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The Pure Magic of Music – Jeremy Siepmann interviews Tianwa Yang

November 4, 2010

Tianwa Yang

Tianwa Yang has been wowing audiences for more than half her life. Not only because of her stunning technique, or her plain-as-day musicianship, but because she’s a natural to the tips of her remarkable fingers. Some play above the audience, or actually (if inadvertently) exclude them. Some play down to them, eyeing the proverbial gallery. Yang speaks directly to her listeners, and the verb is appropriate. Of course she ‘sings’, of course she soars, but through her performances alone, even on CD, where her physical presence plays no part, she seems to be talking to us. Sharing with us, to use a now much-abused word. She involves us, fulfilling one of the cardinal responsibilities, and privileges, of the true performing artist. Albeit, she is still young, but it is inconceivable that she will ever become a grande dame, a temperamental  diva. In conversation, as in performance, she is utterly unaffected, naturally confident but becomingly modest, and blessed with the gift of simplicity. Music has been central to her life for almost as long as she can remember. But not quite. For a time—though not for long—she was just a kid.

‘Until I was around four, I was just playing around like any other child does. My parents are not musicians, and they didn’t immediately realise that I had musical talent. They certainly didn’t spot me as a potential prodigy or anything like that.  My start in music was quite a coincidence, actually. When I was four my father dropped me off at a kindergarten that was just next to where he worked. It happened to be a musical kindergarten and I started to play a little electronic keyboard that was there. I must have shown some talent, because a teacher told my father that I should really play a more serious instrument. It was my father’s decision that I should play the violin—not for any particularly musical reason but because he thought it looked cute to see little girls playing the violin. As soon as I had a violin in my hands, I started to play. And when I first put it on my shoulder and drew the bow across the string my life changed. I felt the vibration of the violin against me, felt this immediate, direct connection to the instrument—so unlike with the piano. I found something very moving in this oneness with the source of music.’

That sense of intimacy, of oneness with music as well as with the violin, has been felt by audiences throughout her career. You can hear it already in the recording she made of the complete Paganini Caprices when she was only 13. Even then, and in some of the most demanding pieces in the repertoire, she reveals herself not only as a born virtuoso but as a true musician, for whom technique is ultimately, and most importantly, a means to an end.

Like many children, her early youth was dominated by her love of the Romantics, with a very special feeling for Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Dvorak etc. But she was no specialist. ‘I also felt Beethoven’s music very, very strongly. I still do. His music, which, of course, isn’t strictly speaking Romantic, has always had a huge effect on me.’ And how did she most frequently encounter the music of the great composers? ‘When I was young, from 7 to 15 or so, I listened to loads of recordings, especially of violinists, naturally. Every time I put the violin down on the table I would switch on the gramophone and play some records. I had a huge collection. But then later, when I was about 16 or 17, I came to a kind of turning point, if that’s the right phrase. I stopped listening to all those violinistic records just for the sake of listening. I still don’t understand quite why. And today, when I approach a new work I still don’t listen to any recordings before I’ve really developed my own conception of the work. Then I might listen to some other people’s interpretations, but only, or at least primarily, to analyze what they do differently and what their reasons might be.’

Her role models, as she developed, may strike some as surprising, for a girl growing up in the China of the 1990s. ‘Early on, Michael Rabin was a huge influence. And later I felt, still feel, a great sense of awe for two great artists of an earlier generation, Joseph Szigeti and Adolf Busch. I got to know Busch through his amazing quartet recordings and then I discovered his sonata recordings with Serkin, and his other recordings too. His playing had a really formative influence on me.’

Did she, I wondered, as an undoubted Wunderkind, ever feel under excessive pressure, from any source?  Most brilliantly gifted high-achievers have done so at one time or another. ‘Not generally, no. Not generally. Sometimes if I wasn’t practising well my teacher might be a little impatient with me, but that was about it. Any pressure from my parents didn’t come directly from them but from my sense of gratitude and indebtedness to them. They didn’t have a lot of money and they gave everything to the cause of my musical education. I felt a great need to pay them back for the sacrifices that they made for me. But apart from that, no, I didn’t feel any undue pressure.’

