Songs for an absent hero

Local virtuoso to serenade Nobel winner China won’t set free

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By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / December 4, 2010

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At Friday’s ceremony in Oslo honoring 2010 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo, an empty chair will represent the missing honoree. Liu, a writer, teacher, and human rights activist, is serving an 11-year prison sentence for opposing the ruling Communist regime. He will not be permitted to attend, say Chinese officials, who have denounced Liu’s selection as “a desecration’’ of the peace prize.

The stage will not be empty, though. Actress Liv Ullmann will read from Liu’s works. A selection of music will be played in his honor, as is customary at these ceremonies. Among the performers will be violinist Lynn Chang, a Newton resident and celebrated Chinese-American musician who has played with orchestras around the world.

Chang, 57, has chosen three songs that reflect the mood and theme of Friday’s proceedings. But his decision to play in Oslo was not arrived at lightly, given the backlash he might face.

“I was of course thrilled and honored to be asked,’’ Chang said during an interview at the Boston Conservatory, one of four Boston-area schools where he teaches. “But I asked for a day to think about it, too.’’

With family members still living in China, Chang said, he feared not being allowed back in the country to visit them. His father, a retired physician who emigrated from China in 1949, was particularly concerned about this.

On a professional level, Chang added, the biggest issue was whether Chinese music students might not be allowed to study with him or his colleagues in the future.

“China is on the forefront of Western classical music. It’s really the future of classical music,’’ he said. “There are 300 million Chinese students studying it. If the government decides no Chinese students can come to our schools, that would be a tremendous loss.’’

Chang spent a day consulting with friends, family, China experts, and school officials, among them members of Harvard University’s Board of Overseers, on which he serves. Finding near-unanimous support for his going, he told event planners yes. The next order of business, choosing what to play, was almost as thought-provoking.

“What’s usually played at these ceremonies is a little Mozart, a little Bach,’’ he said. “That’s great stuff, but I was looking for something a little more appropriate to the occasion.’’

The selections he’s settled upon include two Chinese folk songs: “Jasmine Flowers,’’ a lilting, meditative 18th-century composition familiar throughout China and sung during closing ceremonies at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing; and “Colorful Clouds Chasing the Moon,’’ an upbeat, jazzy 1930s composition whose lyrics refer to missing loved ones, a conscious bow to the absent Liu.

The third piece was inspired by a statement Liu made at his court sentencing, in which he spoke of his undying love for his wife. To honor them as a couple, Chang will play the Edward Elgar composition “Salut d’Amour’’ (“Love’s Greeting’’), a romantic, sentimental song “full of young love,’’ as Chang describes it.

His hope is that the pieces chosen for his seven-minute program “go right to the heart of the Chinese people,’’ he said, even though the ceremony itself will be blacked out in China, at least officially.

His prominent role in the peace prize event marks another milestone in what has been a storied musical career. Chang grew up in the Boston area, where both his parents practiced medicine. At 10, he made his debut with the Boston Pops.

Among his childhood tutors was Boston Symphony Orchestra violinist Alfred Krips. His Harvard College contemporaries — Chang is a 1975 graduate — include cellist Yo-Yo Ma, with whom he has frequently played and recorded.

Chang won top prize in the International Paganini Competition and has earned worldwide acclaim as a soloist and chamber musician, having performed with symphony orchestras from Boston to Beijing.

A founding member of the Boston Chamber Music Society, he also teaches at MIT, Boston University, and the New England Conservatory of Music. At the Boston Conservatory, he directs the Hemenway Strings.

Chang’s former Harvard professor, Dr. Allen Counter, broached the idea of playing in Oslo to honor Liu. Counter, a neurobiologist, is consul general of Sweden in Boston and New England and has close ties to Nobel event planners. He nominated Chang not because of his political views, Counter said, but because he is a violin virtuoso with a worldwide following.

“I knew they were looking at different performers, and I’ve known Lynn since his undergraduate years,’’ Counter said. “He’s a talented musician who will add immeasurably to the ceremony.’’

Rhonda Rider, chairwoman of chamber music at the Boston Conservatory, has traveled and played with Chang extensively. Calling him “a musician’s musician,’’ she praised not only his virtuosity but his pedagogy as well. “Everywhere you go, especially in Asia, you’ll find students of Lynn Chang,’’ said Rider. “In Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, wherever — students really want to study with Lynn.’’

Chang has never met Liu and has seldom interacted with political dissidents during visits to China. In 1989, though, Chang was performing in Taiwan when the Tiananmen Square demonstrations erupted. He cut his trip short and hurriedly flew to San Francisco to play in a concert of support for the dissidents.

“I feel like I’ve come full circle,’’ Chang said. “As the saying goes, where words end, music begins. I’m trying to complete unfinished business here.’’

From what he has learned, he added, China’s hard-line stance masks a deep nationalist pride, particularly among Chinese intellectuals and artists, in Liu’s selection.

“Change is already starting to happen,’’ he said. “If in some small way my participation can affect a kind of international dialogue, I’d be very pleased.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at