Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Last September, I had the good fortune of playing for the first time with a violinist named Chen Xi. I had never heard of him before and didn’t even know how to pronounce his name (Xi sounds like”she” I learned.) When he came over for our first rehearsal, I met an intensely thoughtful, confident young man who looked as if he would have appreciated a few more hours of sleep.
The first thing he asked of my playing, spoken nicely, was “more color.”
Okay. Usually musicians twice his age ask, “Can you stretch that phrase here, or take the tempo a little faster, or rehearse bar 312 very slowly?” “More color” is a more demanding request. But, I had to admit, the color coming out of his violin was unusually expressive and beautiful.
“What kind of violin is that?” I asked.
“A Guarneri del Gesu,” he said, without a hint of boastfulness.
I discovered that the Samsung Foundation thinks so highly of Chen Xi that they have loaned him the permanent use of their Guarneri del Gesu – one of the most treasured instruments in the world.
Before long, I found myself agreeing with the Samsung Foundation as well as Chen Xi’s two-thousand Facebook fans. During our chamber music performance, the freedom and imagination of his playing astonished me. If I played a phrase in our Beethoven trio in a spontaneous, unexpected way, he would reply with a musical answer that was equally spontaneous and amusing. During the Brahms Quartet, his melodies soared, swooped and moved the audience to their core.
Tom and I asked Chen Xi what his plans were once he finishes his graduate studies at Yale this year.
“I play a lot of concerts in Asia and Europe,” he said. “But I would like to make it here.”
To that end, and with the help of some kind, generous friends (Abbie, Patrick, Hayley, Dinny, Melba, Janet, Avo and Bob) we set up a couple of Philly-area dates for him in January. Accompanying him in these duo programs was a joy for me – the Brahms D minor Sonata was powerful and magisterial, the Beiging-Opera inspired Romance and Dance by Chen Yi fresh and striking. And the gypsy soul and speed of his Carmen Fantasy! – the audiences roared in response.
It’s true that every year a new crop of incredible young violinists stands ready to take the world by storm. Why one makes it and another doesn’t has to do with so many factors – the right people believing in you and giving you a chance to be heard, sheer, bull-headed determination, charisma, luck. We hope that all these stars come together so that Chen Xi can join the firmament of his former Curtis classmates Lang Lang and Yuja Wang.
Regardless of superstar career, Chen Xi will be fine. He told me at our last rehearsal what a mentor once said to him: “When you make your life as a musician, you may not become super rich, but you will always be happy, because playing music makes you happy inside.”
That joy of music bursts through Chen Xi’s playing. We’d love all the world to hear it and smile.
For a short video excerpt of the concert, see this film made by my friend Susan Michini (recorded on her small camera and sitting quite far back).