When violinist Xiaofu Zhou arrives in Princeton on Sunday, Feb. 3 for his recital at Princeton Theological Seminary’s Miller Chapel, it will not be through the efforts of an agent or a professional organizer, but rather through the tireless advocacy of those who have been changed by his playing.
“The first time I heard him in concert, I just felt that his sound was not like anything I have heard before, not even in recordings,” says West Windsor resident Yun Duan. “I realized this was an amazing artist.”
Duan, really an enthusiastic amateur, has taken it upon herself to promote Zhou, who had been doing everything himself, out of pocket, following first the death of his agent and then that of a helpful colleague.
“His artistry really deserves to be noticed,” Duan says. “He deserves to be on the major stage. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to be on tour all the time. He doesn’t want to lose his focus. He prefers to focus on the music.”
Zhou, who makes his home in Ambler, Pennsylvania, is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied with Jascha Brodsky and Arnold Steinhardt of the Guarneri String Quartet. He pursued graduate studies with Dorothy DeLay at the Juilliard School. A comprehensive list of DeLay’s pupils reads like a Who’s Who of late 20th century violinists—she was also the teacher of Itzhak Perlman, Sarah Chang, Nigel Kennedy, Midori, Shlomo Mintz, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Gil Shaham and Philadelphia Orchestra concertmaster David Kim.
Zhou began his violin lessons at four. At 16, he was one of eight students, chosen from 600, to receive a scholarship to the Beijing Conservatory. Three years later, he was awarded a full scholarship to the Oberlin Conservatory to study with Stephen Clapp.
He made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1995. The reviews were ecstatic, with the New York Times describing him as “a master of his instrument and a poet” and The Strad drawing comparisons to the great Soviet violinist David Oistrakh.
Zhou’s Princeton program will include two major works: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata No. 5 in F major, Op. 24, “Spring,” and Johannes Brahms’ Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 100.
These will be topped off with a generous dessert platter, in the form of works by Claude Debussy (“Beau Soir”) and Manuel de Falla (selections from the “Suite populaire espagnole”), and a serene after-dinner mint by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (the Adagio in E major, K. 261).
Also on the menu will be Brahms’ “Sonatensatz” from the “F.A.E. Sonata,” a collaborative effort composed with Robert Schumann and Schumann pupil Albert Dietrich.
Zhou’s pianist for the program also hails from China. “The two were introduced by a common friend,” Duan says. “When they came together for the first time, the pianist had never seen the music. It was the ‘Four Romantic Pieces’ of Dvorak. Xiaofu hadn’t played it for two years.
They just started playing, and it was perfect. Xiaofu immediately said, let’s do a concert, if you can come back. Immediately, they found the things they wanted in the other artist.”
The name of the pianist has not been revealed out of concern. The news of his unauthorized participation may travel back to China, where it could cause problems with his employers and the authorities, an occupational hazard of working at a conservatory in a communist country.
“They won’t tell you when your last day will be for the semester,” Duan says about the bureaucracy. “Also they will call you back in the middle of your vacation. That’s the way of the Chinese administration.
“They’re all like that. It’s hard to explain, but this is what we deal with all the time. Last time, the pianist got the call, and I had to drive him immediately after a concert in Philadelphia to Newark to fly out at 1 a.m.”
Duan herself was born in Beijing. She became interested in music through her father, who played the accordion, which she says was the only instrument they had at the hospital where they lived. “It was the best army hospital in the country,” she says. “When they had Chinese New Year celebrations, each department would present a show. My father would stay on the stage from the beginning to the end. He would accompany everyone. From him, I knew a few pieces of Western music.”
One of her mother’s colleagues also introduced her to the records of Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin. Following her father’s death at 44, Duan says her uncles stepped up to see to her further education. One in particular was a playwright. He introduced her to the works of William Shakespeare and started taking her to concerts.
Soon, Duan was spending all of her spare time at the concert hall. It was there that she met her future husband.
“We went to high school together seven years earlier,” she says. “He saw me three times, and we started to talk.” She recalls Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” was on the program that night.
Duan left China at 26. She and her husband arrived in Bloomington, Indiana, where he earned his Ph.D. in physics and she attended business school.
During their time in Bloomington, they continued their concert-going at the Jacobs School of Music. They heard plenty of opera, and they saw violinist Joshua Bell honor Jacobs’ legendary pedagogue Josef Gingold.
But it was not music or physics that her husband pursued. Instead he found work on Wall Street, where he did quantitative analysis for the banks.
Duan herself has worked locally for Covance Inc., and then McGraw-Hill, both in West Windsor. Then she started taking the train to New York City to work for Standard & Poor’s and Societe Generale.
Even so, the arts remain important to the fabric of their family. Five of her cousins are directors or playwrights. Some work in the film industry. One of her sons—the one whose violin studies led her to her friendship with Zhou— attends the Peabody Institute of John Hopkins University. A daughter is pursuing degrees in music and engineering at Northwestern.
In 2012, Duan stopped working to be at home with her elder son, who suffers from bipolar disorder.
She says he is improving and has displayed an unusual aptitude for rapping. “If you go to China, this is what is really hot right now,” she says.
Since 2015, Duan has helped secure the venues, enlisted her son to design fliers, and in general done much of the legwork to ensure that Zhou gets the promotion he deserves.
She emphasizes that music-making for Zhou and his most recent pianist is never about showing off. “Their focus is on the music, not on anything else. There is no vanity.”
“For those who are interested in violin playing at the very highest level, it will be the violin recital of the year,” Roberts says. “I have heard an awful lot of violinists, and Zhou is right up at the top.”