‘It’s all about the music’

A conversation with Met concertmaster David Chan

Volume 115, No. 5May, 2015

David Chan. Photo: Pedro Diaz

David Chan. Photo: Pedro Diaz

Violinist David Chan, a member of Local 802 since 1999, is the concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and an active soloist, recitalist and chamber musician.

Mr. Chan first gained international recognition when, at the age of 17, he won a top prize at the Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow. He has performed throughout the United States, Europe and the Far East, appearing as soloist with the Moscow State Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Taiwan National Symphony, the Aspen Chamber Symphony, and the San Diego, Indianapolis, Richmond, Springfield and Northbrook symphonies. As a chamber musician, he is the founder and artistic director of Musique et Vin au Clos Vougeot in the Burgundy region of France, and is a frequent guest at the Pacific Music Festival in Japan, the Seattle Chamber Music Festival and La Jolla’s SummerFest. His recordings include a recital program, a disc of two Paganini concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra, and an album of violin/cello duos with Rafael Figueroa.

A native of San Diego, Mr. Chan began his musical education at the age of four. When he was 14, he won the San Diego Symphony’s Young Artists Concerto Competition and subsequently appeared with the orchestra in two series of concerts. That same year he was the featured soloist on the San Diego Youth Symphony’s tour of Austria, Germany, Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia. Mr. Chan, whose principal teachers were Dorothy DeLay, Hyo Kang and Michael Tseitlin, earned his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and his master’s degree from Juilliard, where he currently teaches. He lives in the New York City area with his wife, violinist Catherine Ro (who is also a member of Local 802), and their children Annalise, Micah and Arianna.

Local 802’s Bob Pawlo recently sat down with David Chan to hear his thoughts on technique, musicality and much more.

Bob Pawlo: What are your first memories of music and the violin?

David Chan: I began studying the violin thanks to a visit to my preschool from a Suzuki violin teacher and a couple of her students. My parents felt that music would be a good activity for me to pursue, with no real thoughts of me doing it seriously in the future. I was a three-year-old kid at the time, and there are no prior musicians in my family. Music was just something my parents thought would be interesting. The clincher for them was that as part of the presentation, the teachers mentioned that students who studied music seemed to show increased aptitude in reading and math. My parents thought that was a great selling point.

I have vague memories of my early lessons. I remember advancing very quickly, so that at a certain point I was playing with kids who were much older than me. I have a distinct memory of being five years old in a group on the first violin part of the Bach Double Concerto with kids who were 12 and 13, while the other kids my age were in the second violin group on the other side of the room.

Around age six, my parents realized I had to look for a more “serious” teacher, so that’s when we found Michael Tseitlin, who I eventually studied with all the way until I went to college. He was a Russian émigré who had recently settled in San Diego and he made the violin a very different experience for me, a much more serious study, and much more rigorous. But remember, my family had no musical background. We had no idea where any of this would lead. My early years on the violin were a byproduct of parents just trying to do the best thing for their child, with no thought of a future in music.

Bob Pawlo: What concepts did your teacher stress at that age?

David Chan: I remember intonation being a huge emphasis. I assume I came to Mr. Tseitlin playing extremely out of tune, since I was only six. Obviously we worked on many other things over the years, but he helped me to develop an acute ear for playing in tune early on, and I think that’s extremely important because, like with anything else, if you’re exposed to something at an early age, you have a better chance to develop it in all its possibilities. Mr. Tseitlin really showed me how to practice particular types of technical problems from the very beginning: how to better coordinate my hands, how to play left-hand passagework more evenly, how to even out the strokes. To this day, I fall back on these exercises constantly. I show them to my own students who, being at Juilliard, already play at a very high level. But I’m sometimes astonished that they have gotten as far as they have without using some of these approaches to tackling technical problems. Mr. Tseitlin gave me a very good foundation at a very early age that I’ve built on over the years. It was a great place to begin.

Bob Pawlo: In high school was there other musical training available?

David Chan: I played piano for a year. I think trying piano was part of my resistance to all the work on intonation. I had an argument with my parents about how piano is a much easier instrument, because you don’t have intonation problems like with the violin! It’s great that I studied piano, because I learned how to read bass clef and that took care of that. But I realized after a year that although I could probably play the piano well if I wanted to, it was going to be just as much work as the violin, just different challenges. So being that I could only play one instrument if I wanted to do it really well, I let piano go after a year.

Bob Pawlo: At what point did you have an inkling that you would make a lifetime career out of music?

David Chan: I went through a time between 10 and 13 when I actually keenly wanted to quit the violin. It wasn’t peer pressure, it was more just me wanting to be more like my peers at school, seeing what their schedules were like, which didn’t include two or three hours of daily practice on the violin. I thought their schedules seemed much more agreeable than mine, so I wanted a life of more hanging out and Little League. My parents understood where I was coming from, but they also understood that I was clearly gifted at what I was doing. Although there were still no thoughts of me becoming a professional musician, they just sat me down and had a talk about how they weren’t going to push for a while, they were gong to give me some space, but that I should really not let it go. You always hear among adults, “Oh, I played such and such as a child, but I wish I’d kept it up.”

But around 13 or 14, it started to turn the other direction. I performed in the junior division of the Menuhin Competition when I was 13; I was a soloist on the San Diego’s Youth Symphony tour of Vienna and Prague and Eastern Europe when I was 14. I played Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor. The experience of traveling with other young musicians made me want to become a professional violinist. I had to become much more serious about my practicing, and I did. And by the time I was 16, my teacher – who was still Michael Tseitlin – thought I should enter the Tchaikovsky competition. He took it very seriously and gave me tons of extra lessons. I can’t really quantify how much I improved during the year I prepared for it – it must have been an overwhelming amount. I put in a tremendous amount of effort and got permission from school to leave campus whenever I had a free period, to get extra practice time in – that was something usually reserved only for the seniors at my school. I competed in 1990 at the age of 17, and did very well, taking one of the top prizes.

Next I attended Harvard, so most of my music was just hours in the practice room by myself, and lessons. I played a little bit of chamber music. I did spend my summers in Aspen so I had nine weeks of orchestra and chamber music there. Reflecting on this time, I can see the valuable life experience all of this gave me. I feel like there are a handful of true music savants who maybe are sheltered in the practice room their whole lives. They have a kind of limited existence from day to day, compared to what the normal person experiences in a range of human interactions. Despite this, they’re just such incredible geniuses at their instruments that what their playing can convey in terms of humanity is incredible. But there are so few of these. We know who they are in every generation and that’s it. I feel that for everyone else, your life experience must factor into your musicianship somehow. What you’re able to express musically has something to do with the totality of your education, your cultural background, your life experiences and the situations that have happened to you. So I wouldn’t be able to put my finger on what my Harvard education did for me musically but I certainly feel grateful in terms of my total life experience to have had the four years with peers who were not in music. For most of my life since then, I’ve been more or less immersed in music. So Harvard gave me a little greater breadth of experience in those formative years and gave me friends from outside of music who I might not have had otherwise.

Photo: Karen Hill

Photo: Karen Hill

Bob Pawlo: The Met is considered one of the greatest musical groups on the planet, and the string section is considered a jewel in the world. What is your view of the role of concertmaster?

David Chan: You have the things that are easily definable, like the solo playing. But what really makes the difference for a leader is more the intangible things. Obviously the quality of the playing helps a lot. If your colleagues think that you’re a beautiful player, that only helps them to respect you and respect the chair. But truly the hardest part – and nobody really talks about this when you’re taking auditions -– is really how you deal with people in situations, and that means dealing with conductors, dealing with management, and dealing with colleagues – particularly those in your own section. People who play in the same orchestra and produce such similar musical results can at times still be coming from very different vantage points on certain issues. This is something that you have to be able to appreciate and understand. You have to learn how to meet people halfway, and when that’s not possible, to be able to explain to them in human terms why things need to be a certain way.

Bob Pawlo: How do you get so many great violinists in a section to agree on anything together?

David Chan: I think the thing is – and I say this in the best possible sense – an orchestra is not a democracy. It’s a hierarchy; it’s set up that way. Ultimately, what the conductor says is what goes. But there are things that are not directly addressed by the conductor. Then, maybe the principal player has to make certain decisions. So when you have an orchestra full of great players and great people, everyone respects the structure and the process and it’s not really an issue. One thing we pride ourselves on at the Met is that there is a lot of commitment in our playing. I think anyone who has come to the opera or heard the orchestra at Carnegie Hall would agree that there’s a ton of commitment. So ultimately between the downbeat and the final chord, that’s what it’s about: it’s about the music and we’re here to abide by that common goal.

Bob Pawlo: How do you deal with the extraordinary schedule at the Met, balancing your teaching and your other musical activities and family life?

David Chan: Needless to say, that’s a constant challenge. I just mentioned the commitment of the orchestra. Our common musical purpose keeps us going. Logistically, day to day, it’s a challenge but we do have the summer vacation and that is really needed to help us recharge and gear up for another season when September comes.

