"It's very beautiful and poetic writing, I like very much."
- Dan Zhu
Dan Zhu: About beauty and love
“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, and purchased especially for him in 2008 by a private foundation. The foundation doesn’t usually lend instruments but its owner is very fond of music and wanted to help the young violinist. The latter went to a Christie’s auction and 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.
Published on Violinist.com on June 2013: