‘Between Two Worlds’: An Interview With Violinist Tianwa Yang


Tianwa Yang

The dramatic growth in the number of talented artists of Asian origin has been one of the outstanding features of classical music today, indeed sufficiently important to influence the focus of major recording companies and media. Traditionally, the road to exposure for young Asian artists, and violinists in particular, has been straightforward: move to America, gain entrance into Juilliard or Curtis from an early age, and let their budding musical and technical skills be honed by the great teachers. This was the route taken by Kyung Wha Chung originally, and later Cho Liang Lin and Sarah Chang, among many others.

If one looks at the career of 28-year-old Chinese violinist Tianwa Yang, one would think that she must be cut from standard cloth. After all, her virtuoso skills are pristine and her recordings for Naxos, the most enterprising being the complete violin compositions of Pablo Sarasate, have received the highest praise. They have often been cited as a model of ‘the art of the violin’ for their technical accuracy, perception and emotional commitment. Of her more than 20 recordings, she has also received the ECHO Klassic 2015 award as Violin Instrumentalist of the Year for Ysaÿe’s Sonatas for Solo Violin. Yet Ms Yang did all her early studies in China, and in fact did not want to study in America. She recoils at the term ‘virtuoso’ being used to describe her talents, showing almost no interest in the ‘International Violin Olympiad’, as she aptly calls it.  Rather, her dream from her teens was to study German chamber music in Germany, and that is eventually what she did. It is a long jump from Schubert to Sarasate or Paganini, so when she visited Vancouver to play Paganini’s 2nd Concerto, I was more than a little intrigued, especially since she apparently had not touched the work for over a decade.

My review of the concert speaks for itself: ‘Yang literally dove into the work, letting loose her full spontaneous creativity, and bringing out its wit, play and sheer capriciousness. At the same time, nothing was overdone; it was always the violinist’s sheer delight in the music that communicated and carried things forward. This was also very human playing: sometimes fragile, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes buoyantly seductive, but always fully felt… The violinist’s narrative was engrossing enough that I actually did not pay much attention to the staggering technical requirements needed to bring this off. Things seemed to just evolve naturally: the incredibly-clean precision in the very high notes, the adventurous light bowing and lyrical sense, the disarmingly fluent ‘slides’ and the almost gun-shot fire of her pizzicato passages in the last movement …’

I started by talking to Tianwa about how competitive today’s China must be for young artists, and we quickly moved into her unique story.

Geoffrey Newman: Working your way up in China as a young musician must be both arduous and tricky. When do children usually start on an instrument, and how competitive is it?

Tianwa Yang: When I grew up in Beijing, the average age was probably 3 to 5, at least that was the fashion at that time. My parents were not musicians, but still they thought it was really nice for kids to learn some music. I think the competition thing came a bit later. As a very small kid, you don’t really think about competition.

GN: What is the first stage in getting recognition?

TY: Certainly, you do have to win some local competitions. I actually did go to quite a few competitions when I was still really little (aged 5 to 7).  I entered my very first competition after I had played for just 8 months.

GN: Where does success in these early competitions typically lead?

TY: They allow you to study with a good, internationally-trained teacher. Having a good teacher when you are young is so important! Most of the best violin teachers in China were trained in Russia. Our family did not have much money to pay for expensive lessons, but fortunately there were teachers who would give lessons for free if you were really talented. Of course, not all, but it’s still quite common in China. I was very lucky that my main mentor was one of the most famous Russian-trained teachers, Lin Yao Ji, who taught me out of his generosity from age 10 until I was 16. He was an adjudicator in all the big competitions, like Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and so on.

GN: What happened before this point?

TY: I also tried national competitions, and actually won 6 out of 7 of them, the last when I was 9. Then I just stopped because I didn’t like it. I was grateful that my teacher at the time also saw it that way. He felt that I had to find my own way. This was also true much later when I went to Germany. I wanted to find my own repertoire and my own focus.

GN: So what was it like studying with Lin Yao Ji?

