Live from China: Coverage of the Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition

Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto in Shanghai border=0 align=

Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto in Shanghai

August 24, 2016, 9:17 AM · SHANGHAI -- I knew that I would hear a lot of "The Butterfly Lovers" Violin Concerto today in Shanghai, but I had no idea that I'd meet one of the composers of the piece, He Zhanhao, who is now 83 years old.

All 18 semi-finalists in the Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition are required to play the "Butterfly Lovers" concerto, a piece that was written in the 1950s and has gained popularity for its East-meets-West aesthetic. Nine students played on Wednesday at Shanghai Symphony Hall's Chamber Hall, and another nine will play on Thursday. Additionally, each violinist is required to play a Romantic-era sonata.

No pressure here, with the composer sitting in the audience, and also the violinist who premiered the piece, Lina Yu, sitting on the jury!

"The Butterfly Lovers" Violin Concerto was written in 1959 by Zhanhao and Chen Gang while they -- and Lina Yu -- were students at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. A group of students actually set out to write a piece for violin that would be of interest to the Chinese people.

Zhanhao explained to me today that back then, violin students were always playing Western music, and while "Chinese people thought Western music was beautiful, it was hard to understand." It was a musical language that simply was not familiar to the Chinese ear. For this concerto, they wanted to use Chinese elements -- a pentatonic scale, traditional Chinese melodies, and the Chinese legend of the Butterfly Lovers -- to give the music greater appeal to a Chinese audience.

"This violin concerto was based on Shaoxing Opera, so it was easier to understand it," Zhanhao said. The story involves star-crossed young lovers who, after meeting their tragic, Romeo-and-Juliet-like fate (death!), emerge in spirit as two butterflies, never to be parted.

Zhanbao started learning the violin at age 17 and helped write the piece when in his 20s, he said. Zhanhao was actually the first to try playing the piece while it was being composed and before Yu performed it; though he admits, "I couldn't play what I wrote!" Keep reading...

Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition

Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition: Thirty top violinists from around the world will gather August 14th to September 2nd for the inaugural Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition. Watch our live web stream and follow along with behind-the-scenes coverage on! (Ad)

The Week in Reviews, Op. 145: Joshua Bell, Pekka Kuusisto, Christian Tetzlaff border=0 align=

The Week in Reviews, Op. 145: Joshua Bell, Pekka Kuusisto, Christian Tetzlaff

August 22, 2016, 10:53 PM · In an effort to promote the coverage of live violin performance, each week presents links to reviews of notable concerts and recitals around the world.

Joshua Bell performed Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 at the Mostly Mozart Festival.

  • The New York Times: "Dull and mild are never qualities one would attach to Mr. Bell. His tone is glossy; his playing animated and free.... The one signal that did come through was that here was a star soloist leaving everyone else in the dust."
Keep reading...

Why Does Trilling Push Me Into a Higher Gear? border=0 align=

Why Does Trilling Push Me Into a Higher Gear?

August 22, 2016, 9:59 AM · Music stores are full of primers. The Book Ones for every instrument introduce quarter and half notes, and children often learn them long before they memorize their addition tables. Even a child with a moderately good ear gets the math involved with rhythm, because it’s fairly straightforward.

When playing the violin, however, the “easy” rhythm gets distorted by:

  1. Not being sure about hitting the right pitch causes indecisiveness, which in turn causes rhythmic chaos.
  2. Running out of bow.
  3. Crescendo or diminuendo
  4. Trills are perfect little rhythmic units, which, because of how monotonous they are, tend to make a performer forget what the beat is, and where it is. When the trill is over, why does it feel like the tempo has sped up numerous metronome markings?

Tip of the Iceberg

As in everything in music, things appear simple until you realize they’re anything but. To listen to a Suzuki CD of Book One, played by the concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, the sound, dynamics and rhythm are perfect. Unfortunately, most of us don’t learn from the top down, that is, by copying perfection like a game of Simon Says. We learn from the bottom up: obstacles show up unannounced like a video game. Unlike a video game, the obstacles show up repeatedly and no less obstinately.

Those obstacles, in the case of bad rhythmic habits, go away with understanding the nature of the problem, and sheer will power. When you hear for the first time a conductor say not to rush when you get louder, that’s your introduction to the tip of the iceberg, the complexity involved in the problem of putting musical rhythm into human beings. Keep reading...

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