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Violinist Xiang Yu

Mongolia-born violinist Xiang Yu, on the future of classical performance and finding a voice in music.

Symphony orchestras around the country are facing tough challenges in tough times. But virtuosity keeps on rising.

24-year-old violin virtuoso Xiang Yu was born in Mongolia. Studied in Shanghai. Was twenty-one when he won the Menuhin Competition for Young Violinists in Oslo. Came to America to fully find his voice in his music. How does one do that?

Xiang Yu is with us today, with his violin and his great teacher.

This hour, On Point: classical virtuosity in the 21st century.

-Tom Ashbrook


Xiang Yu at WBUR (photo by Jesse Costa, WBUR)

Xiang Yu at WBUR (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Xiang Yu, violin student at the New England Conservatory, he won the 2010 Menuhin Competition for Young Violinists. Born in Inner Mongolia, Xiang moved to Shanghai at the age of 11 and received his early training at the Shanghai Conservatory.

Donald Weilerstein, violin teacher at the New England Conservatory and the Juilliard School.

From Tom’s Reading List

New England Conservatory “Xiang ‘Angelo’ Yu, a second year violin student at New England Conservatory, has won the 2010 Menuhin Competition for Young Violinists, despite a nerve-wracking trip to Oslo, Norway during which he was stranded in the Reykjavik, Iceland airport because of the volcanic ash cloud. Thanks to the intercessions of a former ambassador to China and Norway who took Yu into his home, the violinist was able to get on a sold-out flight to Norway, sitting in the cockpit with the pilot. He arrived just in time for the competition’s first round and went on to win the finals on Saturday”

Bloomberg “Local chambers of commerce like to brag about their professional sports teams and arts groups as a way of attracting business and residents to their cities. The ability to use classical music groups in such campaigns may be increasingly at risk, say experts on professional music organizations, who warn that growing deficits among U.S. orchestras may be placing that sense of civic pride in jeopardy. It’s a crisis some are choosing to resolve through bankruptcy.”


Xiang Yu peformed Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita in D minor, BWV 1004, in Jordan Hall in Boston on Jan. 22, 2013:

American Public Media grants permission for the use of audio clips from Xiang Yu performances on “Performance Today” posted at http://performancetoday.publicradio.org/display/web/2013/04/01/xiang-yu-yar to be used WBUR’s “On Point” to be aired Tuesday, April 9, 2013.

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  • Gregg Smith

    I am in awe of his talent, drive and virtuosity but I don’t think of music as a competitive sport. It’s just my opinion.

    • Fred_in_Newton_MA


      Think of a major-league athlete, but one who needs to tryout
      before every game.   That, effectively, is the life of a young,
      classical musician.   I’ve seen this through my daughter and her
      peers, highly accomplished singers and instrumentalists who, like little-league
      prodigies, find their calling early in life. 
      Completing conservatory and graduate study, they join a corps of fine,
      often gifted, performers, in a field with relatively few opportunities to earn
      a living.  Constant competitive
      auditioning comes with the territory and is a source of great stress and uncertainty. Now in their mid-20s, some of the most promising musicians we have known are
      pursuing other options.

      • Gregg Smith

        That’s my fear. Music is precious in my view. Although I do understand the dynamics and I suppose it has it’s place.

  • sickofthechit

    I now have a second favorite experience from Mongolia.  My first was the fantastically beautiful scenes from the movie “The Great Match” where the Mongolian herdsmen rode their ponies across a frozen lake with their eagles on one arm and the reins in the other hand.  Now I get to experience this wunderkid and his fantastic music.  Thanks Tom. Charles A. Bowsher

  • http://twitter.com/wsyygz Yanny

    Very talented young violinist. Powerful and detailed in his performance. Really great to see young musicians like Xiang Yu. One thing to correct: He was born in Inner-mongolia, which is a province in China, so he is Chinese, not Mongolian. Thank you. Best of luck to you with your study here at the States. 

  • sickofthechit

    If I were an artist I believe I could draw an accurate portrait of Xiang Yu from simply hearing him play.  Graceful, Beautiful, and secure enough in his talent to only bow strongly enough to coax the necessary notes out of his violin and no more. SUPERB! Charles A. Bowsher

  • http://www.facebook.com/emily.h.lacroix Emily Harvey Lacroix

    Can you explain more what an individual’s voice is in violin or classical instrumental music? I feel like you’re dancing around the answer…I understand ‘unique voice’ as a singer–or perspective as an artist or actor–individualized tone, emphasis, and emotive quality, but I’m having a hard time translating that to an instrument. How is voice the same or different in vocal and instrumental music?

    • ToyYoda

      It’s a combination of things.  Tempo (how fasts they play), what notes they emphasize, how fast they crescend, or even how much they crescend, how much staccato they use (how much a note should sound like a short ‘tick’ vs a long “ohh” sound), what decorative notes should sound like, how much legato to use(how connected the notes are), how spatially separated a chord should be.  Other things like overall feel, is it light or heavy.  Even things like what melodies should be emphasized, and so on.  The list is endless.

      And for piano, there is even adding your own melodic line to the original.  Either by adding notes, or bringing out an inner melody not noticed that was once thought of as accompanying notes.  Does not often happen, but a lot of the great pianist have done this.  Pianist even will re-write passages for pianistic effects but still stay true to the composer’s intentions.  This latter thing is hard to pick up, unless you are very familiar with the piano, and the piece being played.I can really only speak for the piano, since I’ve played for many years now.  But I’d it applies equally well to other instruments.

