It is officially Lü Siqing’s year. “2017 is the Year of the Rooster,” says the celebrated violinist, proudly pointing at the Chinese calendar. Some might argue that the 48-year-old’s “year” could also be described as 1987, the year Siqing reached international prominence as the first Asian winner of the Paganini Competition – a global contest held in honour of the late Italian virtuoso Niccolò Paganini.
Such an achievement is noteworthy when one considers Siqing’s upbringing in the shadow of the Cultural Revolution, which made obtaining western classical sheet music near-impossible. Siqing’s father – a music lover who introduced Siqing to the violin because a piano was too expensive – prodigiously produced and distributed bootleg scores for an underground community of musicians.
“It was very difficult to get hold of music – you had to borrow and copy everything,” says Siqing, who became the youngest musician to be accepted to Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music at the age of 8.
He later studied at the United Kingdom’s Yehudi Menuhin School, under its eponymous founder, and at United State’s Juilliard School with Dorothy DeLay and Hyo Kang.
“The love and passion for music really kept it growing [in those days] – and now we have to pass this love and passion onto the next generation.”
Siqing is renowned for performing perhaps China's best-known orchestral work, The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto. Penned by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang in 1959 but only widely known after the Cultural Revolution, it utilises distinctly Chinese scales in a typical western symphonic setting.
“At the time we’d never before heard western instruments playing very familiar Chinese melodies and techniques, adapted into this frame,” remembers Siqing. “People had never heard anything like this.”
Now, however, the piece is rather more known. Siqing estimates he has performed the influential work close to 500 times in the past 30 years, as well as making four different recordings. “It’s actually a challenge for us to play this piece so many times,” he admits. “You always try to incorporate your life experience into the piece, give it a new feeling.”
The work is based on the Butterfly Lovers legend, a story passed down for more than a 1,000 years, and regarded today as China's Four Great Folktales. Today, it is frequently compared to Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, and fittingly at Saturday night's concert, the piece will be paired with Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet suite performed by China's NCPA Orchestra – the resident players at Beijing's magnificent modern arts centre, known as The Giant Egg, for its striking titanium ellipsoid dome.
Since its inaugural performance just seven years ago, the ensemble has acted as a vital conduit feeding China’s blooming market for western classical music, and as a collective ambassador sharing eastern sounds and sensibilities with the globe. A regular collaborator with the NCPA, Siqing is bristling with optimism for the fate of classical music in China.
“[The NCPA] is very young, and at the start many of the staff weren’t so professional – it has to go through several years of growing pains, and grow through these pains,” says the violinist. “But from the start their goal was very high and very correct – it is not a remarkable goal – to grow into a world-class orchestra.
“They’re becoming more and more and focused on reaching a level of playing, and really bringing beautiful music to audiences in China and worldwide – I really believe they will be become very well deserved ambassadors for China.”