Interview: Ning Feng

Violinist on his love of chamber music

Ning Feng is China’s premier solo violinist. He tells why he’s actually happiest playing chamber music, this month with the Dragon Quartet.

Ning Feng has long been China’s premier solo violinist, but chamber music is the love he can’t forget. Already in the Beijing Trio with pianist Chen Sa and cellist Yang Meng, Ning joins close friends and stellar musicians for his latest venture, the Dragon Quartet.

Qin Liwei is a successful cello soloist, Wang Xiaomao is the National Ballet of China Orchestra’s concertmaster and Zheng Wenxiao is the principal violist in the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, one of the world’s best. ‘There are equal [viola] positions in the Berlin Philharmonic or the Dresden Staatskapelle, but there’s nothing better’, says Ning of Zheng’s orchestral day job. ‘I know them all well and feel privileged to play with them.'

This month’s concert sees the quartet perform with superstar bass-baritone singer Shenyang, but as a warm-up, Ning takes us inside the world of chamber music.

On the string quartet challenge

‘String quartets involve a lot of work with people who know and trust each other, even in their personal lives. If there is a piano or a woodwind in the ensemble, that helps a lot, both with the intonation and the articulation (how notes are played), and if it’s a trio, a quintet, a sextet or an octet, it’s easier than a quartet.

It’s like a choir; creating a unison sound is easier with more people. If one of two violinists plays slightly higher than the other, it sounds out of tune, but three or more violinists can fill in the gaps. That’s the same with articulation. With fewer people you have to be absolutely identical to make the sound as one.

‘As far as group dynamics go, when you have more people, someone acts as a leader and the others follow; even three can find a middle point. But with four, it’s difficult to find a solution that pleases everyone. For me, chamber music has given me the most joy, but also the most torture. [It’s critical] to play with the right person.’

On China’s chamber music scene

‘It’s developing fast, but a Wagner opera or a Shostakovich, Mahler, or Bruckner symphony is still better for the box office. Chamber music is like the younger brother. But most of China’s new concert halls have a chamber music venue, so that’s encouraging for students. And it’s getting more popular.

In the beginning, audiences didn’t like to see only four people onstage, and of course, the colour of four-stringed instruments is not as varied as a symphony concert or an opera. But gradually, people found chamber music more peaceful. It gets to your soul more easily; you are concentrating and not overwhelmed by this massive orchestral sound. It’s like talking; if someone has a quiet voice, but has something important to say, you listen more carefully.

‘In the past, chamber music was always considered a second choice, for those who couldn’t make it as a soloist. This is completely incorrect. I’m trying to show that even though I make my living as a soloist, [chamber music] gives me joy I can’t get from solo work, and it is just as important.’

On the programme

‘A concert programme should be like a [formal] dinner – you should have a starter, meat, vegetables and dessert. We wanted to cover different periods of music, that’s why we came up with the classical (Mozart’s String Quartet No 22 in B-fat major), then one of the most famous string quartets, Dvorak’s String Quartet No 12 in F major, (American). And even though you shouldn’t call Debussy [String Quartet in G minor] a modern piece any more, French impressionism is such a different kind of colour. And then there’s Arvo Part’s Ein Wallfahrtslied for string quartet and bass, it’s adding a different element.

‘I’ve known [bass-baritione] Shenyang for many years now; we’re both musicians, and we’re both record collectors. There aren’t many pieces we can play together, but we started talking about these historical recordings, and we came up with this one. The combination, and even the piece itself, is unusual – usually the string quartet is the accompaniment to the soloist. But in this piece, they’re actually equal.’

On the importance of chamber music

‘For me, the ability to play chamber music is the foundation for everything else. Even a concerto is a trio between the soloist, the conductor and the orchestra. Practising at home is only about yourself, but in playing chamber music you have to know your partners – to know, to listen and to react to what they’re playing. I’ve played with people who are not able to listen to others while they’re playing. Even when you’re playing a solo piece and you hear a recording, you might think: Did I do that? It’s about being objective, and it comes from training. Chamber music is something everyone should do.'

The Dragon Quartet play the Forbidden City Concert Hall on Saturday 21.