Thrusting the unsung instrument into the spotlight, viola player Mei Diyang has become the first Chinese musician to sit as a member of the Berliner Philharmoniker in its 140-year history.
As a viola player, Mei Diyang has heard lots of jokes. The musical instrument is usually overshadowed by other instruments in a symphony orchestra. You can hardly see the viola, tucked away between the violins and cellos.
However, the 28-year-old Mei has brought the viola into the spotlight.
He has won the position of first principal viola at the Berliner Philharmoniker-the first time a Chinese musician has been given a position with the orchestra, which this year celebrates its 140th anniversary.
The news was announced on the ensemble's official website on Feb 11.
"That was the first attempt at auditioning for the Berliner Philharmoniker. Many friends told me that it was very challenging and rigid," says Mei.
The audition comprised four rounds and lasted for two days. Mei played musical works from the Classical era and the Romantic era.
"I was nervous during the first round of the audition because it was the first time that I met musicians of the orchestra, and the hall was new to me as well. In addition to performing in the orchestra, they are also great soloists from around the world and each of them has a different artistic view," recalls Mei.
"I was much more relaxed in the following rounds of the audition. I have participated in many competitions, so I just performed as if I was giving a concert."
After Mei ended his performance in the final round of the audition, he recalls that he received applause from the other musicians.
"The very first recording I listened to when I was a child was of the Berliner Philharmoniker, and I didn't know then that one day I would have the opportunity to perform with the orchestra," says Mei, adding that along his path to becoming a musician, he has listened to recordings of the orchestra many times over, which allowed him to learn and improve.
Mei will start his two-year-long probation period with the orchestra from the beginning of the 2022-2023 season. Currently, he remains principal viola of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra.
After the news of Mei winning in the audition, the Munich Philharmonic said on social media that it is letting him go "with one eye crying and the other smiling".
Mei was born in Changsha, Hunan province, to parents who were both engineers. Like many Chinese children, he took part in a variety of classes after school, such as painting and English. He began playing the violin at the age of 5 because his grandfather, who was a history teacher at Hunan Normal University, was a big fan of classical music.
"He died when I was 5 and my mother led me to learn the violin as a way to commemorate him," recalls Mei.
In 2005, when a team from the middle school affiliated to the Central Conservatory of Music visited Changsha to recruit new students, Mei, 11 years old then, participated in the audition as a violinist. Wang Shaowu, one of the teachers from the school, was impressed by Mei's performance and suggested he switch to the viola, marking Mei's first introduction to the musical instrument. From 2005-14, he studied the viola with Wang at the middle school in Beijing.
"Unlike the high-pitched sounds produced by violin, the mellow and deep tone of viola instantly attracted me, so I decided to change to the lower-pitched instrument," Mei says. When asked the reason why Wang suggested he make the switch, Mei replies: "I had bigger hands compared with other children of my age back then, which was the main reason why my teacher thought the viola would fit me better."
Soon, he realized that people held a prejudice against the musical instrument and that there is not a great deal of solo pieces written for viola. However, for Mei, musical instruments are vehicles for musicians to express their emotions to an audience.
"You can't play a symphony without the viola section. Each instrument has its own role, which is necessary. They have equally important sounds," says Mei.
Upon hearing the good news of Mei's successful audition, Wang shared his excitement. "I still recall when we talked about his future goals. I am so proud of Mei, who realized his dreams, one by one," says Wang.
In 2014, Mei continued his study at the Central Conservatory of Music and in the same year, he was enrolled to study at the University of Music and Performing Arts Munich, Germany, with violist Hariolf Schlichtig. In 2018, he won the first prize in the viola category and the Audience Prize at the 2018 ARD International Music Competition in Munich, Germany. In 2019, he became the principal viola of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra while continuing his studies with Japanese violist Nobuko Imai at the Kronberg Academy.
"I am very grateful for being a member of the Munich Philharmonic. I had no experience of working with orchestras before I joined. The orchestra put its trust in me and allowed me to widen my repertories and to perform different styles of music," says Mei. "The experience with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra has been valuable and memorable."
Mei also shared the good news with his parents, who are excited and happy for their son.
"I didn't tell them about auditioning for the Berliner Philharmoniker because, ever since I started to participate in competitions, my parents have been much more nervous than me. I just told my wife and my colleagues at the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra," says Mei.
The violist will return to China and perform concerts, hoping to introduce music works for viola that are rarely performed in his homeland.
"China's classical music market is bigger than ever. I want to introduce more people to the viola, which may not be as popular as other musical instruments, such as the piano, cello and violin. These days, the general technical level of Chinese musicians is very high and we see many Chinese musicians performing with top symphony orchestras worldwide, which is encouraging and inspiring for more young music learners," says Mei.