"We just dashed to listen," Cai said. "We had to lower the curtains and put the machine in the corner so no one would know what we were doing." They had Beethoven's Fourth Symphony and a movement from the Fifth, and they wound up the phonograph to play one of the thick 78s.
Their delight was inexpressible. "The Beethoven, it's almost beyond Western music and the Western countries. It's humanity in its highest state," Cai said.
Cai's face glows at the memory. Today, as an associate professor of music in performance at Stanford University, he has all the music he wants. Sitting in his office at the university's Braun Music Center, he's surrounded by bookshelves and enormous tomes of symphonic music. A blown-up photo of him conducting, his mouth open in a huge smile, is crowned by a poster of the Sydney Opera House, where he raised the baton for Verdi's Requiem in 2005.
In 2008 he took his Stanford Symphony Orchestra back to China, where they performed Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."
Starting this month, Cai leads his greatest Beethoven celebration yet at the new Bing Concert Hall on campus. The university's season-long Beethoven Project will feature him conducting the Stanford Symphony Orchestra and the Stanford Philharmonia Orchestra in performances of all nine Beethoven symphonies and all five Beethoven piano concerti. Pianist Jon Nakamatsu, a Stanford graduate, will be the featured soloist. The series will run Jan. 18 through June 1. (The Jan. 18 and 20 concerts are already sold out, but some student seats may still be available.)
Each concert will have a public pre-performance lecture, led by a Ph.D. student in musicology or by Cai and Nakamatsu. Topics will include "The Pugilist at Rest: Ludwig's Lighter Side" (given by Nate Sloan on April 26 and 27) and "Beethoven and the Early Viennese Symphonic State (given by Erick Arenas on May 10 and 12).
A Stanford Continuing Studies class, called "Beethoven: An Introduction through Performance," begins Jan. 16 and will feature Cai and other lecturers. Seminars and classes for Stanford students are also planned on the composer.
The project concludes this summer with the Stanford Symphony Orchestra jetting off to Europe to perform in places where Beethoven worked or visited, including Bonn, Berlin, Leipzig, Prague and Vienna.
Cai is clearly thrilled: over both the project and the prospect of having his orchestras begin performing at the Bing Concert Hall. "It's going to change the landscape of music-making at Stanford," he said of the $112 million, oval-shaped concert hall. The orchestras have been rehearsing there since November, and he's delighted with the acoustics. The 842-seat venue may be small in capacity compared to some concert halls, but its design is voluminous, he said. "There's room for the sound to develop."
A new hall means some adjusting. Cai has had to ask some orchestra sections to play more quietly and some more loudly than they did in the older Dinkelspiel Auditorium. Reverberation times are different, which can affect tempi. But that's just part of being a conductor, especially one who is used to touring and conducting in concert halls all over the globe. "Live performance is unique. As a conductor, we try to find something new each time in Beethoven's symphonies," Cai said.
Cai admits that it can sometimes be daunting to interpret the works of the great master. But he knows that as an academic he brings "endless study, endless learning" to Beethoven's works, from studying them from a historic and cultural perspective to examining every piece of musical notation.
For example, Beethoven was very fond of the metronome and was careful to write metronomic markings on his symphonies, Cai noted. Yet some of the markings seem almost impossible to follow — too fast or too slow — perhaps because Beethoven was already in the midst of composing his sixth symphony when the metronome was invented. A conductor cannot blindly follow the page, but needs to make his own careful choices, Cai said. Exploring every aspect of the compositions, together with a trusted orchestra, is one of the great joys of his work.
Cai, who joined Stanford's faculty in 2004, is also the artistic director of the annual Stanford Pan-Asian Music Festival. In addition, he's the principal guest conductor of the Mongolian State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet.
He knows that the chance to play all of Beethoven's symphonies and piano concerti is rare for any student musician. This year, he got a huge number of auditioners for his orchestras.
The students have wide-ranging backgrounds — engineering, French literature and neuroscience, to name a few — but they're all steeped in Western music. The orchestras rehearse five hours a week, which is longer than most classes meet, Cai said. "Music is a very, very important part of their lives."
With the Bing Concert Hall drawing intense interest even before its opening weekend on Jan. 11-13, audiences would do well to buy tickets early. Nearly all the opening events are sold out, including free events, which require mandatory tickets to ensure that there's room for everyone. Even many later events, such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma on Jan. 27 and violinist Midori on Feb. 6, are already sold out.
At this writing, tickets were still available for the Feb. 2 and 4 concerts of the Beethoven Project. Held at 8 p.m. and 7 p.m., respectively, they will feature Beethoven's second and eighth symphonies, and his second piano concerto. Tickets are $20 general, $10-$13.50 for non-Stanford students, $7.50 for children under 18, and free for Stanford students.
Planned for Feb. 22 is a free symposium called "Heroism in the Age of Beethoven," from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Bing Concert Hall studio. It will be moderated by Stanford professors Stephen Hinton, Blair Hoxby and Adrian Daub.
Info: For details on the Stanford Symphony Orchestra and Stanford Philharmonia Orchestra season, go to sso.stanford.edu. A complete Bing Concert Hall season listing is on the Stanford Live website at live.stanford.edu and indicates whether performances are sold out. Opening-weekend concerts will be live-streamed at live.stanford.edu/STREAM/