      • http://www.facebook.com/4himalone71 Heather Sebring

         I guess that’s why they call it…art!  Very complicated compilation of interpretation and decisions that lose meaning when it’s scientifically dissected.

      • Gregg Smith

        Great comments ToyYoda. It’s hard to put into words but you’ve done it (and shown it) as well as anyone. Every listener interprets a piece differently. The musician is no different.

    • ToyYoda

      The best way to understand individual differences is to listen to the same pieces played by different artists.

      Here’s some pleasant tunes for you.

      This is Massenet’s Meditation performed by Chang and Itzhak Perlman.  I prefer Chang’s performance, but Itzhak’s is just as good.  Note how in Chang’s performance one phrase of music seamlessly turns into another, while Itzhak’s is more articulated (segmented).



      Notice also how Chang’s melodic line “quivers” (don’t know the proper violin term, but you can hear slight pitch variations which sound almost like trembling.)  I don’t like that, as compared to the very clear tone the Perlman has.  But, I do like Chang’s overall interpretation better.

      Also, another comparison from the piano side.  We can take Chopin’s Tristesse Etude:

      by Pollini:


      by Horowitz:


      by Richter:

      Another is Chopin’s Aeolian Harp etude.  A very striking difference is to compare Lang Lang with anybody else!


      Lang Lang:


      In this etude, just compare how each pianist brings out the main melodic line.  Do the accompanying notes ‘drown’ the melody?  Do you notice any minor melodies?  And do any of the pianist make an effort to show these minor melodies?  etc, etc.


      • http://www.facebook.com/4himalone71 Heather Sebring

         My 12yr old and I just did this very thing – listened to Xiang Yu playing the same piece as his mentioned favorite violinists….just to hear the “voice” difference between them all.  It was a great music appreciation lesson in our home school day!

  • nostoppingprogress

    Saw a demo by bowmaker Fung Chin that was incredible. How does instrument and bow figure into finding your voice? Can you talk about that search?

    • sickofthechit


  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002266341422 Marilyn Francis

    When and where can we hear Xiang Yu  in concert? I have been raptly listening to On Point this morning and I am blown away by the heart and soul he brings to the music!

  • disqus_fw2Bu1dEsd

    My sympathies for playing cold like that with no pianist AND in front of his teacher.

  • sickofthechit

    The Hungarian piece.  The first three seconds started the “chills” racing through my body and within 20 seconds or so my eyes were watering.  A well played violin does it to me, as does a skillful voice or chorus.   Thank you Xiang Xu!

  • debhulbh

    My daughter plays this Csardas, I just love it…thank you, sounds wonderful

  • http://www.facebook.com/terrence.palmer.589 Terrence Palmer

    Loved the explaination of your method of practice.  “I think ten times before I play once!”  Love the mediation and concentration.  Going first in your mind’s imagination where there are no boundaries that become present in the physical realm.


  • http://www.facebook.com/grace.adams.3914 Grace Adams

    I just missed the name of that marvelous piece he just played…anybody????

    • debhulbh

      Monti’s Csardas

      • http://www.facebook.com/grace.adams.3914 Grace Adams

         Thank you!!

  • debhulbh

    Most welcome, enjoy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/4himalone71 Heather Sebring

    Mr Xiang Yu, your musical voice is beautiful.  As a K-12 Teacher, I will be featuring your playing as a “must hear” in my music appreciation lessons.  Thank you for proving my point to my students that you don’t have to be musically educated in order to recognize and appreciate quality when you hear it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/4himalone71 Heather Sebring

     Mr Xiang Yu, your musical voice is beautiful.  As a K-12 Teacher, I will
    be featuring your playing as a “must hear” in my music appreciation
    lessons.  Thank you for proving my point to my students that you don’t
    have to be musically educated in order to recognize and appreciate
    quality when you hear it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1001843309 Joe Heyer

    Tom, thank you for this ethereal interlude in your parade of perplexing social, economic, and political conundrums. Ahhh… a mental and emotional respite; a meditation in peace. I’m most grateful to your artist/guest.

  • sjtrich

    Are the 2 piece’s he played live available to download? Just awstruck with him!

  • sjtrich

    Are the 2 piece’s he played live available for download, I would love to play them for my son! Superb!

  • http://www.facebook.com/4himalone71 Heather Sebring

     Searched youtube and found other pieces from competitions Xiang Yu has played.  Really moved by his Chausson Poeme Op 25.  My 12yr old and I listened to two other violinists playing the same piece and decided we loved best how Xiang Yu gives each note its own voice to shout or whisper its sound.  Perhaps that is what one commenter meant by “Xiang Yu’s voice can be seen in the way he coaxes each note out just enough to be heard”.  Truly has become an instant favorite artist in our family where ironically pop songs often rule!

  • Michele

    Tom asked if any of us are virtuosos: I am not by any stretch of the imagination.  However, it is one of my ambitions to conquer Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E Minor…someday…

    This young man is phenomenal! If only..
    He mentioned Heifetz and I have to say that his playing reminds me a bit of Heifetz. The same emotive playing which will only grow deeper with age and experience. I am floating on the music… Thank you.

  • David Crowley

    I really enjoyed the segment! I just posted a blog about how as a non-musician I was ready to flip the dial when I heard the topic, but was glad I didn’t as I enjoyed the discussion about finding one’s voice!

  • Pingback: Fuse Concert Review: Violinist Xiang Yu — A Stupendous Technique and a Musical Voice All His Own » The Arts Fuse

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