Rising Chinese star Yijia Zhang releases his debut album this week: Tango Embrace, featuring the music of Piazzolla. This cosmopolitan performer tells us how it all began, why he started a series of charity concerts in China, and why young people are the future of classical music…
Yijia, how did you first get interested in music and start to play the violin?
Music has always been an important part of my life. I was exposed to classical music at a very young age as my family listens to it regularly. Then on my fifth birthday, I received a small violin as a gift from my parents. Immediately, I formed a special connection with the instrument. During my early years, my motivation to learn to play the violin came from the combination of the encouragement I was getting from my teacher and the passion I had for performance.
Which teachers, musicians or other mentors have been most important to you, and how?
The main teacher I studied under in China was Professor Ding Zhinuo, one of most distinguished violin teachers in China. She taught me the foundations of violin technique. She was also the one who encouraged me to study overseas.
Professor Hiroko Yajima was my teacher at Mannes School of Music in New York, where I went for my undergraduate studies. During the four years I studied under her, she improved my technique and overall musicianship in music. She also helped me to grow as a person and influenced my attitude as a professional musician.
After studying in the US, I felt it was time for a change and extend my horizons. I thought I should challenge myself by moving to Europe to explore the roots of classical music. After speaking to the principal during my interview for the Royal Academy of Music, I was certain that studying in the UK was the best choice for me. During my time in UK, I studied with Professor Sophie Langdon from the Royal Academy of Music. She refreshed me with unique practice techniques, such as mental practicing and visualizing, which made my practice skills more efficient. She also enhanced my musicality and musical communication skills. Both Professor Yajima and Professor Langdon were students of Ivan Galamian.
My most memorable master class experience was with Maxim Vengerov, who was one of my childhood idols. His insights into music were incredibly eye opening.
Tell us something about your charity concerts in China, ‘Under the Same Sky’? How and why were you inspired to create these, who are they for and how do they help?
I initially got the idea to do a charity concert when I read an online article about kids who got left behind in my hometown. I then contacted some local authorities to ask if I can do something to help. I pitched to them the idea of doing a charity concert to help raise money for the children, which would help them continue their education. The local authorities responded positively and after discussions, they cooperated with local business organisations that helped set up a foundation. I was taking care of the concert part; we invited both the children and donors to attend the concert. The first concert was a success; I was extremely moved by people’s kind actions and support. The goal of the charity is reflected by its name ‘Under the Same Sky': we wish there to be fewer and fewer youngsters who are left behind. In the past three years, we have had three ‘Under the Same Sky’ concert series and more than 200 children have benefitted from them.
What has it been like to record your first CD? And how come you chose Piazzolla tangoes? Please tell us all about it.
I have always had a general interest in the tango, and more specifically the tango of Astor Piazzolla. ‘Soul of the Tango: The Music of Astor Piazzolla’ is one of my favorite albums recorded by Yo-yo Ma in the 1990s. I still remember the excitement when I first listened to that CD – I was surprised how perfectly a stringed instrument could fit into the tango. Getting the opportunity to record this album was like a dream come true. It was such a magical experience – the right setting, unique arrangement and instrumentation, great musical communication with the six other accomplished musicians I invited to join the recording, everything just clicked into place.
‘Tango Embrace’ is the name of my debut album, which features nine classic pieces from Astor Piazzolla. The official release date of the album is 10 October, 2015.
What is your violin and how did you get it? What qualities do you particularly like about it?
I play a 1780 Nicola Bergonzi violin from Cremona, Italy. I got it from a French dealer and collector when I lived in New York. It was love at first sight; I knew this was the instrument for me as soon as I played the first note with it. Not only is it a beautiful looking instrument, it also has so much colour in the sound. The higher register projects brilliantly while the lower register has incredible depth. For this violin, there are endless possibilities of making musical characters.
Do you think classical music needs to be ‘saved’? If so, what would you do to save it? If not, why not?
In my opinion, classical music is still very much alive and there are so many classical music lovers out there. The fund cutting and shortage of stable jobs in the industry does exist, which makes it a bit more difficult for young classical musicians. But on the other hand, it’s a wonderful thing that more and more young artists have started to take this situation as an opportunity to reach out explore and create innovative projects. I see a bright future with these young artists shaping a new classical music world and I’m very fortunate and excited to be part of that.