From Concert Halls to Community Centers: World Class Violist's Journey of Musical Inclusion

By Anne Schulze

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In this modern digital age, music is omnipresent. It flows seamlessly from headphones, car radios, and smart speakers. From streaming platforms to social media, the tunes of various genres are just a click away, making music more accessible than ever.

Yet, amidst this auditory abundance, there remains a genre that, for many, feels more at home in gilded concert halls than in the everyday playlists of the masses: classical music.

With its grand symphonies and intricate compositions, this genre has long been perceived as the domain of the elite, a world where luxury meets artistry. This exclusivity is a narrative that professional and award-winning violist En-Chi Cheng is determined to rewrite.

Cheng is currently an Associate Musician at The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York.

With a viola in hand and a mission in heart, the violist is not just playing notes; he's weaving a symphony of inclusion that seeks to bring the beautiful echoes of classical music from the grandeur of concert halls to the heart of community centers.

Cheng mentions, "One of my core missions as a professional classical musician is to open up the world of Classical music to the everyday listener, to show audiences that all they need to do is to listen."

The 63rd Grammy Awards, Best Opera Recording Winner, started to fulfill this mission as he brought the beauty of classical music into the Northeastern United States communities, performing for the Moscow Clayworks community pottery studio in Moscow, Pennsylvania.

Vision Turned to Reality

Buying an average New York City Broadway show typically costs at least $120. This sets classical music a high standard of excellence compared to other gatherings like sports, games, or movies. For this reason, Cheng and other musicians work to bring classical music to audiences that might not be able to experience it in the concert hall or opera theater.

Their journey brought them to the Scranton, Pennsylvania, area, where Cheng has presented many concerts for the local community. He explains that the site is at least a two-hour drive away from any international musical festival, orchestra hall, or concert venue, so hearing live classical music at a world-class level was a rare opportunity for the community.

Cheng gave concerts at libraries, kindergartens, high schools, art galleries, and specifically in Moscow Clayworks. He explains that most concerts he presents are his solo viola performances. Still wanting to connect with other local musicians, he partnered with local high school students, giving them valuable performance opportunities and a chance to work with an active professional musician.

In other instances, Cheng often hosts interactive events for children in collaboration with esteemed institutions like the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Curtis Institute of Music, and Music from Angel Fire. At these gatherings, youngsters are invited to examine and even hold the instruments under supervision closely. Cheng believes that such hands-on experiences foster a connection, instilling in the children a belief that classical music is accessible and within their grasp.

"This is another reward for us. We do not just present classical music to underserved communities. We also make them love the genre, inspiring others to become one of us. It's the cherry on top. This is what it is all about," Cheng shares.

Cheng's Fair Share of Lows

Cheng admits that hard work, sacrifice, and significant adjustments occur behind every community performance. "It's not easy," the violist adds. The journey from the international stages to the intimate settings of community centers was challenging. One of his most formidable obstacles was building an audience from scratch.

He adds, "In places like Moscow, classical music is seldom heard, so creating an audience was akin to sowing seeds on barren land."

This required Cheng to move outside his comfort zone and connect with other cultural institutions outside of classical music that already have their presence in Moscow. And this is precisely what happened when, according to Cheng, the original concept for the concert stemmed from a visit by community leaders from Moscow to New York City. These leaders, acquaintances of the performers, came to witness Cheng's musical performance.

Video clips from this visit were disseminated throughout the Moscow community via social media and the internet, laying the groundwork for the concert. Through word of mouth and flyer dissemination, the show was promoted to students and their families and helped assemble the concert's audience.

Cheng adds, "It was lovely seeing people who first witnessed the concert help us organize it for others in the community to see."

However, Cheng admits that establishing his brand in such an environment was another struggle. With its limited exposure to high-caliber classical performances, Moscow presented Cheng with the challenge of performing and educating. "Classical music is a collection of our shared history, a reflection of our evolution as a society," he mentions. "It's not enough to just play; it's crucial to contextualize, to narrate the stories behind the notes."

And so, with every performance, the violist took on the role of a storyteller, describing the story of each piece by connecting to the time, location, and culture behind the music and putting them into the interpretation.

"With the help of sound and music, the history can be recreated vividly with imaginations like a good history book, ensuring they were not just listeners but active participants in the musical journey," Cheng adds.

Yet, even as he navigated the challenges of audience building and brand establishment, logistical and financial hurdles loomed large. Moscow offered no purpose-built concert halls. Cheng shares, "Finding the right space that would do justice to the intricacies of classical compositions was a quest." However, they did not let this physical barrier stop them. After much deliberation, the backyard of Moscow Clayworks, with its tent and picturesque lawn, became the chosen venue, setting an ambiance where the music could breathe and the audience could connect.

The financial constraints of relocating and transporting a performance of Carnegie Hall's magnitude to Moscow were another significant challenge. The costs mounted from ensuring the availability of a top-notch piano to covering artist fees. Cheng shares, "The traveling, a great conditioned piano, and artist fees all cost a lot. However, I worked hard and made special music arrangements for smaller ensembles to create an affordable concert without sacrificing the quality."

When asked what keeps Cheng going despite all these challenges, he mentions, "I could feel the energy in the room and expectation brimming in the audience's eyes. There were touching moments; the tears in their eyes were audible. After the concert, multiple audience members sent letters congratulating me on the performance and commenting on their amazement at the playing and music-making. Classical music became a memorable experience for them, one they said they were still talking about years after. These moments make the whole experience, all challenges worth it."

Viola For a Greater Purpose

Cheng's journey from a boy in a "cultural desert" to one of the graduates of prestigious music universities like The Juilliard School to becoming a world-class violist is a testament to the transformative power of live music. It's this very power, this magic, that he wishes to share and change other lives too.

Cheng envisions presenting classical music to those who haven't heard of it and using the genre to champion social causes and issues. His mission is not just about playing music; it's about using his talent for broader reasons.

From the stage's spotlight to the outskirts of the community, Cheng ensures that classical music is not confined to grand concert halls in metropolitan cities but reaches the corners of the world, one that's being applauded not just for its great showcase but also for its message.

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