Hitting the right note

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Young musician's mastery of the French horn is attracting worldwide attention.

"Playing the French horn is like dancing on a high wire." That's how 21-year-old Zeng Yun describes his musical instrument, which as he says is "difficult to play and probably the most difficult of all orchestral instruments". Though, he readily admits it does have its rewards. "It's not only about technique but also about a sense of beauty up there."

Zeng, who is in his first year of a master's degree course at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, has achieved a mastery of both in his playing style.

He won first prize and the gold medal in the brass category at the 2019 XVI International Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia. This September, he was awarded second prize in the horn category at the 70th ARD International Music Competition in Munich, Germany. He is the first Chinese French horn player to win both of these prestigious awards.

Now, he is one of the most popular young Chinese musicians, and has performed with the country's top symphony orchestras as a soloist.

In June, he performed with the China NCPA Orchestra, the resident orchestra of the National Center for the Performing Arts, under the baton of conductor Lin Daye, in Beijing, performing Mozart's Horn Concerto No 4 in E Flat Major, K 495.The concert was streamed online on Nov 6.

On Saturday, Zeng was scheduled to perform with the Beijing Symphony Orchestra under the baton of conductor Li Biao, playing Richard Strauss' Horn Concerto No 1 in E Flat Major, Op 11 at the Forbidden City Concert Hall, but due to COVID-19, the concert was canceled.

"I have concerts every weekend, which is a totally different life from having classes at school. It allows me to gain more experience of performing onstage with professional symphony orchestras and conductors, which I cannot learn from my classes," says Zeng, who has had a hectic schedule since his victories at the XVI International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2019.

"Like I said, playing the French horn is very difficult, and it is easy for a player to miss or crack a few notes while playing. It's very rewarding to perform with professional musicians, who taught me to listen and how to produce beautiful sounds by working together," says Zeng, adding that French horn players rarely appear as a lead in a concert and he is happy to bring it into the front of the orchestra.

The young musician, born in Chengdu, Sichuan province, learned to play the French horn at the age of 6 with his father Zeng Jie, who is the principal French horn player of the Sichuan Symphony Orchestra.

In 2011, Zeng Yun came to Beijing to study the instrument at the middle school affiliated to the Central Conservatory of Music and later in 2017, he enrolled in the conservatory, where he gained his bachelor's degree in 2020.

Zeng Yun has won a number of awards both at home and abroad, such as second prize at the 8th Jeju International Brass Competition in 2013 and first prize at the Citta di Porcia International Competition-Horn in Italy.

However, Zeng says that it was the experience of competing during the XVI International Tchaikovsky Competition that witnessed his evolution as a musician.

Founded in 1958, the Tchaikovsky competition is an internationally celebrated contest held every four years in Russia and is usually only open to pianists, violinists and cellists between the ages of 16 and 32, and singers aged 19 to 32.

However, for the first time in more than 60 years, in 2019, a brass category and a woodwind category were added to the competition. About 46 contestants attended the auditions in the category, which made the competition fierce.

"I played many pieces during the competition and when I played June: Barcarolle from The Seasons, Op 37, by Tchaikovsky, I gained a different idea about the French horn," recalls Zeng.

"I had played that piece many times since I was a child. However, when I played it during the competition, for the first time, it sounded so beautiful and touched my heart. Maybe it was because of the atmosphere in the concert hall at that moment, or Moscow, a city full of romance," he adds. "It seemed that I found the secret to make my musical instrument sing, rather than simply centering on the techniques."

Russian conductor Valery Gergiev said, at the gala concert for the competition winners, which was held at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on June 29, 2019, that Zeng's victory seemed to come out of the blue.

"The biggest surprise of the competition in the new categories was the young French horn player from China, Zeng Yun," Gergiev said.

Asked about the recent award he won during the 70th ARD International Music Competition, Zeng says that it was a totally different feeling from the Tchaikovsky competition.

"I was not nervous at all. It was more like attending a summer camp, where I could meet young musicians like me and listen to other people's music, than participating in a competition," he says.

He also says that the competition in Munich took place amid the COVID-19 pandemic and it was not easy to undertake international travel or for the international competition to happen.

"Musicians from different parts of the world finally got together for the competition. It's true that music unites people," Zeng says.

Since he was 15, Zeng has been trained by French horn player Wen Quan, who is also a teacher at the Central Conservatory of Music.

"Besides his solid techniques, I was impressed by his sensitivity for interpreting music when I first saw his performance," Wen says, adding that Zeng made history by winning those international music awards, which will inspire other young Chinese musicians, especially those who are learning to play French horn.

Keeping his regular training of two to four hours on a daily basis, Zeng says that he is keen on working with composers to create new pieces for the French horn.

"My father is a dedicated and disciplined musician. He never gets bored with practicing. He told me that the key is to enjoy music and have fun with it," says Zeng.

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