Jetting from continent to continent is nothing new to Shao. His own musical education began early; he learned to play piano at age 4, violin at age 5.
The better part of his career has been spent traveling through five continents in various posts, conducting for the likes of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Spain’s Euskadi Orchestra and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.
When he takes the podium on Saturday, he will be refreshed and ready to present a program of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and more. He recently spoke about what it takes to put together a great program, tips for dealing with time changes and why food surpasses music as a universal language.
Q: You’ve traveled and worked all over the world. How do you handle the time changes?
A: Just eat good. When I travel on airplanes I make sure I eat good, because otherwise I start feeling weak and short of energy. And then if I need to sleep I just drink something – strong alcohol drink, but not too much … and then have a good sound sleep and then wake up very fresh in a different time zone and start working straight away.
Q: So that is the key, to just start working right away?
A: Of course. I mean we have to do the preparation before the travel, actually, before the departure. And then to prepare, and to learn the music, and to do necessary research. But physically I can cope with all those different time zones … I can’t afford to have some kind of jet lag.
Q: Do you find that music is a universal language?
A: Oh yes, of course. It also could be a good opportunity to learn other people’s culture. Of course the Chinese culture, the European culture, the American culture are different. But to learn a different culture is very enjoyable. If you go to visit a local museum and talk with the people and even go to typical, local restaurants – I can tell you, when I go to a place not in China, I always fancy to go to a local, popular restaurant to eat. They don’t cook good Chinese food in Paris because the older immigrants from China are not the best cooks. But we eat good French food in Paris and good steak in New York. I prefer to go to a local restaurant eating typical American local food. I like food more than the music, to be honest.
Q: The program for the concert is a reflection of both the familiar and of your country. (It includes Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and a movement from “Requiem of the Earth,” by Xia Guan, written after a devastating earthquake in China in 2008.) How is it decided what pieces the orchestra performs?
A: The choice of repertoire has to be carefully considered. For American orchestras, it’s a big task. For instance, this concert – if we play Beethoven’s Seventh, that’s popular. Everybody enjoys listening to Beethoven’s Seventh.
Also, we have to have some new things, like “Requiem.” Of course, particularly when a Chinese orchestra visits, they have to bring some kind of Eastern flavor or Chinese repertoire to make the audience feel different and fresh.
Of course, the audience always enjoys watching a good soloist play a difficult concerto.
Q: You have two sons. Are they interested in music?
A: They are not at all.
Q: Do you want them to be?
A: No, never.
I’m so lucky because they are not interested. Music is a profession that you can live without. Of course music is important and people think music is beauty ... but if there’s a war or any bad time happening, people first of all need to eat and then need medicine and need some basic, important things to live on. Music would be the last. I said to my wife ‘I’m so lucky; both of our boys , they are not interested in music.’ My first son [is choosing] to study for biochemistry. I was so pleased (laughs).
Q: What are your hopes for a concertgoer who is enjoying the orchestra for the first time?
A: I think we will enjoy the evening. I hope they will enjoy the beauty of the music and they will enjoy the good quality of performance, and the good energy [radiating] from the stage to the audience. I want to make them happy.
I think, if someone in the audience has never been to a music concert, afterwards, they will say ‘Oh wow. this is something that’s really quite enjoyable. I will come again or try to find a CD,’ and start this classical music as part of their concert life or entertainment at least.
Q: Do you want to continue to travel internationally?
A: Yes, and because I’m a little bit older than 20 years ago, I have to be not so crazy. … I don’t go to Australia anymore, but I go to South Africa or the States occasionally. That’s my travel route at the moment. I’m just trying to work out the pace, because I often go back home for one night and then start again. I’m trying to work out the different route; maybe travel within Europe, which is less than three hours of flying.
Q: So how old are you?
A: 58. 58 in China is considered old, but in Europe is considered as middle age. 58 is still the best age to work for another 20 years.