Leia Zhu may not have quite been born with a fiddle in her hands, but it didn’t take her long to make the transition from cradle to the violin.
Now a relatively seasoned professional at the “grand old” age of 16, Zhu is due to make a return visit to this country for a reprise with the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble for their forthcoming set of concerts. The British teenager takes the solo spot in a rendition of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major in the orchestra’s appearances at the Rappaport Hall in Haifa (January 21, 8:30 p.m.), the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv (January 22, 8:30 p.m.) and the Municipal Conservatory in Acre (January 24, 7 p.m.).
The ensemble, under the stewardship of founder musical director and conductor Barak Tal, will also perform a typically adventurous program including “Appalachian Spring” by 20th-century American composer Aaron Copland and 2017 work “Whence Comest Thou, Whither Wilt Thou Go” by 45-year-old Israeli composer Ziv Cojocaru.
First curtain call at four years old
Zhu, who was born in Newcastle in the northeast of England to Chinese parents, has already built up an impressive bio, performing with top ensembles around the world on a regular basis. She took her first curtain call at the age of just four at the prestigious Northeast Last Night of the Proms in her hometown.
That must have been quite an event for the tiny tot, but Zhu seems to have been unfazed by her early introduction to the bright lights. “When I started the violin I always wanted to play for people,” she says. “If we had friends or family that came over to our house I would be like ‘would you like to listen to me, I have something to play on the violin. I really want you to listen to me’,” she laughs.
It must have been hard to resist such a delightful offer, but it probably also quickly became clear that this was not just some capricious tiny tot trying to show off, and that something special and substantial was afoot. “I really enjoyed it,” she adds. Presumably that went for her living room audience too. “I thought it was great, sharing the music.” That gregarious spirit, coupled with sumptuous instrumental gifts, was duly nurtured and began blossoming in double quick time.
No musical genes
ZHU SAYS she does not have musical genes to feed off, but that there were plenty of sounds around in her earliest years to fire her burgeoning infant creative sparks. “My parents are not musicians but when I was young we always had the radio on, in the car or in the house. I was introduced to a lot of classical music, on the radio, actually including the Beethoven concerto, and I just loved the way the violin sounded.”
It was love at first listen. “I just loved how the violin sounded. I thought it was amazing how you could make it sound so lyrical, and so virtuosic. It really stood out for me.”
For that point on there was no stopping the kid. “I started begging my parents to get me an instrument, and finally they did,” she chuckles. “Finally”, at such a young age is, of course, a relative term but probably, back then, it must have felt like an eternity before Zhu’s burning musical ambition could begin to take on tangible fiddling form.
A trip to a suitable commercial outlet, and a dome scratcher for the proprietor, was on the cards. “We went to a music shop. It was funny,” Zhu recalls. “Because I was so small and very short no one knew what size violin to get me.” Her parents were game. “My parents actually bought me three or four violins before we found the right size. We got a 1/32 size.”
The youngster couldn’t wait to grab the bow and run her diminutive digits across the fingerboard. A violin teacher was quickly procured and she began taking regular lessons, after kindergarten hours.
It soon transpired that this was no mere childish whim. Zhu stuck to it and, within the space of less than a year, made it to the City Hall stage for the aforementioned Proms date. Her debut was captured on video, and is available on YouTube. There were no visible signs of stage fright as she strode out for her first public appearance, chaperoned by her then-teacher, as the orchestra players and conductor looked on with a mixture of pleasure and wonderment as she did her solo spot.
The audience responded in kind, and the youngster in her fetching dress reaped the reward for her efforts, as well as the encouragement – if she needed any – to stay on her musical yellow brick road. “I don’t really remember playing the concert but I remember, afterward, everyone clapping. It was such a great feeling. Everyone was standing up, cheering – for me.”
THE DESIRE to take others along with her, on her musical journey, that she so happily imparted at home was now out there. She says that remains a driving force for her, all these years and countless concerts down the road. “I still get that feeling nowadays. I think the best thing about performing is that you share your music with everyone, and they appreciate it. That is amazing.”
The upcoming rendezvous with the Tel Aviv Soloists, their fourth collaboration – the first was when Zhu was all of 12 – will not be the first time she has performed the Beethoven Violin Concerto. She has played it at various front grid venues around the world, including at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, at London’s prestigious South Bank arts complex, with the acclaimed London Mozart Players with whom she currently serves as artist in residence.
Last year she also landed a gig – her first since the lockdowns – with Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra at an outdoor concert in London’s Trafalgar Square.
Betwixt concerts and practicing she manages to keep up with her schoolwork, at a boarding school in Oxford where she says she sometimes compensates for lack of actual practice time by running through pieces in her head. She has also found time for extracurricular jaunts, including a solo spot with Irish pop band Westlife, on “Raise Me Up” and professes a penchant for improvisational domains. She also has a keen interest in filmmaking, and seems to be pretty adept at that as well. A video she made with her musician brother Leo was shortlisted for the prestigious Cinemagic children’s film festival in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 2020.
Zhu says she likes to keep her options open. “I think, as a classical musician, it is good to explore a lot. When I played with Westlife that was the first time I learned how to play Irish music. That is a different style of playing, with less vibrato, with glissandos. I also play Chinese traditional music and jazz. It’s good. It opens your depth and perspective.”
It will be fascinating to see how Zhu’s career pans out, as she not only hones her instrumental skills but also takes some life lessons on board. For now, we can settle back and enjoy her take on Beethoven’s Violin Concerto along with Tal and the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble.
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