“His playing is carved in wispy clouds, what elegance…oh this sound, unreal and fairy!” This is what I find myself having noted in my 2005 Queen Elisabeth Competition program. In the magnificent Palais des Beaux-arts concert hall in Brussels, it was the first time I heard Dan Zhu play. I would never forget this young Chinese violinist and I was not disappointed meeting him 8 years later. This young man, who plays most gracefully, also has a very poetic way of speaking of violin and life, freedom, beauty and love.
In violin playing, sound is everything. Awareness of the sound is everything. The old masters all had different sounds; they all had different ways of delivering the beauty of sound. Sound makes you who you are. “You have to open your ears and your eyes to the different beauties”, says the violinist “you have to always work towards the next beauty”. Beauty is sustainable but must not stay the same. For Zhu, beauty has to live. “It’s like looking at a beautiful person. If she looks everyday the same, she is not interesting to me even though she have a perfect face and a perfect figure. The beauty in stiffness and cold perfection loose character and personality.” explains the musician. Similarly, sometimes control and systematization is restrictive and shows a lack of curiosity. Open your mind and look around. “People should really watch their daily life, how they speak to others, how they express themselves, this should be the core, the foundation before putting the fingers on the instrument.” After all, the instrument is really just another tool of expression. Today’s sound is often much too one-dimensional, it’s either loud or soft. “People don’t always see the difference between the softness and the quality of the soft. If one is sad maybe he will not shout it out loud but will tell it whispery, nevertheless how strong the emotion behind can be!” reminds the violinist. The dynamics are expressions. It’s not just about playing piano or forte, but about mixing the endless colors of the violin to give the music its dimensions.
Despite his gentle and demure look, Dan Zhu has a very independent and emancipated view of life and music. “We speak so much about freedom but we are only shouting the word. We say we can speak freely this is freedom but this is far away from freedom!” exclaims the young man. People are not free. Instead, they copy each other and follow mainstream fashion: what to wear, what to think, what to listen to. They are more likely to do what is correct, what they have been taught. “Freedom starts with admitting there is different understanding of what is surrounding us, different interpretations”, says Zhu, “you know what is beautiful you don’t need other people to tell you about it”. Be sensitive and play with intuition. In the end, the violin is a small reflection of the bigger world and there is so much we can learn from it.
For a performance at the Metropolitan Museum this spring in New York, Dan Zhu performed on two marvelous instruments from the Sau-Wing Lam collection of rare Italian stringed instruments presently exhibited in the museum. He was chosen by the Stradivari Foundation “to demonstrate the beauty of those instruments” – as the young violinist described his task. To choose the repertoire that would best reveal the personality of each instrument, the violinist simply relied on his intuition. He chose a tender but complex Bach movement for the Amati and two brilliant, melodic Paganini works for the Stradivarius. On the 1669 Amati, he chose to play a Bach movement because of the instrument’s “intimate sound and expression." “Perhaps it would not be the ideal instrument for today’s powerful repertoire," he comments, “but there was much other beauties to dig from it." Refined and subtle, it felt like the violin was murmuring directly to you. On the other hand, the stunning 1734 “Scottish University” Stradivarius had much more volume and a bigger range of colors. It gives the player more possibilities and allows him to obtain different types and layers of sounds. In general, great instruments have such personalities that you learn from them. You work with them and change with them, and discover them everyday. Zhu found it a pity that he had only a few hours to meet with the instrument before the performance. “It was almost like a one day love,” he said, “the instrument and I needed to adjust very quickly to know each other and to get close very fast. I couldn’t let the violin try to figure out by himself what I wanted.”
In his everyday life, Dan Zhu plays a fine violin made by Testore. The violinist had to choose between the Testore, a Ruggieri and a Guarneri del Gesu. For him, the Testore stood out. He felt comfortable with it upon the first contact and thought that it had great potential. He sensed that he could make it open up even more, that he could make it greater. Five years later, Zhu gets along very well with his Testore and says he is still very much in love with its sound. It’s a magical feeling to live and develop with an instrument by your side. “It’s fantastic to watch this little flower growing - of course this little flower is already 250 years before you even meet - but still we have things to share together," he marvels.
For other articles please visit my blog at: www.jacquelinevanasse.com
* * *
BELOW: Dan Zhu plays Saint-Saëns: Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso Op.28 with the China Philharmonic, conducted by Long Yu
On May 2nd at Carnegie Hall, the American Symphony Orchestra presented a concert entitled “Hungary Torn." The program included works of Hungarian Jewish composers who suffered or died in concentration camps during the Second World War. One could have expected a dark depressing evening, oozing with pain and incomprehension, but on the contrary, irreducible vibrant sparks of beauty and hope were felt throughout the concert. This feeling culminated with violinist Barnabás Kelemen’s world premier of Mihály Nádor’s concerto (1882-1944). The Heifetz-style performance was simply fantastic! It turned out to be more ecstatic than any Tchaikovsky, Brahms or Shostakovich I have heard lately. Euphoric, the audience couldn’t stop applauding after the first movement or the following movements.
“This reaction is very similar to the Amsterdam Concertgebouw premiere of Bartok’s Second Violin Concerto,” the violinist said honored after the concert. The next morning, I had the chance to meet Barnabás Kelemen at the Hungarian Consulate. We discussed the reasons that brought him to Carnegie Hall and we talked about music in general and Hungarian music in particular.
Barnabas Kelemen ended up at Carnegie after receiving a call from violist Peter Barsony a year before. Barsony, also a soloist at the Carnegie Hall concert, did some research and discovered several forgotten gems of Hungarian music. Leon Botstein, American Symphony Orchestra’s conductor and an enthusiast and expert of lost works, loved the idea.
At first, Kelemen did not take the concert for granted, thinking deep inside himself that it was too good to be true and that in the end something might go wrong. A digitalized manuscript of the Nádor Concerto was sent to him in the fall, but the violinist didn’t have time to look at the score right away. Although usually very quick at learning new works, he says it was fortunate that he started studying the Nádor early February. It took him a month just to be able to play all the notes in tempo.
“It was so difficult, it was quite an adventure!” he exclaimed. Nádor was himself a violinist and wanted to write a virtuoso concerto, “and it works!” smiled Kelemen. The Hungarian composer wrote the first movement in 1907. He went on to perform it as a piece for violin and piano but ultimately had to confess that he couldn’t play it himself and had to cancel the concert.
“It’s a lot of challenges in every way of the violin playing," said Kelemen, “like other virtuoso concertos, it’s fast, and it has many notes to play in a short time, both in the left hand and in the right hand. There are virtuoso concertos not so deep musically that when one learns to play the notes most of the job is done. But the Nádor has a lot to say musically and can already be compared to the Korngold, Goldmark, Walton or Elgar Violin Concertos.” And indeed, the beautiful forgotten work was reminiscent of Vieuxtemps, with something very Beethovenian and a twist of Hubay. It had a lot to say. The passage of time tells us what music is important; I am looking forward to seeing what kind of place this piece will take.
To play Hungarian music, recommends Kelemen, especially Bartók or Kodály in the Hungarian style, one should study the Hungarian language, the general basics of it, listen to folk songs and to Bartok playing, which is an amazing musicological source in itself. He also feels that it is important to understand the basics of Hungarian history.
“Be aware of the history to see how much we suffered and we always suffer. If we don’t suffer from outside problems, like today, then we suffer from each other. But we have to suffer from something," he said. According to the violinist, together with their very unique language, their depression is what keeps Hungarians thinking how things could be better, and keeps them improving.
When I asked how the Hungarian music scene is today, Barnabas Kelemen answered that it’s neither better nor worse than anywhere else. There are ups and downs, but about 8 years ago Hungary built the beautiful and world-wide unique Palace of Arts in the capital. With its huge concert hall, its big theater and big museum, it is now the home of the National Philharmonic, the National Choir and the music library.
Next October, Budapest will see the opening of the newly renovated Franz Liszt Academy, a building over 100 years old. According to Kelemen, it will be absolutely stunning. In addition to that, his wife, Katalin Kokas, also a violinist, created a chamber music festival: the Kaposfest. “It is really going very well!” said Kelemen proudly. And proud he can be! The Kaposfest, which will feature violinists Alina Ibragimova, Feng Ning and Vilde Frang, among other extraordinary musicians for its 4th edition this summer, also saw Joshua Bell open the festival the first year.
Although proud of his Hungarian roots, Barnabas Kelemen likes to say that regarding music he “eats” everything from early baroque to 21st Century music. In the future, he would like to premiere Nádor’s Violin Concerto at home in Hungary, and eventually to record it. In England this coming year, he will play the English premiere of Ryan Wigglesworth’s Violin Concerto and the Penderecki Violin Concerto. In addition to that, he and his String Quartet will be very active during the next seasons with a six-week tour in Australia and New Zealand, tours in Europe, festivals in Ireland, England and Italy, and a US tour with their Carnegie debut. The ensemble will also be ensemble-in-residence at the Palace of Arts for the next spring. Eventually, they would like to invite a guest artist such as Joshua Bell to play string quintets since their second violinist and violist often exchange roles. Not to mention a project with ballet dancers or a filmmaker who would create some visual artwork. Apart from performing around the globe, Kelemen teaches chamber music at the Franz Liszt Academy. He started studying conducting privately in Finland with two great masters Maestro Panula and Segerstam, and has lately conducted Bartok’s Second Violin Concerto and Beethoven’s 8th Symphony in Transylvania - Romania.
