Q&A: Hu Kun and Ning Feng

Former student and teacher violinists on their reunion concert

Before conductor Hu Kun and violinist Ning Feng were global music sensations, they were teacher and student.Ahead of their reunion concert this month, they tell Time Out what they learned

Teacher-student concerts are nothing new, but most occur at conservatories – usually before both maestro and pupil are international stars. However, Hu Kun and Ning Feng share more than a busy touring schedule and a love of violin. Both hailing from Chengdu, the pair studied with Hu’s father, and still converse in local dialect.

In 1980, Hu medalled in the Sibelius Competition, becoming China’s first international competition winner of the post-Cultural Revolution era; Ning Feng took gold in the 2006 Paganini Violin Competition. Hu was violin legend Yehudi Menuhin’s only private student; Feng was his final masterclass. Joining muchawarded and chronically underrated violinist Bin Huang, this month Royal Academy of Music professor and conductor Hu leads China’s most popular international violin soloist Feng in a Shanghai concert.

Hu Kun

What was your first impression of Ning Feng?
He was very talented, very quick and very musical; he loves music, that’s maybe what has carried him all this way. The minute he plays, it’s like that’s his life; there’s nothing else. But at the time, he didn’t have enough knowledge about the sounds and styles of Western composers.

What was teaching him like?
In the beginning he struggled. I teach my students phrase by phrase; he had to do it first, and then understand it later, and he didn’t understand everything. But he really wanted to learn so he never answered back; eventually he was making very good progress. But he was under a lot of pressure.

What was the most difficult thing you asked him to do?
I think it was playing slow and in tune. He can manage the most difficult passages without any problem, but sometimes he would get stuck in a slow Bach movement, for example. He had freedom but not discipline. You can’t be a complete musician without being able to master both.

Does his success surprise you?
What I learned over the years is that I must not overestimate or underestimate my students. But I was watching him with a careful eye.

Do you see him becoming a conductor as well?
Artists with real talent have no limits.

Ning Feng

What was your first impression of Hu Kun?

Were you intimidated? Not intimidated, but excited. He was such a role model for all Chinese violinists, the first who ever won a prize, the first to establish himself overseas. But he was very nice and very funny; he made you feel calm and relaxed. He didn’t act so important.

What was the experience of studying with him like?
When it comes to violin playing, he’s always, always been very strict, about himself and about me. I heard him practicing the same passage over and over again – I had never practiced like that before. He was very strict about the level you should achieve, but he gave me such a high standard of understanding. When I first went to study, he told me: ‘You’re very talented, Artists with real talent have no limits Lessons learned but you’ve only achieved about 80 per cent. Now we need to do the rest, the remaining 20 per cent, and that’s much more difficult. This distinguishes the good violinists from the great violinists.’

What was the most difficult thing he asked you to do?
One of my first lessons, he asked me to tune the violin for over five minutes – that should take 30 seconds, max. But his point was that everything has to be at the highest human limit; that told me the standard he was looking for. He never asked me to do that again, but I got the message. This stayed with me my whole life.

Were you surprised at his success as a conductor? Do you want to take that path yourself?
I wasn’t surprised at all, this was what I admired about him; his whole life has been so clear. When he was a student, China hadn’t opened up yet, the only thing he could do was to go to competitions. He won [numerous] medals as a young violinist, but his main goal was to study with Menuhin, which he did. Then he wanted to become a [top] soloist and tour all over the world, which he did. Third, he wanted to become a successful violin teacher, and fourth, to become a conductor. Each step was so clear; he was so focused. In a way, I’m not surprised, but it is amazing.

As for me, there’s so much repertoire I want to be involved with. I love Dvorák’s and Elgar's cello concertos, but it’s too late to learn the cello, so how else can I [help create] a performance? Also, I have a lot of experience working with orchestras, more than a conducting student. I’m not denying I never thought about conducting, but I don’t know if it’s going to happen. Maybe in the future.

Hu Kun, Ning Feng and Bin Huang play SHOAC on Friday 16 November. See full address details