Jiafeng Chen: Music is just as big as whatever you want to do with it
Jiafeng Chen is a thoughtful and refined violinist. At first you might think that he could go further with the loud and the dramatic. But you very soon understand that he really has his own range of expression. With him a forte is something you feel rather than hear: it’s not a question of decibels but of character. The flow of his music is continuous and everything comes together admirably well. I enjoyed watching him play very much: I like his position, his attitude, his control. I remember carefully observing what he was doing and seeing how each note “worked”.
Despite his relatively young age, Jiafeng is presently teaching at the Chetham School of Music in Manchester. And in September he will start teaching at the Birmingham Conservatory and will be Jan Repko’s assistant at the Royal College of Music in London. The violinist likes to share his experience with people. He is happiest when helping others to improve. “All my teachers were so amazing for me, I think I have had good training from them. I use their approach, that experience I had with them to teach my own students”, explains the young man. He is a very patient and dedicated person. He knows he did his job well when the students begin to play better but he is even more proud when he sees them taking different angles and initiatives. “I want them to be themselves. I want them to still have their own taste using me as another pair of ears to help open up their mind.”
Jiafeng truly believes that we have to transmit our knowledge to the next generation. “I think it’s great that we have this tradition of the classical music”, he starts. “We don’t play our instrument just for us but also to tell people what classical music is now and what it has been.” Therefore it’s important for him to pay attention and play a lot of contemporary music even if it might be quite strange for us sometime. If we don’t play and try to understand contemporary music we don’t leave anything behind for the people in the future. “I think it’s not something that we should like or dislike to do; it’s a responsibility we have as performers.”
When he was seventeen, the young violinist left China to study at Chetham’s School in the United Kingdom. Upon his arrival, he almost stopped practicing for two or three months because it was the first time that his parents didn’t force make him practice. But then when he picked -up the violin again he had a whole different relation to the instrument and to music. There It was something else other than practicing technically, there was something else than playing the right notes with the right intonation. He discovered that the violin was a tool with which you can bring pleasure to people. He understood that the violin can be your voice and that you can approach people through it. “You can let people understand what you think in so many different ways with music”, he says. “Really in the end there is no cast- in- the- stone answer with interpretation. You can do anything you like based on your accumulated knowledge. You can do anything and everything to let people know what this music is for you and from yourself, and it’s unique. That’s something quite interesting and the possibilities are infinite. By nature that’s something a human being would like to do: to express himself. I am really glad that I understand it.” Jiafeng says that he used to practice with such a high standard. He wanted everything to be right and technically perfect. When he goes went on stage he would think about not making any mistakes. But today all of that is different. Nowadays he wants to express something and let the moment inspire him to play in a different way every time. You give something to music and it gives you something back: you can’t control everything in this relationship. Music is just as big as whatever you want to do with it.
To prepare for a concert there is no secret, you have to practice daily. But a few days before the concert, the violinist starts visualizing that he’s playing the concert. He pictures himself in the concert hall in the situation of performing. That way it isn’t a shock when the time comes to walk on stage. “Doing that mental work will allow me on the day of the performance to only have one thing in mind: what do I want to bring to the audience?” Otherwise practicing slowly just before a concert clears his head and makes him feel refreshed and freer on stage. You have to think about bringing something very easy and genuine, then you forget about everything else that could bother you like the “mistakes” or if the audience will like you or not.”
When I ask the young man who inspires him, he answers that Perlman is one of the violinist he is most enthusiastic about. Recently he listened to Perlman’s Thaïs Meditation by Massenet played live at the Lincoln Center. He comments: “it doesn't matter if not every note is surgically perfect like in a recording but the thing is that after he played the last note oh my this music is just amazing! Even with every notes perfectly clean, with his bowings and fingerings, one can’t achieve that level of music making; it’s something in the spirit.” Another violinist Jiafeng likes very much is Janine Jansen. The funny thing is that lately I had in mind to interview her and I asked Jiafeng if by chance he didn’t know her. “I never met her” he answered. “It’s funny that you actually asked me about her and that’s why we are having this interview now: because of Janine Jansen. I like to think that somehow this interview has something to do with her. When you interview her, just let her know that I admire her very much.”
Published on Violinist.com on June 2014: