First, a little background: Our recital tour is sponsored by Mercedes-Benz Taiwan. Outreach and education are as important to them (and to us!) as traditional concerts, so that was always built in as part of the tour. In the meantime, Mercedes G-Class (4 wheel drive) owners have formed a club, wherein the members get together every few months and take an adventurous driving excursion somewhere in Taiwan.
Enter Aowanda National Forest, nestled in the mountains in the center of Taiwan. It’s home to a largely aboriginal community, with a school uniquely appropriate for Cho-Liang Lin to make an appearance (more on that later.) There’s also a lodge for the enthusiastic Mercedes G-Class owners to stay.
Our trip to Aowanda entails meeting up with about a dozen black Mercedes G-Class drivers (most with families) at the base of the mountain at one of Taiwan’s ubiquitous 7 Eleven stores. From there we caravan on switchbacks, past deep gorges and verdant hills, up the mountain.
We arrive, and step out of the car into a swarm of paparazzi. I gather that about half of them are Taiwanese media, and the other half the Mercedes owners, who appear to have spent as much money on camera equipment as on their cars. (One of the club members is the Taiwanese rep for Leica, I later discover.)
Jimmy Lin and I are seated outdoors at a large school field. There are drums everywhere (familiar looking to me from Japanese Taiko) and a lot of middle school kids in beautiful traditional uniforms. This is Chin-Ai Elementary School, and we are about to be welcomed there.
These kids have unbelievable rhythm, and play the drums with joy and precision. I had no idea that they would be putting on anything resembling a musical performance for us, prior to our performing for them. I’m not sure what I expected at a school in such a remote location, but not this.
We’re all escorted into the school gym for a feast. On the way in, the wild pig splayed over a flame hints at the treat in store. Almost everything served is locally grown, including mushrooms that grow on tree stumps in the area, a green leafy vegetable that nobody could translate, several varieties of fish, chicken and taro root. And then there is the pork, served with a sticky rice that they can only harvest once a year – they had saved the last of this year’s supply for our lunch. Once they see how much I am enjoying the pork, one of the school teachers runs out periodically to slice pieces from directly over the flame and whisk them to my plate.
I’m about to discover why it’s so perfect for Jimmy Lin to be here. Chin-Ai Elementary school has a unique approach towards woodworking. The kids start out learning to carve figures from wood, but once they’ve reached a certain level of proficiency at this (say, by about age 10) they graduate to apprenticing at making violins.
They have professional molds for violin parts and expert instruction, and all of the students are expected to make, and decorate, their own violins. Naturally, they all play as well.
Finally we crowd into a classroom where Jimmy and I play a recital for the very odd combination of teachers, parents, students who are all passionate about violins, national media, and the Mercedes G-Class Enthusiast’s Club.
This is great fun. I recall receiving an urgent message a week ago from my management, concerned at discovering that this concert would be played on an upright piano. I can’t imagine having said no to this kind of experience – I’m very glad I wasn’t being a ‘high maintenance’ artist that day…
For the encore, Jimmy picks a violin made by a 12-yr-old girl and plays Kreisler’s Liebesleid. I have to say that I was absolutely wiping tears off of my eyes so that I could read the music. I can’t imagine what the experience was like for this girl.
The music continues. Jimmy and I accompany a huge group of kids in the Pachelbel Canon, I accompany one girl in a student violin concerto by Seitz, a boy gifts his violin to Jimmy and he plays the Ravel Habanera on it. We seem to be constantly trading back and forth as to who is performing for whom! There is endless cheering.
We end the afternoon autographing absolutely everything – I am autographing programs, brochures, and even violins. I see that Jimmy is autographing hands, wrists and arms.
The kids are really, really excited and don’t want to see us leave. I’m also relieved to see that they’ve gone from being very disciplined in drumming, and very respectful in our performance, to just being…kids.
We leave feeling like something extraordinary has happened, a true cultural and musical exchange where all of us come away enriched by the power of music.