by Susanne Park
On January 20, 2021, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra lost a beloved member of its family. Hong-Guang Jia, Associate Concertmaster for nearly 30 years, lost his courageous battle with cancer. He was 66 years old.
Please watch this musical tribute from the PSO:
In Remembrance of Hong-Guang Jia
Hong-Guang grew up in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, and started learning at age 6 to play violin from his father. Growing up during the Cultural Revolution came with many challenges, some of which are highlighted in a beautifully heartfelt article written by his son Oliver Jia which we urge you to read to more fully appreciate Hong-Guang’s journey.
Hong-Guang’s musical talents led him to study at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music, where his classmates included composer Tan Dun, and where his photo hangs in the great hall next to the likes of other Chinese luminaries such as pianists Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. As one of Beijing Conservatory’s top students, he performed for Isaac Stern during his famous trip to China, which was documented in the film “From Mao to Mozart.”
But it was Yehudi Menuhin who changed Hong’s life by offering a scholarship to study with him in Switzerland. The legendary Menuhin welcomed Hong-Guang into his home and treated him like a member of his family. After several years in Europe, Hong-Guang went on to join the Baltimore Symphony and later the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal before being chosen by Lorin Maazel to serve as Assistant Concertmaster of the PSO.
When the PSO toured Asia in 2009, it became apparent to many of his colleagues just what a celebrity Hong-Guang is in China: he gave numerous interviews to the press and was invited to teach masterclasses at the Central Conservatory as a guest professor. Listen to Jim Cunningham’s interview with Hong-Guang about his welcome home.
As impressive as his professional career was, it was Hong-Guang’s calm, gentle temperament and kind smile that endeared him to so many. Here are some of the memories his colleagues, past and present, would like to share:
Adam Liu, Assistant Principal Cello:
I first heard about Hongguang Jia was in my middle school years. At the point China was relatively new at classical music and he was considered as one of the first few pioneers in the business. After I entered the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing that’s where I finally saw him for the first time in person. I still remember one bright sunny afternoon during a Spring semester. The strings department announced – “well known musician Mr. Jia had just returned from Switzerland and will give a lecture talking about his own personal experiences studying and working abroad”
He showed up with a fashionable long hair that well covered his ears. He was very energetic and talked about his teachers Alberto Lysy and Yehudi Menuhin and also shared some stories of his music camps work with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, etc. it was absolutely fascinating for all of us who were listening to him. The whole classroom was so quiet. All eyes focused on him. At the time we had no idea what it was like living in Europe and in USA. Western world was mystery to us. His first-hand information for making music in Europe with some of the world’s first class musicians mesmerized everybody.
We did not cross paths again until later when I was a student at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. He was already a member of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. One night me and my friend violinist Bing Wang (who is now Assistant Concertmaster in Los Angeles Philharmonic) playing a duet gig in a restaurant- Ja-Fe Restaurant on St Charles Street. Hongguang was walking pass by the window and saw us play. He stopped and listened. I remember he was dressed with the tuxedo on his way to Meyerhoff Concert Hall for a weekend BSO concert. Few minutes later when we had a pulse from the duet he came inside and told us the tempo of the movement we just played was not quite correct. He said “keep practicing you will get there.” That was the very first time he talked to me.
Fast forward several years later while I was the associate principal cello in Montreal some musicians in that organization told me Hongguang was a fantastic assistant concertmaster there for several years and that he had played some great solo concerts with them. Too bad I was not there at the time to hear those concerts.
He didn’t really know me until after I joined Pittsburgh Symphony. We shared a lot of stories together and had many mutual friends. Very fond memories. I have learned so much from him. He was a man with integrity and dignity. A great teacher, great musician, great colleague and a great friend.
He was one of the first graduates from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. The school since produced some great musicians such as YiBing Zhu, Lang Lang, Wei Xue, Yuja Wang, Yundi Li and so many musicians who are now working and playing in the leading art institutions throughout the world.
String Quartet Concert March, 2016
(All four musicians graduated from The Central Conservatory of Music)
BUT – I think just like Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron, the name of Hongguang Jia is symbolized as some kind of the “first” in China. Without him, I don’t know if the classical music in China would turn out the same like it is today.
Rest In Peace. You will be forever missed.
David Gillis, retired PSO violinist:
Hong-Guang was one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of candidates auditioning to join the first class of the Central Conservatory after it had been closed for ten years of the Cultural Revolution. He had prepared the Paganini concerto for his audition. When he played it for the jury, someone noticed a “wrong” note and he was afraid that his chance was gone, but the jury asked which edition he was using and he admitted that he had “transcribed” it himself from an old recording – never having seen a printed copy. Fortunately, they appreciated what an incredibly determined, amazingly talented player he was and he was admitted. Many others from his class are the most revered players, conductors, teachers, and composers of today.