Some days ago I told my grandmother about the concert on the phone. She has attended every Queen Elisabeth competition for years, and Kelemen, winner of the third prize in 2001, is still her very favorite competitor, along with Vadim Repin. After keeping silent for a while she said: “It is worth living for moment like that, no?” In fact, it was worth it. And somehow it was what the concert was all about: something worth living for, great people sharing great music.
Please visit my blog to read more articles at www.jacquelinevanasse.com
In person, Itamar Zorman seems so quiet and shy it would be impossible to guess that he is a top prizewinner of an international competition. Did, truth, honesty and sentiment prevail this time? On stage even before he plays a single note, the music comes alive. As a creator of atmospheres, nothing appears too prepared, too planned. He nurtures the moment, cultivating in the most beautiful way and making it bloom exquisitely. There is a stunning sincerity and freshness in his playing as well as something very noble and sovereign. He isn’t after the effect but dives into the music with true sensitivity controlled by the rigor of the interpretation. He is a beautiful soul.
Itamar Zorman studied with Sylvia Rosenberg at the Juilliard School for 5 years. Although they come from very different Schools in terms of technique and music making, it was a perfect match. The young violinist admires her dedication, fire and energy. “She is the most passionate musician I have ever met” he says, “I owe her a lot”. “She is, however, a tough teacher”, he warns. Recalling some hard times she gave him with Mozart, he remembers her saying that he was simply “killing the composer”. But her rigour was part of the reason that decided him to go study with her. He felt he would really progress and the desire to improve is of central importance in the life of Itamar Zorman. At 27, the violinist is still taking lessons with Christian Tetzlaff at the Kronberg Academy. Eager to acquire knowledge, he believes that in the end the individuality of a player comes from the personal understanding and integration of the information he has accumulated.
More important to him than any concert opportunity or award is the actual act of playing violin, “for the love of it”, he says. However, for him, it is essential that someone feel something when he performs, that he communicates something. “Musicians should not be afraid to go with their heart, to really play with a lot of soul”, he encourages. He don't think that today we have less emotion than before, but that we have to remind ourselves that keeping the good taste and the "correct style" are just a means to bring alive the human message behind the music. Zorman advises not to fear originality: “each period or composer may have their specific rules, but even in those times people were having very different ideas and in the end, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, it’s all just music”. “Be passionate”, the violinist also urges, “and practice with the very passion that you would have if you were performing. Things change technically when you are on stage; you use a different amount of bow for example, and your muscles may tense differently”.
Contemporary music is an important issue for Itamar Zorman. The young violinist understands the people’s apprehension of it but thinks that for the continuation of classical music it’s crucial that new works be played: “this fear comes from the fact that you don’t really know what to expect from a modern piece”. Of course, it’s much more convenient if known pieces and composers are played. We know how to relate to them, how to listen, what to listen to, what to expect in terms of form. It’s easier. Still, when contemporary works are well played and the performer enjoys playing them, it has an undeniable effect on an audience. It is therefore the responsibility of the musician not only to play contemporary works, but also to play them well. “When you don’t play well a piece written by recognized composers, like Mozart for example, people will say the performer is bad and Mozart is a genius but when you don’t play well a piece of a contemporary composer they will say the music is just bad and people don’t know how to write”, explains Zorman. There is obviously a big misconception; there are people who don’t even realize that classical music is still being written. People need to be taught, they need to understand the language of music. As a performer, one needs to explain, tell the audience how to listen to it and give demonstrations to initiate interest. If classical music is to survive, people need to have some music education and musicians need to play it a lot. In a way, contemporary music is even easier to introduce to those who don’t know classical music at all because it talks about things that have to do directly with our times and one can relate to those. The Israeli artist believes that great contemporary music has been written. The only thing is that history hasn’t done its sorting out yet so we don’t know which pieces are just good and which are great.
The young advocate of contemporary music is also a great enthusiastic of chamber music. It is one of the reasons why he loves playing music. “It’s a much nicer feeling to have others who support you on stage, you are not alone, you can have a real conversation in music”, enlightens Zorman. And because chamber music is all about sharing and communicating, and “to do one good thing at a time”, as he says, together with other young Israeli musicians he created the Israeli Chamber Project a few years ago. The ensemble’s mission is to bring live music to places where people usually don’t have access to it. In addition to his involvement to the Israel Chamber Project, Zorman has a several upscale debuts in New York City next year with his Lysander Piano Trio, which includes appearances at Concert Artists Guild series, Merkin Hall and The New School concert series to name a few.
For the future, Itamar Zorman would love to remain involved with contemporary music and would like to play a more unusual repertoire, a repertoire that he doesn’t think gets as much attention as it deserves. Aware of the difficulty of having a career as a violinist and especially as a soloist, he enjoys what he already has and hopes to keep progressing everyday: “I have not lost faith for myself and I am still working on things”, he candidly adds.
For other articles please visit my blog at: www.jacquelinevanasse.com
BELOW: Itamar Zorman plays Wieniawski: "Thème original varié" op.15:
Violinist.com is made possible by...
Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.