Virtuoso violinist Angelo Xiang Yu returns to NZ with a note of sadness

by Russell Baillie / 07 May, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Violinist Angelo Xiang Wu

Angelo Xiang Yu.

Angelo Xiang Yu talks about playing the Vivaldi favourite on an instrument that’s as old as The Four Seasons itself.

For concert violinist Angelo Xiang Yu, returning to New Zealand is bittersweet. In 2011, he came third in the Michael Hill Violin Competition. His mother had died of leukemia two days before the contest began.

Yu had been at her bedside in Shanghai for her final month after flying home from Boston, where he was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. With the competition looming, she encouraged him to still go. Having seen her take her last breath that morning, he got on a plane to New Zealand, feeling not just sad but unprepared about playing the contest’s required worksGyftiko by New Zealand composer John Psathas and Beethoven’s Ghost Trio. His eventual third place vindicated his mother’s encouragement.

“It was not my best performance”, he said about his experience, “but I’m actually proud of myself, as my goal was not to win the competition, but to fulfill my mom’s last wish.”

This time Yu arrives as a seasoned virtuoso. He is performing the ever-popular Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

Is coming back to New Zealand poignant for you or a chance to reflect on your mother’s passing and what brought you here in 2011?

It will definitely be a very emotional journey — even after seven years, I could still remember how I witnessed her death right before getting onto the New Zealand flight for the competition, which I had no time to prepare for. But life goes on, I have also moved on from the past, and despite the excruciating sorrow of that time, what I remembered the most was how warm and enthusiastic the New Zealand audience were, and how friendly and supportive all the competitors were. I still keep in touch with a number of them.

What I learned from that particular experience is that life is short, shorter than most of us would have imagined, and it is so important to cherish and embrace every single moment of happiness and sadness in our life, as it will never happen the same way again. And that’s the beauty of life — the unpredictability.

Same goes for music, even though I am playing the same Vivaldi concerto in Wellington and Auckland, with the same orchestra, conductor, on the same instrument — I will sound different each time, as I am as human as anybody else and that’s the beauty of live performance.

What does The Four Seasons represent to 21st century concert violinists? What are the challenges of playing it well – or indeed, putting your own stamp on it?

Vivaldi‘s The Four Seasons is definitely one of the most enjoyable pieces for me to play. Vivaldi himself is a great violinist, probably the first real violin virtuoso of all time. So he really knows how to project the full potential of this instrument.

Of course, the piece itself has many challenges. The biggest one is the difference between a Baroque set-up and modernised set-up of the instrument. Even though I am playing a violin which was made at the same time as Vivaldi wrote most of his pieces, the set-up is totally different — much shorter fingerboard, gut strings, flat bridge, and different bow shape. In many ways it is much easier to play this piece on baroque violin and bow because the unique shape of the bow makes it easier to play much faster without feeling tense.

Three hundred years ago, these kinds of pieces were usually performed in a room which holds about 200 to 300 people, so the modern setup wasn’t necessary. On the other hand, the modern setup is designed for the purpose of projecting the sound to the back row of Carnegie Hall that has 2800 seats.

I love putting my own personality to this piece, especially the slow movements —where I could really use my own imagination to add ornamentations and improvisations, just like all the Baroque musicians do.

The piece is well known even by those who don’t listen to much classical music. Any theories on what that is and why it has endured?

The biggest reason is: it sounds good! I also think there is another major reason — even though the entire four seasons is more than 40 minutes long, each season has three movements which means each movement is under four minutes. Exactly the same length as any pop song. So even for those who have never been to a classical concert before, this probably feels like a pop show. And each movement itself sounds so different, yet beautiful in their own way.

Your instrument is a 1729 Stradivarius, so it was made a few years after The Four Seasons was published. Vivaldi was apparently inspired by the northern Italy countryside which wasn’t far from where Stradivarius worked. Any idea of whether previous owners of the instrument might have played the concerto back then — or any sign that your instrument already knew the piece before you started playing it?

There is a very big chance that Vivaldi himself had seen or heard this instrument, as Antonio Stradivari was already the most famous violin maker in the world back then.

Even though I have been fortunate enough to play on this Stradivarius violin for six years, I still feel like living in a dream, especially when I open my violin case every day. For me, it is not simply just a very beautiful piece of wood, it really is like a person who has feelings and tempers. On a humid day, she — yes, this violin is definitely a lady) tends to be shy and sometimes reluctant to sing. And a cold day she will feel sick like we do. Even after so many years, I’m still discovering new things about this instrument which has lived 10 times longer than I have.

Angelo Xiang Yu with the NZSO, Saturday May 12, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington; Saturday May 19, Auckland Town Hall.

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