How specialised was her musical upbringing? Did she attend regular schools, with normal schoolmates? ‘I attended normal schools until I was 10 and then I went to a school where more time was made for music. We had four lessons in the morning—these were in academic subjects, Chinese, English, maths and so on—and then three hours to practice in the afternoon.’ And who have been her most important teachers? ‘I studied with my Chinese teacher from 10 to 16 and then I went to Germany to study chamber music—and that was for three years. I stopped having regular violin lessons at around the age of 19. Now I no longer have a regular teacher but it’s always been important to me, and I’m sure will always be important to me, to have a lot of input from others. I need to be able to discuss my ideas with musicians whom I respect and admire—and trust—and that’s why I get so much out of going to particular people—Jörg-Wolfgang Jahn, for instance, from the former Bartholdy Quartet, and Anner Bylsma, the great Baroque cellist and a number of other chamber music colleagues. This is always of invaluable importance to me. I tried Baroque repertoire playing on Baroque violin for a period, which interests me very much, and which I enjoyed a lot, but generally I’m mostly involved in the classic, romantic and later repertoire, so I gave up this switching back and forth between baroque and modern violin, which really differ a lot. What I do, though, is to try to play Baroque repertoire as much as possible in the style of my period instrument colleagues.’

With her keen sense of style, and her contact with Anner Bylsma, it comes as no surprise that her experience with 18th-century performance practices has transformed her vision of the repertoire as a whole. She has no standardised approach which accommodates Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky alike. Far from it. ‘I would never give the listener the impression that whatever I’m playing it’s first Tianwa Yang and then maybe something by Beethoven or Brahms! We interpreters, after all, are the carriers, the messengers, if you like, of the composition and its composer. Since each composer is unique, each must be played differently. That’s the art of it, basically; choosing the right phrasings, bowings, vibratos, sound qualities etc not only for each individual composer but for each individual piece.’ 

Even today, with unprecedented and immediate access to every kind of influence imaginable, there remain in the musical world, certainly the world of classical music, a number of distinct and venerable traditions both of performing and of teaching. From their styles and their techniques, we can still identify performers from the ‘Russian’, the ‘French’, the ‘German’  schools etc (though less easily than we used to). But what of China? Does Tianwa Yang see herself as part of any tradition? ‘My former teacher in China was educated in Russia and it was very much in the Russian tradition that he taught me. And then when I went to Germany to study, I was shocked at the difference between Russian style and the western European tradition, particularly, in my case, the German tradition. I think the key word for the Russian approach is “singing”. Their tradition is characterised by cultivating a big, rich sound; big, and pretty well continuous, vibrato; big phrases, and big bows (this is also characteristic, in my view, of a lot of American violin playing). The European tradition favours a lighter sound, much lighter bows, and less vibrato. The keyword here is “speaking”. And the types of vibrato used in the European tradition are quite different from the kinds of vibrato you have in the Russian tradition. I actually never knew till I got to Germany that you could also play beautifully using no vibrato, as a special colour in its own right! As to myself, I no longer feel part of any established tradition—if I ever really did.’

What were some of her most lasting impressions after her first prolonged contact with the West?  ‘Well, as I say, I first went to study chamber music in Germany when I was 16, but then I spent only two or three months there before going back to China to continue my schooling. My first reaction was that in Germany, anyway, the importance, the aesthetic and spiritual aspect of playing seemed to be significantly different from what I knew in China. When I was growing up, a good performance was where you play everything clean, you do everything the way you want, all the notes are there, you don’t make any mistakes, you have a good sound, you can play right through with a good sense of shape—and that was that. In Germany the emphasis was on how much you had to communicate about the music itself. To make everything expressive, to capture the emotional essence of the music. And I thought to myself, “Yes! This is what it’s all about. This is it!” To express something from the heart! This was a revelation to me.’

And apart from music, was there a great sense of culture shock (or any other shock) when she first encountered western life in general? ‘Not at all. Nothing seemed alien to me. From the very first moment, I didn’t even notice the difference. I got totally into the atmosphere, at once. I felt wonderfully comfortable. I felt, I feel, completely at home here. I’m almost ashamed to say that I feel in many ways more European than Chinese.’ Is this something she has to be very discreet about in China? The answer comes quickly. ‘I don’t know. I don’t care!’

Obviously, from her various references, chamber music plays a large part of her life. ‘Oh yes. Definitely. When I was 15 or 16 I began to feel that this is the greatest branch of music, the most essential kind of music of all, with valuable lessons for playing, for hearing, in any other sphere: concertos, symphonies, just about anything. The way to approach them is so often in the nature of chamber music. That so often is the key.  And chamber music remains my absolute favourite part of the repertoire.’

 Is it possible to summarise how her experience of chamber music has influenced her as a soloist? ‘Yes. I think so. I don’t feel like, when I’m a soloist, that I’m just a soloist, standing out there and playing for myself and for the audience and occupying the limelight. Each time, one is playing in collaboration with other musicians, who are never just accompanists.—and the music is written that way. There always such scope for mutual input—which is why I would and could never play the same piece the same way twice. To an important extent, it all depends on who I’m playing with and what we’re playing.’

And has she, in the course of her touring, noticed distinct national characteristics in audiences? ‘If you were to place me on a stage without telling me where I was, I think I should probably be able to figure out. Yes, different geographical audiences do differ. In Germany, the audience is very quiet—and very clear in their reactions! You can always tell from their applause whether they really liked it or not. Audiences in America tend to be very enthusiastic. About China, I prefer not to say too much. After all, I left China seven years ago, and probably a lot’s changed in all that time. But the Chinese audience is definitely still developing. They’ll be very responsive to a lot of brilliant and effective, often virtuoso, repertoire, but very often, I think, if you play a whole Sonata recital at a chamber concert, they may be puzzled; they won’t quite know what it’s all about. But as I say that may very well have changed.’

Given the close bond between Tianwa Yang and her audiences, I wondered whether she missed that presence in the relative isolation of the recording studio. ‘I actually enjoy recording very much.  There are so many subtleties, intimacies, so many delicacies and refined details that you can bring out in a recording that won’t come out in a large hall. I love the opportunity to get in close like that. So my interpretations in the recording studio are sometimes significantly different from those given before a big audience in a large hall, because in a way the circumstances require it. But in terms of feeling, playing to the microphone is for me just like playing for an audience. I have very much the same feeling of communication. I’m playing not just to that microphone but through it. I really don’t feel deprived of their physical presence.’

One of the most testing challenges faced by any successful performer, perhaps particularly any young performer, is the fleeting alliance with conductors. Some are a joy to work with, others—the autocratic, dictatorial variety, now happily a diminishing breed—can be very trying. Tianwa, like all her colleagues, has had experience of both. ‘There are some conductors who just have the music flowing through their hands. They communicate so naturally, they hardly even need to look at you, they know exactly what you’re doing. And it’s so inspiring to just look at them, and to play “under” their hands. There’s no hint of technique here, its part of the pure magic of music.’

And the other kind of conductors? ‘Just as I would never dictate to a conductor, so I don’t like or expect a conductor to dictate to me. I’m totally open to discussions, but if he’s closed to any kind of musical ideas other than his own, or even to compromises, well, he might go ahead do it in his way and I’ll do it in mine. I too can communicate with the orchestra, through my body language, through my bow, and through my movements as well. So some musicians will go his way, some will follow me. Fortunately this doesn’t happen very often! But generally—ideally, of course—it’s a meeting of equals, as in chamber music.’

Inevitably, our conversation turned to Sarasate, whose complete violin works she is currently recording for Naxos. And it was with Naxos that the project originated. ‘That’s right. The first idea came from Mr Heymann for my debut CD for Naxos. He asked me to make a programme of Sarasate, and that’s how it all began. He asked me to program the most popular works but also other favourites, perhaps of my own, and he left me to choose that. I didn’t at that time know the rest of Sarasate very well at all. I just knew a couple of pieces. Even for the first record I chose one thing that I didn’t know beforehand.’

Has her impression of Sarasate changed and become enriched by this experience? Does she feel he’s an unjustly neglected composer? ‘Yes. I wouldn’t say in general that he was a great composer, partly because his compositions are very much limited to the violin, but his best is very good. I like all of his Opera fantasies, which certainly deserve to be better known—especially the Carmen fantasy, the Magic Flute and Don Giovanni fantasies, and Romeo and Juliet. So many of these are never played in public, which I think is a shame. And of course the violin-writing is wonderful. His work shows—how can I put it?—the lightest and most elegant aspects of the violin: it’s so often so delicate, so very fine and detailed and sensitive. And of course, being a great violinist, he had a wonderful knowledge of how to make the instrument sound best.’

Does she see herself keeping quite a lot of these pieces in her repertoire over the years, or does she suspect that quite a number will fall by the wayside? Worth hearing, definitely worth recording, but not finding a central place in her repertoire? ‘Well most of them probably will fall aside,  but the pieces like the Magic Flute fantasy and the Zigeunerweisen, I think these are terrific works that I’ll certainly keep in my repertoire.’

And if she had to choose only one out of all his works as her particular favourite? ‘I think the Carmen fantasy and the Zigeunerweisen are probably the best, but I think I would probably choose the Magic Flute fantasy—not just because of Sarasate but because I love the opera, and it’s so well written—and so close to the opera, which is important to me. You know in some of these operatic fantasies for violin there’s so much virtuosity, so many notes, that you almost can’t recognise where the music originally came from. In this one, though, it still sounds like Mozart.  I’m a great fan of opera, I love going to it, but I just don’t have the time to go as much as I’d like to. I wish I did. But you can’t have everything.’

Maybe some day. In the meantime, the life of Tianwa Yang is blessed with abundant riches, which she clearly treasures. She gives every impression of having a very good time indeed.

Also available:

Naxos 20th Anniversary Concert (NTSC)

PIAZZOLLA Sinfonía Buenos Aires

VIVALDI 4 Seasons


Tianwa Yang Biography & Discography


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