Xiang Gao
Xiang GaoSusan and Rich RogelXiang as student with Rich RogelXiang with crossover group 6wire

A Homecoming

When the University Symphony Band tours China in May 2011, violinist Xiang Gao, (BM ’96, MM ’97) will go with them. A new work, Two Jades, has been composed expressly for violin and symphony band.

It will be a homecoming for him, both back to his alma mater in Ann Arbor for pre-tour rehearsals and to China. Gao, who was born and raised in Beijing, is considered one of the most successful violinists of his generation.

When he came to Ann Arbor in the autumn of 1991, he came directly from Beijing, where he had graduated from the prestigious Central Conservatory of Music. He came to work with Paul Kantor, then on the strings faculty (now at the Cleveland Institute of Music). “What amazing courage and confidence,” Kantor says now, “to travel half way around the world to study in a strange place with a very strange new teacher in a quite foreign language and even more alien culture.”

Kantor’s introduction to Xiang Gao came in the form of a letter from China in his faculty mail slot. “We saw each other for the first time, face to face, when I picked him up from the Ann Arbor bus station,” Kantor remembers. “I don’t know how he found me, although the reputation of U-M in China has apparently always been very strong.”

That surmise is correct. “I had always heard about this incredible institution,” Gao confirms. “Michigan has a long history of interacting with China and its strings program is one of the best in the U.S., if not the world. I wanted to become a musician and a well-educated individual. I wanted the whole nine yards of the college experience.”

Choosing to admit Gao was “no rocket science,” Kantor says. “The recorded materials he submitted showed a brilliant technical accomplishment, tremendous personality, and an innate artistic sensibility.”

Though the School of Music, Theatre & Dance granted him full tuition, Gao was only able to come because of sponsors, a couple, who provided room and board and other living expenses. Halfway through his freshman year, though, the bottom fell out:  his sponsors had fallen on hard times and had to withdraw their support.

In January 1992, Rich (BBA ’70) and Susan Rogel were in the audience for the School’s annual Collage Concert. Then dean Paul Boylan told Rogel to watch for a young violinist, newly arrived from China, and perhaps the most talented ever to come through the program.

True to the dean’s prediction, Gao played movingly and brilliantly. At intermission, the freshman came out into the audience to greet Helen and Clyde Wu, long-time supporters of the arts who were seated behind the Rogels. An animated conversation ensued.

“They were speaking in Mandarin,” Rogel says, “so of course I couldn’t understand. But Xiang was visibly upset. After he left, I asked Paul what was going on and found out about the lost sponsorship.” Gao had been working, but illegally, as it turns out, given the terms of his student visa. It was a desperate situation.

Rogel didn’t miss a beat. “I called the University and asked if we could pick up the sponsorship,” he says. That phone call was life altering for Xiang Gao. The Rogels supported him throughout his bachelor’s and on through a master’s degree.

That was just a start, by the way, for the Rogels. Xiang is just one of the more than 400 students the couple has supported over the years. In 2000, they made a commitment of $22 million for aid for out-of-state students, the largest gift for student support to U-M.

A few months after picking up the sponsorship, the Rogels invited Xiang to dinner and a basketball game. “I figured he probably wasn’t eating that well,” Rogel says. That night was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. “We instantly fell in love with him, and have had a relationship ever since.”

“What Susan and Rich gave me was way beyond the sponsorship,” Gao says. “Because of them, I had a wonderful sense of belonging. I was 18 and far away from home. The U.S. was a very strange place to me at that point.”

Gao’s talent was evident. As early as 1994, while still an undergraduate, he became the first Chinese violinist to join the roster of Columbia Artists Management. The New York Times called him a “rare and soulful virtuoso.” He has played for kings, recently invited by Chinese President Hu JinTao to entertain the visiting King Carlos I of Spain.

Now a full professor of music—the youngest—at the University of Delaware, Gao just accepted the ZiJiang Chair, a four-year professorship at East China Normal University in Shanghai, where he will teach for up to two months annually.

What should American students know going into the tour, we asked Gao. “An American college education is a dream for a lot of kids all over the world. U-M students have something many in the world do not. It will be inspirational for them to see how few resources their peers in China have and how they work with so little.”

Conversely, Chinese students will want to know what it’s like to be a U-M student. “They learn about Americans from Hollywood,” he says. “This is a chance for them to share with Chinese students and music lovers what they have in their hearts and minds.”

“When young people meet, it’s a spectacular moment. They can make magic happen—they have so much to share.”