In 1958, the year Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, a gaunt 6’1″, 19-year-old Chinese pianist named Liu Shih-kun came in second. Young Liu became one of China’s top concert performers until 1966, when the country was shaken by the Cultural Revolution and the infamous “Gang of Four” (which included Mao Tsetung’s wife, Chiang Ching). Western music was totally banned and along with thousands of other artists and intellectuals Liu was sent to prison, where he languished for six years without a piano. Unconfirmed Soviet press reports indicated that Liu’s hands or wrists had been broken by Red Guards.
Two weeks ago, when conductor Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony returned from a wildly successful concert tour of Shanghai and Peking, they brought along the two Chinese virtuosi who had soloed with the orchestra. One was Liu Shih-kun, now 40, who for his solemn expression had been nicknamed by the BSO members “the man who never smiles.” During his appearances in Boston, Liu Shih-kun met with PEOPLE correspondent Gail Jennes, who filed this report of his reception and his own chilling reminiscences.
Minutes before his opening concert in Symphony Hall, Liu practiced the Liszt Concerto No. 1 in E flat in an offstage hallway with such ferocity that he seemed to be making up for all the lost years. Remembering Liu’s breakneck performance in China, the conductor motioned for Liu’s interpreter (the Japanese Ozawa, though born in China, is not fluent in the language) and whispered: “Tell him not to worry. I stay with him.” After the concert a capacity crowd saluted the bespectacled, Mao-suited pianist with a clamorous ovation and murmurs among themselves of “another Horowitz.” Later a fan gave him flowers, and, with a formal bow, Liu presented them to Ozawa’s mother, Sakura, 71, visiting from Tokyo.
Winding down from the performance, Liu felt more at ease and began the story of his interrupted career. He was born in 1939 in Tientsin and recalls playing the piano as early as 4: “I sat on my father’s knees because I couldn’t reach the keyboard.” Liu’s dad, a trained singer, taught his son to memorize classical music by vocalizing it, and at 5 the boy could hum entire Beethoven symphonies and pick them out on the piano. At 12, he entered the conservatory in Tientsin.
After his unexpected second-place finish to Cliburn (“I was very much lacking in confidence”), Liu returned in 1960 to study at the Moscow Conservatory with famed teacher Samuel Feinberg. Two years later he went back to China to concertize and married into a prominent family: His father-in-law was a high military official close to Premier Chou En-lai. Then during the subsequent Cultural Revolution Liu’s political harassment began, he says, “with attacks on me in the press. It was a year before I was thrown in jail.”
There, a Peking music student worked Liu over with his fists and a belt—”cracking but not breaking a bone in my right forearm.” Today Liu is surprisingly unbitter about the Philistines he refers to as “naive young rioters.” “But it saddened me,” he understates, “being without a piano for six years in isolated confinement in the company only of prison guards.” What was there to do in his Peking cell? “Nothing,” Liu replies, his face grim. “I kept practicing music in my head and I even composed a concerto—though I had no paper or pen to write it down.”
The first time Liu played in public again was in 1973 when, following Richard Nixon’s visit, the Philadelphia Orchestra performed in Peking. For propaganda purposes, Madame Chiang Ching sent for him and he played, but, says Liu: “She was the one who locked me up. When I got out she said she didn’t do it, but she did.”
These days in his Peking home, Liu uses a battered West German upright, explaining that “on a poor piano you try harder and so perform better.” He practices “irregularly, sometimes less than two hours a day. My daily life is not systematic.” His wife, Chiang Feng, 38, is a film director, and they have one son, Hsiao-ying, 15. A “great movie fan,” Liu has seen Hollywood movies like Jaws and Jaws II in Peking. (Liu’s father-in-law, now restored, is believed to be second in the hierarchy of China’s Communist party.)
When Liu came to Boston, his sister, Chin-ju, 30, wife of a U.N. interpreter, came up for an emotional reunion. “Since the age of 4, my brother plays piano. Then he achieves fame and I feel very proud,” she said. “Now since he can play again, he is happy. I hope the nightmare of the past 10 years is over.” Liu looked fondly at his sister, and suddenly he was no longer the man who never smiles.