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EXCLUSIVE: Violinist Xiang “Angelo” Yu on New England Conservatory, Mongolian Folk Music and Flying Through Volcanoes for Yehudi Menuhin

By Lisa Helfer Elghazi on Jul 02, 2015 12:42 AM EDT

Violinist Xiang “Angelo” Yu was born in Inner Mongolia, an area he calls, simultaneously, “one of the least modernized” yet "one of the simplest and most beautiful places in the world.” At the tender age 11, he moved with his family to the bustling central coast city of Shanghai. A stark contrast in locale, indeed.

Inspired first by his native Mongolian folk music, and later the lure of Shanghai's cosmopolitan classical, Mr. Yu is now regarded as one of today’s most talented, creative young violinists. Top medalist of the 2010 Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition, he received his bachelor's degree from New England Conservatory in 2012, and then became a candidate in the school’s prestigious artist diploma program.

Xiang "Angelo" Yu then decided to continue his study at NEC as a master's student.

CLASSICALITE. From Mongolia to Shanghai to Boston, Massachusetts, walk us through that journey--musically speaking.

XIANG "ANGELO" YU: I spent the first decade of my life in Inner Mongolia. I'm so grateful to this place, due to those people who have such a warm heart and pure soul constantly surrounding me. Although I didn't have the luxury of listening to live classical concerts at all in that area, I was very much inspired by Mongolian folk music--which, to my ears, is the most gorgeous music in the world. Shanghai, on the other hand, is so different in many ways. It is one of the most advanced cities in China, one of the major cities in the world. There is a lot going on day and night, and I was amazed by the rhythm of people's daily life here. But I constantly missed home, especially the simplicity that was somehow missing in this modern city. I received my early professional violin training at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Being inspired by world-renowned musicians in concert halls became possible after we moved to Shanghai, and I spent most of my leisure time listening to classical CDs. I still remember how, at the age of 11, I would skip lunch intentionally and save that money so that I could buy some great recordings by Heifetz and Milstein. If I skipped lunch, I wouldn't add too much extra financial burden to my parents. Since then, I realized music has become the center of my life. I moved to Boston when I was 19. That's when I started studying at New England Conservatory.

C-LITE. So, why Boston? And why the New England Conservatory, specifically?

XAU: One thing in particular that I don't see in other schools is the unique chamber music environment at NEC. From where I stand, chamber music is the fundamental base for great solo playing and orchestra playing. Having the pleasure of playing in seven different groups at NEC and being coached by all--yes, literally, all--chamber music faculties, I have to say that I enjoyed working with every single one of them, because every one is so friendly, yet so passionate about music. Even my principal teacher is always happy to give me lessons on chamber music excerpts, and he treats my chamber music playing absolutely equal to my solo career development. So, I believe chamber music is one of the main reasons why NEC has cultivated so many successful musicians.

C-LITE. How has that kind of education impacted your professional life?

XAU: I don't want to make it sound cliché, but I really wouldn't have been who I am today without the education at [NEC]. Working with such world-leading musicians, being inspired by the concerts in Jordan Hall, sharing all my feelings by playing with other musicians, I can't think of anything better.

C-LITE. It's fair to say, then, you'd definitely recommend the conservatory approach?

XAU: Let me answer your question with a statement of fact: I got my bachelor's degree from New England in 2012. And even after I finished my two-year artist diploma program last year, I decided to continue my study here as a masters of music student. I hope these decisions illustrate how much I love it here...how much I don't want to leave this musical heaven.

C-LITE. I love the story you tell about actually getting to the Menuhin competition. What a wild journey that was, right through the ash cloud from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano. You get to Oslo, the last performer of the day, and end up winning the whole thing!

XAU: I've never experienced anything else like this. I mean, sitting in the cockpit, flying with the pilot during a volcano eruption? No way! This whole experience actually taught me something important. I remember when I was stuck in Iceland for three days, I almost gave up the hope of participating in the competition, as the first round has already begun. I would never have known that the ambassador would find a way to let me get on to the plane in such way, had I not reached out for help at that time. Before I finally rushed into the competition place, I hadn't slept at all for almost two days. I just treated it as an appreciation and thankfulness for those people who have helped me along my way to Oslo. I realized, after all these adventures, even under the most difficult circumstances, one should never give up. Life never tells us what's inside this box until we finally open it.

C-LITE. Who's your biggest inspiration?

XAU: Donald Weilerstein...I'm constantly inspired by him. Not only because of his breathtakingly beautiful sound, but also his calm, kind, warm, caring and universal loving personality, which is such a silent motivation to make me a better person.

C-LITE. Where is your favorite place to perform and why?

XAU: Jordan Hall! Just to be clear, I'm not saying this because it's the main performance space at NEC. Having performed in many other great halls (Boston Symphony Hall, Heinz Hall, Konzerthaus Berlin, Louvre, etc.), I still think that Jordan Hall has the most unique reverb. It is so beautiful to me, even after seeing it for more than a thousand times. More than anything else, I feel so connected to the audience every time I perform there. Especially when it gets really soft and intimate, I could almost feel the breath from the audience on the stage.

C-LITE. You've got quite a busy performance season ahead of you, some ten concerti in two dozen concerts. How do you balance school, work, and, well, life?

XAU: 2015-2016 will probably be my last year at NEC as a student. And it is going to be a very productive year, because I will be playing seven different concertos in 24 concerts with leading orchestras in North America--all of them debut performances! I'm really excited, and at the same time, quite nervous. This is my first full performance season, and I hope that every performance represents the highest level of myself. I hope to find the balance between a busy performance schedule and the school work.

C-LITE: Finally, any advice for violinists--at NEC or elsewhere--heading into the fall semester?

XAU: Well, now I feel old! I have to say, in the past seven years, I gradually found my own voice as a violinist; I'm still trying to make that voice even more sincere and true to myself. My teachers have always been so helpful in terms of expanding my musical horizons, without changing my own personality. However, with the increasing speed of life, everything tends to go bigger, faster, more extreme, etc. Thus, we are always in danger of losing ourselves. So, my advice would be always trust yourself. Listen to the real voice deep inside your heart. Once you find it, never let it go--no matter what happens. Many things can easily distract us today, and it's so hard to keep a simple and steady mind. Sometimes, people might think you are crazy, you're different, or what you do is not the smartest thing to do. But I encourage you to have faith on your own, and never give it up.

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TagsEXCLUSIVE, Classicalite Q&A, Xiang Yu, New England Conservatory, Yehudi Menuhin, Donald Weilerstein, Jordan Hall, Jascha Heifetz