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Richard Lin was sleeping when he woke up to a nightmare. Brakes screamed and a loud, dull crash of metal boomed when the small bus he was riding in hit a truck on a highway in China.

The solo violinist was in the midst of a tour in which he was to perform 23 concerts in as many cities in 31 days. After exiting each stage, he’d climb into a car, train or plane and, with earphones in and glasses off, embrace whatever slumber would come before the next show. 

But on a day in early May in 2017, shock interrupted his ritual. Through blurry eyes from his seat in the middle of the bus, he saw smoke snaking from the hood into the sky above Shandong province, south of Beijing on the country’s eastern side.

It happened just more than a year before Lin would win the gold medal at the 2018 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis — one of the most prestigious contests of its kind — and more than two years before he would return to perform concerts Friday and Saturday with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. He couldn’t move, and he thought he was dead. His pianist picked him up out of the bus and carried him to the side of the highway.

At that moment, 20 years of painstaking practice and a hard-fought footing among elite young violinists seemed like it might crumble. Successful solo careers in classical music are difficult to capture, and an injury can derail them as easily as a puff of air moves dust. As Lin’s mind replayed memories of his years on the stage, he wondered whether he’d be back.

Lin’s first try at The Indianapolis

More than three years before the accident, Lin stepped on stage at the Indiana Historical Society’s Basile Theater for his first bout with The Indianapolis competition. Even now, the president of the jury, world-renowned violinist Jaime Laredo, remembers the performance. He called the young man “an accomplished player with almost perfect playing.”

Richard Lin won the gold medal in 2018 at the 10th Quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. (Photo: Photo provided/Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.)

But in 2014, Lin didn’t make it past the first round.

The result demonstrates the difficulty of The Indianapolis. Anywhere from 120 to more than 250 of the world’s best young violinists have applied to participate in each quadrennial competition, but only 40, with alternates, are invited to participate. Over two and a half weeks, they compete in three rounds, trying to avoid elimination. The violinists pour out their souls playing classical masterworks that span hundreds of years, mostly from memory.

By the finals, six laureates are left. Their performances with a chamber ensemble and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra determine the ranking. The gold medalist receives a Carnegie Hall recital debut, $30,000, a recording contract and four years of booked concert engagements that equate to a solo career jumpstart. Especially exciting is the opportunity to play the Stradivarius violin that’s worth millions and once belonged to the contest’s virtuoso founder, Josef Gingold.

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Lin, now 28, possessed the talent. He had already won first prize at the 2013 Sendai International Violin Competition and second at the 2011 Michael Hill International Violin Competition. He’d studied at the Curtis Institute of Music with Aaron Rosand and was earning his master’s degree at The Juilliard School under Lewis Kaplan. All were successful ingredients for reaching his dream as a soloist.

But in 2014, Lin “had not yet established his true musical identity as an artist,” Laredo told IndyStar in an email.

Lin’s former teacher, Gregory Lee, had told him how hard it would be.

“That’s really a very, very, very small percentage of people who can do that, even if you play extremely well and win an international competition,” Lee said. “That’s one thing that can help, but you need luck and connections. It has to all line up, basically.”

Richard Lin won the gold medal in 2018 at the 10th Quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. (Photo: Photo provided/Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.)

The young violinist began taking lessons from Lee in Taiwan and followed him to Norman, Oklahoma, when he joined the faculty at the University of Oklahoma. Even though Lin wasn’t yet fluent in English, he enrolled in a local high school — a place where he said he quickly made friends and felt comfortable thanks to the Disney Channel shows he’d once watched in Taiwan.

The teacher found that his teenage pupil already possessed a natural vibrato that blossomed into a beautiful sound. While Lee heard Lin paint deep emotion into the bow strokes of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, the student could also be too rational, too stoic. Rick Lin had even debated with his son about it.

“He said I don’t know anything because I don’t read the score,” Rick Lin said. “I cannot read the score; I only listen to music. I only know what music really moved me.”

How Lin fell in love with the violin

Rick Lin owns close to 8,000 CDs and more than 1,000 LPs. The vast majority are classical. As a grade schooler learning the meaty repertoire of the masters, Richard Lin played along with the recordings as if he were the soloist. The scenario was easy to slip into, thanks to his dad’s advanced stereo technology that surrounded him like a live orchestra.

“I would chase (violinist Jascha) Heifetz … or, you know, try to imitate (violinist David) Oistrakh’s special interpretation of a certain piece,” he said.

Lin began playing violin at age 4, a few years after his family had moved back to Taichung, Taiwan, from Arizona, where he was born. For his birthday, his grandmother had given him a tiny violin with a gold tuning peg that was unlike any of his classmates’ instruments. It motivated the young boy and made him feel special.

Learning the violin also fit in with his father’s love of music. Chinese parents want their children to be versatile, Rick Lin said, and that meant their three kids swam, participated in table tennis, played the chess-like board game “Go” and studied an instrument. Richard Lin’s younger brother, Robert, and sister, Sharon, played piano, and Sharon Lin learned flute and viola as well.

Rick Lin began building his expansive music collection when he was 12 years old, and hearing Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” at age 16 ignited his lifelong passion for classical. After a turn as an accountant, the audiophile started to sell stereo gear and opened a store.

He also set practice and listening quotas for his kids. Thanks to his recordings, Richard Lin learned to detect how one soloist could play the same piece differently from another. To sharpen their sense of melody, the family watched “The Voice of China.”

“When they watched this program, they know how to sing because the judges in the program would teach those singers how to sing or some skills, some (expressive) ways,” Rick Lin said. 

And the father pleaded with his children not to play basketball — he didn’t want them to damage their fingers. If that happened, they may never be able to perform again.

‘He sounds terrified’

Sharon Lin was with a friend when her mom called her on a day in early May 2017. A tour assistant had told them that Richard Lin had been in an accident and couldn’t really move. Later, as she packed to travel to her brother’s hospital bed in China, he finally rang his family.

“He sounds terrified. He’s scared and he can’t really talk too much,” Sharon Lin said.

“I thought I was dead, you know, because I couldn’t move,” Richard Lin said of his thoughts immediately after the accident. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be handicapped for the rest of my life.’ ”

Shortly after the accident, Lin gradually was able to move. Doctors later told him he’d suffered from spinal shock, which happens when someone experiences reduced or a loss of reflexes after a spinal cord injury.  

WATCH:Richard Lin performs

But the violinist began to feel an increasingly powerful electric current that traveled from his neck and down through his arms and hands. It felt like he’d bumped his funny bone — only intensely more painful, and the sensation didn’t subside.

Sharon Lin stayed with her brother Richard as he recovered at a hospital in China after a bus accident. (Photo: Photo provided/Richard Lin)

His sister didn’t think anything of missing her classes when her brother asked her to stay with him. For the next two weeks, they talked, watched movies, ate meals and teased one another. She witnessed his trademark sense of humor return. For a while, Richard Lin wasn’t allowed to move out of bed because his neck remained unstable and his spinal cord hurt.

Time is the only thing that can solve this problem, doctors told him. They administered medicine through an IV and used a machine to keep the blood circulating in his feet.

As he prepared to travel to China to take his son back to Taiwan, Rick Lin felt helpless. He listened to his recordings of Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere.” Composed by a priest for the Sistine Chapel in the 17th century, it opens with acapella voices that slide across pain like salve as they proclaim in Latin, “Have mercy on me, O God.”

“When it happened, I cried for many days, and I listened to my music to heal,” he said.

Richard Lin’s swollen nerves shrunk back to normal so slowly that he doubted that he would play again. It’s OK, he told himself. At least I can walk and talk and think.

But what the violinist thought about was how much he wanted to learn Johannes Brahms’ “Contemplation.” He thought about how his performance at the 2011 Michael Hill International Violin Competition in New Zealand had been more daring than the way he’d been playing recently, how his passion had grown fatigued, how he missed sharing music with audiences.

“My performances were not creative enough, not brave enough,” he said.

He felt empty.

‘That accident really was like a medicine’

On Sept. 15, 2018, Rick Lin was crying again. His son’s face came through the family’s 120-inch projector screen in Taiwan, and he was accepting the honor of being named gold medalist at the 10th Quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. The contest streamed the event, and the sounds of Richard Lin’s violin were emanating from his father’s best audio equipment.  

This time, there was no need for “Miserere.” His dad blasted British rockers Barclay James Harvest and Alan Parsons.

After three months of recovery, the pain had vacated Richard Lin’s arms and hands. Sometimes, when he’s tired, he can still feel the echoes of its current. But his dexterity, the quickness with which his fingers danced along the fingerboard, had returned.

He played Brahms’ “Contemplation” at an emotional concert in Taitung, Taiwan. Afterward, he told the audience how privileged he felt to be back. 

The next September, the violinist sailed through the rounds of competition in Indianapolis. A smile played around his mouth as he delivered a sound that drew on the romantic slides of old school violin masters while retaining a modern crispness. The music of 10 different composers — including Mozart, Bach, Milstein and Debussy — soared, first from the Basile Theater and then from the Hilbert Circle Theatre stage as the East Coast Chamber Orchestra and Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of conductor Leonard Slatkin, accompanied him.

“I was not actually competing,” Lin said. “I was just trying to play my favorite repertoire and show my personal style to juries or the audience.”

Laredo, the jury president, was stunned.

“Four years later, I said to him, ‘What happened to you?!’ I could not believe the difference,” he wrote. “You could feel the great sincerity in his playing.”

Lin even went so far as to perform two pieces for the first time at the competition — a daring move that teachers warn against because pupils don’t know how the pressure will affect music they’re less familiar with. But the violinist convinced the jury with his jazzy strumming in Ravel’s Sonata in G major and virtuosic variations of Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy.”

In June 2020, he’ll make his solo debut in New York’s Carnegie Hall.

“That accident really was like a medicine for me,” Lin said. “It brought all the feeling, all the passion back.”

If you go

What: Richard Lin performs Brahms’ Violin Concerto with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Also on the program are Dvořák’s “Slavonic Dances” and Janácek’s “Taras Bulba.”

When: 8 p.m. Friday and 5:30 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Hilbert Circle Theatre, 45 Monument Circle.

Tickets: $15-$89. Visit or call 317-639-4300.

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Contact IndyStar reporter Domenica Bongiovanni at 317-444-7339 or [email protected]. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter: @domenicareports.

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