When violinist Xiaofu Zhou arrives in Princeton on Sunday, February 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. Suffice it to say 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 classical music magazine 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.
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 has worked locally for Covance Inc., in Carnegie Center, and then McGraw-Hill in East 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.
A shared enthusiasm for Zhou’s playing brought Duan together with William Roberts. Roberts has known Zhou for 30 years. A lawyer by occupation — a partner at Philadelphia’s Blank Rome LLP — Roberts took up the violin himself at the age of 11. More recently he has become passionate about the lute. As we spoke by telephone he was in Switzerland to meet with renowned lutenist Hopkinson Smith.
But he feels that the “highest and best use” of his time is to help nonprofit musical organizations. To this end, he serves or has served on the boards of the Curtis Institute of Music, Marlboro Music School and Festival, Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia, and the early music ensemble Tempesta di Mare.
Roberts met Zhou not at Curtis, but shortly after he graduated, while shopping for sheet music. “He was curious about what violin I play, what bows I play. I gave him my phone number, and we met and we had dinner on a Sunday. I would go to his recitals, and I was very impressed with his playing.”
Having not taken violin lessons since high school, Roberts was delighted when Zhou agreed to take him on as a student. “I’ve had the good fortune to have lessons with somebody of that caliber for the last 25 years or so. We still play on Sunday evenings. Then we go out to a Chinese restaurant and talk about bows.”
Roberts says he has heard violinists from Oistrakh and Leonid Kogan to those of the present day, and in his opinion, “Xiaofu Zhou is unquestionably in the very top rank of violinists in the world.” He and Duan are in agreement that every one of his recitals is a precious musical experience.
Since 2015 Duan has helped secure the venues, enlisted her son to design fliers, and 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.”
Xiaofu Zhou, Miller Chapel, Princeton Theological Seminary, 64 Mercer Street, Princeton. Sunday, February 3, 1:30 p.m. $15 to $50. NJ23.eventbrite.com.