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Hekun Wu: Playing a New Song

Hekun Wu has conducted Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony" for over a decade, but when the new Salem Chamber Orchestra director lifted his baton to signal his first performance at Willamette University, the piece sounded a little more, well, pastoral.

"Every time I open that score there's so much to discover," the new associate professor of music says, "but this time I heard something new." The symphony, which was chosen to celebrate Oregon's beauty, portrays a rainstorm and the peace found in nature, and somehow seems more at home on an Oregon stage than in the concert halls of New York City, Paris or Shanghai.

"If Beethoven had visited this part of the world he would have composed a few more
pastoral symphonies," Wu says.

Wu's own journey to Willamette's Music Department began in an unlikely place. He came of age in China during the Cultural Revolution. Chairman Mao had closed every university and music conservatory in the country, and sent the country's brightest young people off to the countryside to work the rice fields. Mao's wife, a connoisseur of the arts, persuaded Mao to allow her to open four "Experimental Schools," which served Mao's political agenda while introducing a handful of young people to Chinese opera and carefully selected Western symphonic music.

At age 12, in a country covering almost ten million square kilometers, possessing few musical abilities, Wu was somehow admitted. He didn't take his good fortune lightly. After his introduction to piano and the cello, he threw himself into his studies with the energy of a mature musician. "Life was simple," he says. "We didn't have much distraction, and so we just studied."

After Mao's downfall in 1976, universities slowly reopened their doors. Competition was fierce for the newly re-established Shanghai Music Conservatory, but Wu's talent ensured his admission. After graduation, the Chinese Ministry of Culture selected the young conservatory graduate to participate in an artist exchange program in Paris, formerly viewed as the epicenter of Western bourgeois decadence. In the 1980s Wu entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he immersed himself in all that had once been forbidden--art museums and exhibitions, the opera, even French literature. "I was in my early 20s," he says, "a time when one absorbs knowledge and an understanding of life. That period made a huge impact on me as an artist and as a person."

At the conservatory, Wu met one of the greatest cellists of the century, Maurice Gendron. The 62-year-old cellist recognized Wu's talent and invested his considerable energies in the young musician. His teacher told him that the training at the conservatory would not be sufficient, so Wu was invited to the master's home for weekly lessons. In the beginning, Wu used his French dictionary to participate in animated discussions over lunch, which was carefully prepared by "the Madame."

"It's not enough to just look at the notes on the printed page," Gendron told his student. "You must look through the piece to see the vast world of the composer, to look into the spirit of poetry and painting and art." When Wu saw Picasso's "Pigeons" painting on Gendron's wall, he naively asked if it was real. "Everything is real here," his teacher replied. (The painting was a gift from the artist.) "Some people saw Gendron as difficult--a tough teacher with rare compliments to his pupils--but to this day, I still feel his inspiration," Wu says.

It's apparent that Wu draws inspiration from somewhere. He plays cello as if the instrument is an extension of himself and conducts with a spirit and energy that transcends the score. "For me, it's a moment where you are taken by Beethoven--if you are lucky enough--although it doesn't happen often. If one is sincere, there is a connection that enables us to reach Beethoven, regardless of our race or nationality. The great music, art and literature are the properties of the world.

"When you conduct or play a work like Beethoven or Mozart, it's not a matter of interpretation, but rather a way of living," Wu says. "How can I dare to interpret Beethoven? A masterpiece itself speaks. It is a soul searching and it is always a work in progress."

For Wu, soul searching and years of diligence led to worldwide acclaim. He has energized orchestras with his conducting and electrified audiences in Europe, China and the United States with his cello performances. He taught at a number of schools before coming to Willamette, where he replaced Salem Chamber Orchestra Founder and Music Director Laureate Bruce McIntosh. The 45-member orchestra is sponsored, in part, by Willamette University, and is composed of faculty artists, students and community musicians--both professional and volunteer.

The new music director opened his first season by conducting the orchestra and playing a Tchaikovsky cello solo simultaneously. The feat earned him a thumbs-up in the local Statesman Journal "Winners" column: "How hard is that? Picture driving a racecar and doing your taxes at the same time."

Was he nervous? "Sure, sure, of course. I describe it as the fear of God. I'm not just nervous about making mistakes. It's not show-off time. Every gesture, everything is a matter of serving the music." Wu's world-famous cello teacher was so nervous he suffered stage fright, particularly in his later years, even though some of his recordings--recorded in one take--are thought to be the best in existence.

Wu is happy to be ensconced at Willamette, where music is taught within the context of a broad liberal arts education. "Music is a science as well," he said. "To be a complete artist you have to have a scientist's mind, a philosopher's way of thinking, the imagination of a poet, and the stoicism of a Buddhist monk."

His goals for the Salem Chamber Orchestra are ambitious, as were his predecessor's. He realizes he's fighting an uphill battle, as the classical audience has declined. Young people have been drawn away by computer games, sports and pop culture, and nurturing their interest will take more than concerts--it will take dedicated educational outreach. The conductor still believes, though, that music is not created for musicians, but for people, "for every citizen in a civilized society."

Wu comes to Willamette with his wife, Elise Yun, who is an accomplished artist in her own right. A pianist, she is a visiting assistant professor this year. Yun has performed extensively, including a duo recital at Carnegie Recital Hall. Prior to coming to Willamette, she led master classes in the United States and Asia, and taught at Wellesley College, New York University and as a teaching fellow at The Juilliard School. She and Wu have recorded and performed worldwide as a duo.

As for Oregon, Wu believes that it's ideal for an artist to situate in beautiful surroundings. "For every creative work, we need fresh air and beauty to supplement the imagination, to develop creativity. Nature affects our everyday life. When I see the Columbia River Gorge, I realize how insignificant we are as human beings.

"Just like this 'Pastoral Symphony,'" Wu says, "I now understand it differently. When we played it that night, I believe we came close to what I have been searching for."