Wang Xiaodong

Shanghai native violinist on graduating beyond the child prodigy label

As Shanghai native Wang Xiaodong returns, the former child prodigy tells Time Out how he learned to find his stride

Even by prodigy standards, violinist Wang Xiaodong made a scintillating start. Born in Shanghai in 1969, he entered the city’s music conservatory at age ten, made his public debut a year later and won the Yehudi Menuhin Competition (junior division) at just 13. In 1985, he returned for the gold medal in Menuhin’s senior division, in addition to scooping jury prizes for his performances of Bach and Elgar; that same year he won Poland’s prestigious Wieniawski-Lipinski International Competition.

After graduating from The Juilliard School, recording with Polygram and spending years playing with the world’s best orchestras, this Boston-based violin-violist and has devoted himself to chamber music, a chasm in China’s musical landscape. Currently the artistic director of chamber group Concertante, this month Wang starts his residency with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra (SSO), with his solo and chamber concerts part of their Complete Beethoven series.

On becoming a musician, not a player
I started when I was four. [At a time when] there wasn't much else to do; today’s kids have way too many distractions. Like most kids, I didn't love the violin from the start; practicing was boring and cut into my playing time. But then after my first public performance at 11, I got a sense of what performing has to offer. There is nothing like being on stage and communicating with your audience. The common misconception is that performing is a one-way street, but the truth is that a good performance is a two-way communication between the performer and his audience; they provide each other with vital energy.

On Beethoven’s Violin Concerto
It’s a piece that every violinist dreams of playing. It’s very challenging because of its pure simplicity. About 20 years ago, an orchestra in Australia wanted to enlist me to play this piece, but I turned it down – I didn’t think I was musically mature enough at the time.

Now that I am in my early forties and have two kids of my own, I feel that I can communicate to my audience in my homeland what this great piece has to offer. It is absolutely wonderful that the SSO is offering the entire Beethoven series. There’s no such thing as too much Beethoven!

On controversial competitions
Competitions are helpful in two ways. Firstly, it helps your career if you win. Secondly, it helps elevate the level of your playing on certain repertoire dramatically. When you enter a competition you put everything under a microscope; it’s like going to the Olympics, every little bit of technical detail counts. Your job is to leave nothing to chance.

[The downside is] we are not in the business of producing perfect products, but artistic expression. An artist’s craft is not meant to be compared with other pieces of art – it’s like apples and oranges.

On chamber music
Whether it is solo or orchestral, chamber music is a critical part of performing and a key part of musical training. It is a bridge that connects different kinds of performances, requiring the technical perfection of a soloist but also the discipline and the skills to blend with other players as in an orchestral concert – the best of both worlds. I hope to bring more chamber music to China.

Great chamber music training provides the much-needed ‘middle layer’ of the classical music industry. I say, ‘middle layer’ because China produces some of the best ‘top layer’ soloists in the world. Chamber music has not moved to the forefront of the Chinese music scene because we are still in the ‘hero worship’ stage.

Parents want their kids to grow up to be like Lang Lang, but very few people can become world-class soloists.

We need to raise the general level of performance and chamber music provides a vital component. [Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s artistic director] Maestro Yu Long places great importance on chamber music and I am honoured to be a part of that.

Wang Xiaodong is at the Shanghai Concert Hall on Saturday 1 December and at SHOAC on Wednesday 5 December.