I wish I could adequately express my love and admiration for him – I miss his calm, yet powerful presence as a colleague to rely on. We had so many wonderful conversations, especially on PSO tours, about our lives, our families, our love of Chinese food and culture. We both have two sons who enriched our lives with their varied interests. Our friendship was as close to brotherhood as possible.
Andres Cardenes, former Concertmaster:
I have a long history with Hong Guang. We first met at the Sibelius International Violin Competition in 1980. He was an exciting and technically gifted player who almost reached the finals. He was among the first Chinese violinists to participate in an international contest. While we didn’t become friends back then, I remembered him well and was delighted when he auditioned for and won the PSO Assistant Concertmaster position.
“Hongy,” as we affectionately called him, was an integral part of the PSO’s success over his many years with the orchestra. He remained an excellent player and became an important teacher both privately and at Duquesne University.
One of my funniest memories of Hongy was when I played the violin solos in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade under Pascal Tortelier and was offered a solo bow after the performance. As Pascal gestured to me, I stood up. And so did Hongy! (He probably thought the gesture was for the entire orchestra to stand.) So I turned to him and said “Nice solos, Hongy,” whereupon we both burst out laughing uncontrollably on stage. For years after, whenever I had a solo in a concert he’d jokingly say he was planning to stand with me!
He was an incredibly likable, collegial and gentle human being. I will miss him.
Shanshan Yao, former PSO violinist:
Hong-Guang was a dear friend. Through my years at PSO, he was like my Chinese uncle. He was always kind, thoughtful and supportive. We shared many wonderful meals together on tour, and I loved listening to his life stories – from his early years in China, to his studies in Switzerland with Sir Yehudi Menuhin and on to his successful career in North America. He always smiled.
It is still hard to accept that he has left us, although I knew this day was coming. As Hong-Guang said, he didn’t have many regrets in his life and he was happy. I guess not many people could say that at the end of their lives. Hong-Guang, I can still hear your laughter.
Noah Bendix-Balgley, former Concertmaster of the PSO:
Hong-Guang was a wonderful colleague and friend. I appreciated his kind, understated manner and how he welcomed myself and other young members into the orchestra and made us feel at home. A good man – I will miss him.
Neal Berntsen, Second Trumpet:
There will be many tributes to the incredible musicianship and performance abilities of Hongy. And I’m sure there will also be much deserved recognition of his pedagogical talents.
Personally, I was lucky enough to travel with him twice to China to teach. I remember being at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing and how proudly he showed me the wall in the Conservatory which honored the greatest instrumental teachers in the world – which contained a plaque honoring Hong-Guang Jia. I also recall when Hongy hosted an official delegation from the Tianjin Conservatory here and how graciously he welcomed the large group and helped introduce them to the cultural norms and idiosyncrasies we enjoy here in Pittsburgh. But I want to talk about tennis.
Hongy was the best tennis player in the PSO by a mile. He loved tennis. He approached it with a devotion and discipline that I’m sure rivaled his relationship to the violin. I think Hongy played on every tennis court in Allegheny county. He surely knew every free public court that had a quality surface – where he would torture his opponents! International or domestic tours did not deter his thirst to play. Once the plane landed-he was ready to use the 4 hours before rehearsal to play tennis. We played in South America, Japan, China, and throughout Europe (he was ruthless on red clay!) Hungy even got us on a court at the National Tennis Centre in Melbourne (home of the Australian Open) on a court that sat about 25,000 people!
I never beat him. No one in the PSO ever beat him. Frankly, I don’t know anyone that ever beat him. Playing Hongy was like hitting against a wall. He was fast AND quick. He could run down any shot and return a winner. Then…. he would giggle. I will miss his giggle, his warm smile, his friendship and the incredible professionalism and stability with which he graced the PSO and every part of the world that he touched.
Huei-Sheng Kao, Assistant Concertmaster of the PSO and stand partner to Hong-Guang for 29 years:
“Seafood hotpot for $16, it was great!” he exclaimed when we were in Vienna. Or … “We’re staying two extra nights in Chinatown to eat.”
With his trademark grin, my wonderful stand partner, Hong-Guang Jia, always exhibited the first love of most Chinese people – the eternal search for the best Chinese food for the cheapest price.
For more than two decades, I enjoyed his culinary sleuthing, but that was a distant second to the many benefits I gained from observing his complete musicianship and great playing. I watched and admired his approach to solving difficult passages, both for fingerings and bow strokes. From Peking duck to Beethoven, Ma-Po tofu or Mozart, Hong-Guang had me covered.
It was an honor and a joy to play next to Hong-Guang. His passion for music and infectious smile will be missed by all of us in the PSO family.
I will miss my friend.
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Musicians offer Hong-Guang’s sons Oliver and Benjamin and wife Wei Wei our deepest sympathies.