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Homecoming for U-M alum

By Betsy Goolian

It will be a homecoming of sorts for Xiang Gao, who was born and raised in Beijing and is one of the most successful violinists of his generation. When he came to Ann Arbor in the autumn of 1991, he came directly from Beijing, where he had graduated from the prestigious Central Conservatory of Music. Xiang Gao (photo right) will be joining the University of Michigan Symphony Band on a tour of China in May.

He had come to Ann Arbor to work with Paul Kantor, then on the strings faculty (now at the Cleveland Institute of Music). “What amazing courage and confidence,” Kantor says now, “to travel half way around the world to study in a strange place with a very strange new teacher in a quite foreign language and even more alien culture.”

Other stories in China Tour series: A JOURNEY EAST,                U-M STUDENTS SELECTED FOR BAND

Kantor’s introduction to Xiang Gao came in the form of a letter in his mail slot, from China. “We saw each other for the first time, face to face, when I picked him up from the Ann Arbor bus station,” Kantor remembers. “I don’t know how he found me, although the reputation of U-M in China has apparently always been very strong.”

Kantor’s surmise is correct. “I had always heard about this incredible institution,” Gao confirms. “Michigan had a long history of interacting with China. And its strings program is one of the best in the U.S., if not the world. I wanted to become a musician and a well-educated individual. I wanted the whole nine yards of the college experience.”

Choosing to admit him was “no rocket science,” Kantor says. “The recorded materials he submitted showed a brilliant technical accomplishment, tremendous personality, and an innate artistic sensibility.”

Though the School of Music, Theatre & Dance granted him a full tuition scholarship, Gao was able to come all this way, in large part, because of a sponsorship that provided the so-called “unmet needs:”  room and board and other living expenses. Halfway through his freshman year, though, he received some distressing news:  his sponsors had fallen on hard times and would have to withdraw their support.

In January 1992, Rich (BBA ’70) and Susan Rogel (see photo right) were sitting in the audience for the School’s Collage Concert, the annual showcase of talent. Before the program began, Paul Boylan, then dean of the School, told Rogel to watch for a young violinist, newly arrived from China, and perhaps the most talented ever to come through the program.

True to Boylan’s prediction, Gao played movingly and beautifully. At intermission, the freshman came out into the audience to greet Helen and Clyde Wu, long-time supporters of the arts who were seated behind the Rogels. An animated conversation ensued.

“They were speaking in Mandarin,” Rogel says, “so of course I couldn’t understand. But Xiang was visibly upset. After he left, I asked what was going on and found out about the lost sponsorship.” Gao had been trying to make ends meet by working—illegally, as it turns out, given the terms of his student visa. It was a desperate situation.

Rogel did not hesitate. “I called the University and asked if we could pick up the sponsorship,” he says. “And that’s what we did.” That phone call was life altering for Xiang Gao. It made it possible for him to continue his studies in Ann Arbor. The Rogels supported him through his bachelor’s and on through a master’s degree.

That was just a start, by the way, for the Rogels. Xiang is one of the more than 400 students the couple has supported over the years. In 2000, they made a commitment of $22 million for aid for out-of-state students, the largest gift for student support to U-M.

A few months after picking up the sponsorship, the Rogels invited Xiang to dinner and a basketball game. “I figured he probably wasn’t eating that well,” Rogel says. That night was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. “We instantly fell in love with him, and have had a relationship ever since.”

“What Susan and Rich gave me was way beyond the sponsorship,” Gao says. “Because of them, I had a wonderful sense of belonging. I was 18 and far away from home. The U.S. was a very strange place to me at that point. I was trying to keep my focus on learning English and working on my performance. But culturally it was a big shock.”

Gao’s career skyrocketed from the get-go. As early as 1994, while still an undergraduate, he became the first Chinese violinist to join the roster of Columbia Artists Management. His performing career has taken him to venues far and wide, as soloist with the finest symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles in the world.

The New York Times called him a “rare and soulful virtuoso.” He was recently invited by Chinese President Hu JinTao to entertain the visiting King Carlos I of Spain; he’s performed at Carnegie Hall; he was tapped to play for a number of televised events during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Now a full professor of music—the youngest—at the University of Delaware, Gao just accepted the ZiJiang Chair, a four-year professorship at East China Normal University in Shanghai, where he will teach for up to two months annually. He continues on the faculty at Delaware, which provided him with a violin made in 1794 by master maker G. B. Ceruti of Cremona.

While classical music has always been his mainstay, Gao has been interested in crossover music since high school. Ten years ago, he co-founded the four-member ensemble China Magpie (photo below), a project of Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, and last year started 6ixwire, a duo with erhu player, Cathy Yang. Both groups draw on music of many genres, from many cultures.

The May 2011 tour to China won’t be his first involvement with a U-M tour. In 1993, he met up with a delegation in China, led by then University President James Duderstadt. “The Rogels sponsored me so I could go home to see my family.” Towards the end of the tour, the group visited the Great Wall. Gao went with them—for the first time, as it turns out, because China didn’t allow citizens to move around.

One morning, in a Beijing hotel, Gao was seated at the piano in the lobby. Rogel remembers it clearly. “As people came down to the lobby for the day, Xiang began to play The Victors. We were about to leave Beijing; it was truly a spectacular moment. It brought a smile to everyone’s face—people still talk about it.”

On the 2011 tour, Gao is featured in a new work by Kristin Kuster, SMTD composition faculty member. Composer and violinist met up last summer in Ann Arbor to talk about the work. “We joked about balance issues,” Gao laughs, “because I don’t think four strings can ever compete with a symphony band. But I have complete confidence in what she is writing. My job is to communicate with her and become her voice.”

We asked Gao what students should know going into the tour. “An American college education is a dream for a lot of kids all over the world. U-M students have something many students in the world do not. It will be inspirational for them to see how few resources their peers in China have and how they work with so little.”

Conversely, Chinese students will want to know what it’s like to be a U-M student, what everyday life is like. “They learn about Americans from Hollywood,” he says, “but reality is different. This is a chance for them to share with Chinese students and music lovers what they have in their hearts and minds.”

As to the whole notion of touring, “In my opinion, every little bit counts,” Gao says. “We will be representing not just the University of Michigan, but the American people. This tour is going to help build more bridges, and music, in my opinion, has magical power.”

“When young people meet, it’s a spectacular moment. They can make magic happen—they have so much to share.”

Now, some 18 years later, Gao speaks English like a native son. The Rogels see him several times a year, most recently for Christmas at their Colorado home. Samantha Rao Gao, Xiang and his wife Renee’s five-year old daughter, calls Rich grandpa and Susan grandma. “Xiang is like our own son.”

“Rich and Susan are my parents at heart,” Xiang says. “It’s because of them that I fell in love with the U.S. Because of them, now China is my mother country, America is my father country; it gave me endless opportunities in the world of music.”

When it was suggested that the Rogels must have been a boon to Gao’s existence, Rich takes exception. “I’d turn that around,” he says. “He’s been a boon to our existence.”

Betsy Goolian is a writer/editor at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance.