Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ning Feng and Paganini's 'Cannone'

by Hong Jiang (translated from Chinese by Xujun Eberlein)

(Hong Jiang is my townsfolk from Chongqing, China. Our friendship began many years ago as undergraduates in Chongqing University. She now works as a database administrator in one world, and the chairwoman of Yan-Huang Performing Arts in another. – Xujun)
I first heard Ning Feng's name from Hu Kun, professor of the Royal Academy of Music in London and my husband's childhood buddy. It was 2003, and I was organizing the "Concertos for Piano, Violin, Erhu and Pipa." I invited Hu Kun to perform a violin concerto. He was unable to make it, so he recommended his newly graduated student Ning Feng. I hesitated. The players I recruited for the concert were all world-level musicians, but Ning Feng was an unheard-of name.

As if guessing my thought, Hu Kun said, "Don't worry. I promise Ning Feng will make your concert a success." He even mailed me the congratulatory letter from the Academy's president when Ning Feng became the first in 200 years to receive full-score for his graduation concert.
Thus 21-year-old Ning Feng came to Boston. A fellow Sichuanese, his lovely honest face looked artless. If you ran into him on the street, you wouldn't have connected his image to a world-level artist. However, when he stood at ease on the ornate stage of Jordan Hall, intoxicant in his own playing of Jean Sibelius' "Violin concerto in D minor," his rakish manner and artistic excellence thoroughly conquered the entire audience. The nearly 40-minute long violin piece was played in one perfect breath. The excited audience applauded and shouted "Encore! Encore!" Ning Feng had to return to the stage three times. Afterward, several people said to me, "He was too good! My hands are red from clapping so hard."

From Ning Feng's bio I learned that he had already won a dozen awards in international competitions. I asked him why he hadn't been in the Paganini Competition. He said, "I will."

True to his words, the next year, in 2004, Ning Feng applied for the Paganini Competition and was accepted. A week before he was to set off for Italy, however, he contracted a bad flu and tonsillitis. His high fever lasted for days, and he was forced to cancel the journey. A few weeks later, the competition result revealed: the first prize was vacant.

As if waiting for him, beginning that year, the competition was changed from annual to bi-annual.

In September 2006, 55 young violinists from all over the world traveled to Genova, Italy for the 51th Paganini Competition. Upon his arrival, Ning Feng's luggage and stage-costume were lost, and he had to wear jeans on stage. After a week of fierce contention in the preliminaries and semi-finals, Ning Feng found himself entering the final match with five other violinists. Besides a required Paganini piece, he chose a difficult Brahms' violin concerto. This is a piece of non-sentimental, profound music, thus one that is hard to please a jury with. The choice was a display of unusual confidence. Was he over-confident?

Ning Feng would later write in a blog article titled "Dream":

As a child I owned a hand-copied violin score, on its cover a hand-written title "24 Capriccios of Paganini." I thought then, "Perhaps one day I will be playing them on a stage."
In middle school, I once bought a CD, with it came a photo of Paganini's own violin "Cannone." I thought then, "Perhaps one day I will be holding 'Cannone' and hearing its sounds from my own hands?"

On October 1, 2006, in Genova, Italy, at the award ceremony of the 51th International Violin Competition, Ning Feng heard his name read three times by the chairman of the jury, who spoke only Italian. Ning Feng went on the stage three times to receive the medals, but he did not understand a single Italian word other than his name, and did not know what the awards were for. At last, he could not help but asking an English-speaking juror standing behind him:

"Who got the first place?"

The juror looked at him suspiciously, as if to decide whether he was pretending, before saying, "Why, it is you."

To Ning Feng, the highest award was that, as the first place winner he was given the honor of playing Paganini's violin, the 1743 Guarneri del Gesù 'Cannone.'

(Ning Feng, together with Chen Xi, will be performing violin in Boston on Saturday, March 22, 2008, as well as in New Brunswick, NJ, on Saturday April 12 2008. Details and tickets on www.yhpa.org. )


Lance said...

What an amazing, beautiful and inspiring tale! Absolutely wonderful! :-)


Xujun Eberlein said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Lance.

Anonymous said...

I have just heard him playing Chrysler's arrangement of Paganini's "La Campanella" - What an awesome performance!! Jacques