Bob Pawlo: Which violinists or conductors have inspired and influenced you through the years?

David Chan: Heifetz was the single greatest influence on me in my early years, as he was for so many violinists. Today my own style is very different from his, but it would not have been possible to reach the level I’ve attained without having first aspired to his incomparable model. In terms of conductors, James Levine shaped the orchestra in so many important ways. He’s been a huge influence on me. His constant search for the maximum vitality and maximum expression has really informed a lot of my musical development and a lot of what I pass on to my own students.

Bob Pawlo: What concepts do you stress to your students?

David Chan: I really try to teach from the standpoint of music first and expression first, and that’s what I was referring to with my comments about Maestro Levine and trying to get the maximum expression. Many of the current generation of students grow up listening to music largely on a pair of headphones or on YouTube through computer speakers. They’re not getting the three-dimensional sound picture of live performance. Therefore, a lot of modern playing is, to my taste, much too two-dimensional. That’s not to say these young players don’t have terrific musical instincts – they do. But I really seek to develop their sound and expression in a more three-dimensional sort of way. So that’s my first priority. And to play in that way demands different technique. I try to tackle it from the standpoint of the musicality first. Then the technique we work on is the technique you need to supply that musicality, rather than having a technical punch list that I want them to run down. For me, that technical approach eliminates the primary reason to play music in the first place. My students have already gotten to that level of technique, they’re good enough to be at Juilliard, good enough to be young professionals. How do they get to that next level? For me, I’m finding that it’s usually rounding out their expressiveness, which is how they’re able to communicate the content of the music.

I think another byproduct of this digital era is that recordings these days are so well edited that there’s an excessive emphasis on technical perfection. Students are worried about making mistakes. Granted, your playing has to be at a minimum technical standard – we all know that. But the musicians who really communicate their love of the music and their involvement in the music are going to captivate your ear much more than a robotically perfect performance.

I’m all in favor of the highest level of technical proficiency you can acquire, don’t get me wrong. But when your reason to play a piece of music is really to communicate expressive content, then a few blemishes here and there may not even get noticed because then you have real substance, not just a stream of notes. It was a journey to get myself to that point. And some of it is just maturity; some of it is my own technical prowess over the years. I’ve gotten comfortable enough with it that I worry much less. I have a certain amount of job security. If I have a bad night, I don’t have to worry about whether or not I’m going to get re-engaged. It’s easier for me to think this way than for the young player who is wondering how he’s going to make it, I grant all that.

Some of it is also that I found Christian faith as an adult. I realize that God created us, and all this wonderful music is a gift from Him as well. At the end of the day, my self worth doesn’t need to be so tied to whether or not I played every note perfectly, because He loves us regardless and that is a greater gift than anything else.

Bob Pawlo: What would you say to young violinists and musicians starting their careers?

David Chan: I would tell them to have real integrity. Stay true to who you are as a musician. I had a crisis in my mid-20s where I felt that my intelligent, somewhat sober approach to music making wasn’t getting any attention. I worried that perhaps a flashier, more “selling out” style of playing would catch people’s attention more. I do feel that I’ve grown as a musician where I’ve filled in some of the shortcomings that I had at that time, so it’s not to say I didn’t develop, but at the same time I stayed true to who I was, and I developed at my own pace and in the end I feel like I’ve been rewarded for it, and this goes for any walk of life, I think. You have to have integrity in who you are and do things the way that you believe, especially as an artist. Artistic integrity shows. It’s not always appreciated by the masses or by PR agents, but other artists know, musicians know, and cream does rise to the top. The music world is small and competitive. There are many people trying to get the same few jobs. But if you really are gifted, and you’re feeling frustrated, you need to be patient and stay true to who you are artistically because there are no secrets in the music world. There’s not a Jascha Heifetz or a Vladimir Horowitz hiding in a town somewhere. That scenario doesn’t exist.

Bob Pawlo: Or a David Chan.

David Chan: You’re nice to include my name on that list. What I’m saying is that the classical music world is small enough that you can’t hide great, great talent. It will get noticed somehow. So, for the young student: put in the work, stay true to who you are and stay patient. Ultimately not everyone has a future in music – that’s true as well. But for the ones that do, you’ll have a much more artistically honest and satisfying life if you are really true to your own artistic ideas and not just do what you think will get you more gigs.

Finally, in making a career in music, I have also come to understand the necessity of coping with the music business as well as simply making music. In this, all of us musicians are deeply indebted to Local 802 and other fraternal organizations around the world for making it possible for us – in “real world” terms – to do what we are supposed to do: to make music. Thank you, Local 802!