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Heart Strings

An international string competition in China’s ‘City of Music’ is set to offer a feast for the ears and stir the spirits of people from around the world

By Wang Nina Updated Oct.1

Xue Suli

From September 5-17, China’s northeastern city of Harbin will host the 5th Schoenfeld International String Competition (SISC), an international music competition founded in 2013 in honor of legendary German-American violinist Alice Schoenfeld (1921-2019) and her sister, cellist Eleonore Schoenfeld (1925-2007).  

The first competition was held in Hong Kong in 2013, and it has been held in Harbin biennially since 2014 thanks in part to the efforts of internationally renowned Chinese-American violinist Xue Suli, a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and artistic director of Schoenfeld International String Competition. Born in Harbin in 1959, he became a protege of Alice Schoenfeld at the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California (USC) in 1986.  

Harbin has a rich cultural heritage of blending music from the East and West. Many European musicians moved to Harbin in the early 20th century, making it one of the first Chinese cities to embrace Western music. At the opening ceremony of the 36th China Harbin Summer Music Festival on August 6, Lu Yingchuan, China’s vice-minister of culture and tourism, declared the date the city’s annual “Music Day.” The SISC is part of the festival.  

In an interview with CNS, Xue talks about the East-West exchanges behind the competition, and how it has brought China and the world closer.  

CNS: Why did you want to bring the SISC to Harbin?  

Xue Suli: First and foremost, it’s out of my love for my hometown. I’m a Harbin native, and early on in my violin studies, the city’s older generation of musicians such as conductor Zhuo Mingli and music theorist Liao Shutong as well as many other local artists, offered me care and guidance. My success would have been impossible without this fertile ground to grow musically. In addition, Harbin was one of the first places in China to embrace Western music: the city established China’s first full-size symphony orchestra in 1908, as well as the country’s first professional music school in 1921. So Harbin is endowed with a rich musical culture, and is recognized by the United Nations as a “City of Music.”  

The SISC was founded by world-renowned violinist Alice Schoenfeld and her sister, cellist Eleonore Schoenfeld. They were my mentors. Born into a musical family in Germany, they were famous educators and performers of the 20th century, devoting their lives to music performance and education.  

Since I left China and studied abroad in 1986, I have always cared about China. When Professor Alice Schoenfeld founded the SISC, my first thought was to bring it to Harbin. Music knows no borders, and it’s an important way to communicate between cultures. So organizing a large-scale comprehensive string competition in Harbin is a way to bring young, gifted musicians from countries around the world to China, to Harbin, to experience the musical culture here. This will not only help people overseas better understand Harbin and China, but also offer more opportunities for exchanges between musicians and music lovers both home and abroad.  

CNS: Schoenfeld visited Harbin to consult on the Harbin SISC. How did she feel about the city? 

XS: The Schoenfeld sisters [first] visited China in the early 1980s, performing at the Central Conservatory of Music and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and had fruitful exchanges with Chinese musicians from Beijing, Shanghai and other places. With their recommendations, over 100 Chinese students received scholarships to the USC Thornton School of Music, which is among the most prestigious US conservatories.  

Alice Schoenfeld visited Harbin in 2014 and 2016 to help with the competition. She was particularly fond of this city, and saw it as her Chinese hometown, commenting there is music in the air of this beautiful city. She held public masterclasses at the Old Synagogue Concert Hall and the Glasnov School of Music (both of the city’s Sino-Judaic Institute), which children rushed to join, hoping to showcase their talents for an international master. Schoenfeld was very fond of Chinese children. She listened attentively to their performances at the Glasnov School of Music, offered them valuable suggestions, and held them in her arms for photos.  

In 2016, Alice Schoenfeld attended the opening ceremony of the 33rd Harbin Summer Music Concert. At the age of 95, she became the oldest internationally renowned musician to attend the opening ceremony. Toward the end of the event, we suggested she return to Los Angeles ahead of schedule, out of consideration for her health. But she said the competition was not over yet, and she had not stayed long enough in her “city of music.”  

In July 2016, world-class conductor Zubin Mehta led a concert with the Harbin Symphony Orchestra. At the end of the event, he met with Alice Schoenfeld and 81-year-old Chinese musician Fu Gengchen. The three elders gathered in Harbin, making it an unforgettable and touching moment in music history. Mehta and Schoenfeld knew each other and had performed together since they were young. As a music educator, Schoenfeld trained many string musicians, some of whom later worked with Mehta. At the time of their meetup, Mehta was about to conduct a concert, the SISC was underway, and Fu had just performed in two concerts.  

CNS: This is the third Harbin SISC. What was it like to start it from scratch?  

XS: Everything is difficult at the beginning. For an international competition, a key step is to invite young talent with potential from all over the world. We’ve worked really hard to promote this competition in international music media, on social media platforms, and important events. Today, it has attracted over 1,000 participants, 75 percent of whom come from overseas, with a year-on-year applicant growth rate of 10 percent. This is very impressive for China, and even Asia. The SISC has become a truly international competition.  

Harbin SISC follows high global standards, with an ever-growing influence across the world. In 2017, the competition joined the World Federation of International Music Competitions (WFIMC), which is part of UNESCO’s International Music Council. On December 30, 2019, Harbin became the event’s permanent host. In 2021, Ye Sisi, CEO of the SISC, became the first-ever Chinese member of the WFIMC board. In addition, Harbin will host the WFIMC’s 2025 Annual Meeting, the first time the event is being held in China. It’s an unprecedented breakthrough for Harbin. 

CNS: What role has the SISC played in promoting exchange between China and the West?  

XS: I studied abroad, and later joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra as a tenured performer. And I promote Chinese music wherever I can. In 1998, I founded the Pacific Harmony String Quartet, which enjoyed great popularity in the US, Europe and other countries. When we performed Chinese works in the UK, audiences were very excited, saying they had never heard such wonderful music from the East, and they asked us for autographs, which I think is the charm of cultural communication.  

With participants from dozens of countries around the world, Harbin SISC not only promotes cultural exchanges between China and the US, but also between China and European countries, as well as countries along the Belt and Road Initiative. Under the WFIMC framework, we share resources, learn from each other, and work with over 100 of the world’s top music competitions, which greatly enhances cooperation and exchange, and contributes to the common prosperity of the world’s music culture, as well as the building of a shared future for humanity.  

Harbin went from not even having a music conservatory to being home to Harbin Concert Hall, Harbin Grand Theater, Harbin Conservatory of Music and Harbin Music Museum, all of which further highlight the competition as an international and professional event.  

Since the SISC was first held in Harbin in 2014, it has attracted more than 100 top music conservatories around the world and more than 1,000 top string musicians. With global competitors and renowned artists gathering in Harbin, a top platform for international exchange has been built for music performance and education.  

Music is a wonderful bridge that connects people across time and space. As WFIMC president Peter Paul Kainrath said, the SISC has brought the world to China, to Harbin, as well as brought China’s and Harbin’s cultures to the world. Through the competition, the world could learn more about China’s string music, and the country as well. It will serve as an important window and bridge that connects the WFIMC and China.

Xue Suli rehearses with children from a violin group in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province

Harbin Grand Theatre, one of the venues for the Schoenfeld International String Competition (SISC), August 9, 2023 (Photo by VCG)