and photography is a language that helps me show my love for them.