TY: He helped me a great deal. One of the most magnificent things he did was get me to record the Paganini 24 Caprices when I was 13. This made it much easier to get a scholarship to the Central Conservatory in Beijing. It’s really not that much money to study in the Conservatory, but we couldn’t afford it at the time. Before that I had to go to a private school that did give me funding. In retrospect, I think if you don’t get in to the Central Conservatory or the Shanghai Conservatory, your chances for later are small.

GN: You must have been surprised by the recording idea?

TY: I was completely surprised. I think it was something he saw in me, so he gave me the whole book of Caprices by Paganini and said, ‘Just practice all of them’. And I said, ‘Okay, good, I’ll do it’. Within a week, he organized 3 or 4 concerts of the whole set to take place in a few months, and arranged recording dates with Hugo Records (Hong Kong). Of course, the recording conditions in China at that time were really, really bad. I remember that I had just 2 half days to do everything, and we would only just play through them all 2 or 3 times. We didn’t even do much patchwork. I don’t know why my teacher did this. I think he really wanted to set a world record for the youngest player to record the Caprices  ̶  and I was the one he chose. I suppose it is really an item for my biography!

GN: Do you think this was a turning point in building a career?

TY: Certainly there’s a bunch of luck here, but also the sense of grabbing a chance when it’s there and the courage to try new things, to move forward. But I did not exploit everything. Nearly all my teacher’s good students eventually went to America to study – they went to Julliard and Curtis – and got full scholarships. But somehow I didn’t want to go the same way. I chose not to go to America, to go to Germany instead.

GN: Perhaps you could give me some feeling why you were so interested in Germany?

TY: Within a year of this recording, I somehow became absolutely fascinated with string quartets; in particular, the Busch Quartet and the sense of communication in their performances of the greatest German chamber music. Of course, for a while, everyone still wanted me to play Paganini, but I had a lot of problems with this since I felt that my musicality was not recognized. People always wanted to watch my fast fingers. I wanted to go to Germany to learn music from a different angle.

GN: So how did you actually get to Germany?

TY: I went to Germany alone when I was 16.  I had a scholarship which was spread out over 2 years, and I could go to Germany for 6 months during that time. So I used the summer holidays to study in Germany, then I came back to China to finish school. When I was 18, I got a German Academic Exchange Service scholarship to study chamber music at Karlsruhe (near the French border) with enough money to pay for tuition and living. The Diploma was 5 years, and it gave me the opportunity to study in different places in Germany to get more perspectives. I was 2 years in Karlsruhe, 1.5 years in Berlin, and 1.5 years in Freiburg. In Karlsruhe, I of course got together with other students and played all sorts of piano trios, string quartets and piano quintets.

GN: You must have found new violin teachers there to inspire you?

TY: It may seem odd to say, but I honestly didn’t find it rewarding to learn about violin playing. The only violinists I learned from were those whose primary focus was chamber music, and I think that I learned much from teachers and musicians who were not violinists at all.

GN: So who did teach and inspire you?

TY: Jörg-Wolfgang Jahn, chamber violinist and former violist of the Bartholdy Quartet, was certainly a great mentor. His fanaticism in the ‘Urtext’ tradition, and his never-ending desire to self-question and critically examine traditional interpretations  ̶  to find new angles on the music  ̶̶  allowed me to develop as a musician.

Of perhaps the same importance was cellist Anner Bylsma, though he hardly taught me in a conventional manner. I met him during the period I was studying in Berlin, and would travel to his home in Amsterdam where I would meet him and his wife. I don’t know if you have ever met him, but he’s very unique. When you play something for him, he’ll never say, ‘You should do this…you need to do this…you should try this…’ He would just listen to you, then start telling you stories that, at first sight, had nothing to do with the music. So you would just stand there for 20 minutes, thinking ‘What’s the point? What is he talking about?’ He never tells you how you should play. For example, I played the slow movement from Bach’s C major sonata once, and he said, ‘Wow! Sounds really good!’ Then he started a story: ‘A man went into a bar and he ordered a whiskey. The waiter gave him the glass, and he threw away the whiskey and just ate the glass. And then he ordered again. And he ordered 5 glasses, ate all 5 glasses, paid, and then he left. And the waiter was completely confused and asked the other guests: What do you think was the point?’

And that was his comment on my playing. It took me a little while to understand what he saying: You threw out the most beautiful things, and you were concentrating on the wrong stuff. But what’s the right stuff and what’s the wrong stuff? That’s something you have to figure out yourself. It’s really crazy, but in the end, I loved having lessons with him because it was so creative. Occasionally, he would be more direct, saying, ‘This phrase looks like the landscape in Holland. It’s nothing’. But that is about as direct as he got. He liked me very much, and it was all friendship, so he never charged me a fee.

GN: Did he ever suggest that you try a Baroque violin – with gut strings?

TY: I did play a while with gut strings, a Baroque bow and everything. I also played one concert where I used both Baroque and modern instruments. In the first half, I used the Baroque violin for Bach, and in the second I used the modern violin and bow for a Brahms sonata. The difference is fascinating but one problem is that I have perfect pitch. Within the short time span of a concert, it is extremely difficult to get used to the difference between authentic and modern tunings.

GN: Didn’t you think that it was strange that one of your esteemed teachers was a cellist?

TY: It didn’t really matter because I didn’t need fingerings or bowings from him. He just gave me a whole other side to music.

GN: As a matter of fact, do you genuinely respond to the chamber music performances of authentic ensembles?

TY: For example, the Quatuor Mosaiques. Yes, absolutely, they play so beautifully. I love them.

GN: Do you think that your decision to go to Germany restricted your solo performing opportunities in China and elsewhere?

TW: No, not really. I debuted with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta in 2000 (when I was 13) and continued to play in Hong Kong almost every year. I was also lucky all the way through in my teens to play with the top professional orchestras on the mainland, like Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Beijing, and China National, China Philharmonic and NCPA. In 2001, I played the Mendelssohn Concerto with the Prague Symphony Orchestra of the Czech Radio, conducted by Leo Swarovsky. When I was 16, I also played with the Munich Opera House Orchestra, under Yoel Levi.

GN: Do you think that if you went to America, you would have become a different violinist?

TY: Absolutely. I don’t know why or how, but I think when you are 16 or 17, that’s a very important point of your life. You can take so many inputs from the outside, and you can change your personality considerably. That’s important for later too, what sort of person you will become, and that’s all tied together with your musicality. I think I would have become quite a different person, and a different artist for sure, had I studied in America.

GN: What exactly do you mean?

TY: I’ve always tried not to sound virtuosic because, in my opinion, that’s not something audiences are fundamentally interested in. I see little point in having all these people sitting there just witnessing technical feats. They only focus on virtuosity when they have nothing else to discover. You have to give them something else. That’s what I’m striving for, even when playing Paganini or Sarasate. Of course it is virtuosic and difficult, but that’s not what really moves the audience. To me, music is a kind of language. It’s about communication; it’s about speaking, about telling stories. I’ve never seen the violin as the main point – it’s not about the instrument; it’s about the music. I could very well be playing the trumpet or the horn; again, it’s entirely about conveying meaningful ideas and emotions through yourself. I want an audience to really know who I am and what I think and feel!

GN:  Is there any concert that you feel was a breakthrough for you in more recent times?

TY: Yes, I think in October 2008, with the Detroit Symphony under Gunter Herbig. I played the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1. I had just turned 21.

GN: This was just about the time that your Sarasate recordings began for Naxos. How did that come about?

TY: I was in contact with Klaus Heymann, Managing Director for Naxos, through my chamber music teacher in Germany, who had also recorded some piano quartets for Naxos with the Bartholdy Quartet. My teacher talked to Heymann, and he said, ‘Sure, send something along and we’ll hear it’, and that’s what we did. He very much liked my recordings and said, ‘We’re looking to do one album of Sarasarte, so just choose something and we’ll record it’. In the first album, I chose most of the stuff I knew, and we did a CD. It sold really well, so we decided to carry on – eventually to do the complete works. I admit that when we started, I didn’t know much more about Sarasate than the average musically-informed person. The 8 CDs were recorded within 4 years, so it was about 2 CDs per year. We performed some of them live. I feel half-Spanish now! After I achieved this success, I think Naxos was more comfortable in letting me try more conventional repertoire, and I recorded the Mendelssohn concerto in 2013.

GN: Have you continued to play chamber music?

TY: I have played with a quite a number of chamber musicians in the past few years. Recently, I played with the wonderful young German cellist, Maximilian Hornung, in a big chamber music festival. I know him quite well. A few years ago, I played Schubert’s Octet alongside Christian Tetzlaff. It was a great experience. When I was still studying, I did have a small chamber orchestra ensemble with 15 people. We made one recording for Naxos of Vivaldi and Piazzolla. But most of the players had great jobs all over Germany and Europe, so that’s why we split up. Germany is certainly a paradise for musicians, but I must say that things have worsened in recent times: some small chamber music societies can’t survive anymore. If we look at the audience in Germany, it’s all about the 60-70-year-olds. So the disturbing question is: In 20 or 30 years, will we still have an audience?

GN: I also notice that you have also taken an interest in the music of Wolfgang Rihm, recording his complete works for violin and piano in 2012.  How did that come about?

TY: I got to know Wolfgang Rihm personally in 2007 at the Davos Festival (Switzerland), where he was Composer-in-Residence. The first piece of his that I played was the piano trio ‘Fremde Szene III’, which fascinated me at first sight and made me immediately thirsty for more. I’ve now played all his compositions for solo violin, violin and piano and violin with orchestra. We actually have done some concerts together, where he would talk about music (generally and about his own works), and I would then play the piece. Most of the time, it has been difficult for us to meet (he is so terribly busy), so whenever I was working on a new piece, I usually sent a recording, and he always called or wrote back (in beautiful handwriting) saying how he enjoyed the performance, sometimes giving small suggestions. I now have a bunch of wonderful letters from him! To record a Rihm CD was absolutely my wish  ̶  alongside the Ysaye recording  ̶  and I’m really happy that Naxos took up the challenge. In 2016/17, I’ll record two more CDs for Naxos featuring all of his six works currently written for violin and orchestra.

GN: Which brings me back to an obvious question: After all these varied experiences, what was it like playing Paganini again for us?

TY: It was a little weird, like stepping back in time. I hadn’t played any Paganini concertos in over 10 years! I played the first concerto two days ago in Winnipeg, and here I am with the second one. This is the only time this has happened in my life! The last time I played a Paganini concerto was at my first concert in Germany when I was 16. While the concertos are fun to play, I guess I no longer think of myself as a Paganini player; in fact, quite the opposite. I am still trying to push the Paganini reputation of my youth away from me.

GN: But are there definite things you have to do when playing these concertos?

TY: Of course, you need a bit more time on the technique. You have to get the precise intonation. Also, in this kind of music, it is important to try to express something at every single moment. The expression is not nearly as natural as in, say, the Brahms or Tchaikovsky. But, while you must always touch emotions, the music should never be kitschy or overly sentimental; it must maintain its purity and sense of nobility.

GN: You have done a stunning job of adapting to the recording and performance requests of others, and bringing life to such a varied repertoire. How do you see yourself in the future? What works would you really like to play and record?

TY: The important thing, I think, is to always keep moving forward. I like my balance between performing, recording and teaching (I am now a Professor at Berne), and the balance between classical and modern repertoire, often exploring the unknown. What would I really like to record? Try the Schumann sonatas! The Mozart sonatas would be great too. And one day, of course, the complete Bach solo compositions.

Geoffrey Newman

I am indebted to Kelly Bao for recording and transcriptional assistance.

Previously published in slightly altered form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com

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