Hanako Yamaguchi: Good evening, I'm Hanako Yamaguchi, and tonight American cellist Zlatomir Fung shares his heritage through music of Bulgaria, China and the United States on this edition of the McGraw Family's young Artist Showcase.
As always, the Young Artist Showcase is generously underwritten by the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Family Foundation. Tonight we're meeting the extraordinary cellist Zlatomir Fung, another member of this year's Artist Propulsion Lab. Back in 2020 when the pandemic paralyzed New York's cultural community, WQXR created a program called the Artist Propulsion Lab to spotlight and support emerging and mid-career artists with a stipend and a place to create projects.
And while we've thankfully left behind the darkest days of the pandemic, the Artist Propulsion Lab has continued into its third year. APL, or apple, as we like to call it, is all about allowing artists like Zlatomir to try something they might not easily do elsewhere. My name is Hanako Yamaguchi, and I'm here with you tonight as part of the team behind the Artist Propulsion Lab.
This evening you get to hear a program of solo cello music that Zlatomir selected to reflect his background. Zlatomir started playing the cello when he was three and later studied with Timothy Eddy and Richard Aaron at the Julliard School. In 2019, he was the youngest cellist to ever win first prize at the Tchaikovsky Cello Competition and the first American since Nathaniel Rosen won in 1978, he also received the coveted Borletti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship and the prestigious Avery Fisher career grant.
We'll meet him in a moment, but let's hear him play some music first. This is a lighthearted short work by Composer Marshall Estrin. It's called Giocosa performed by Cellist Sladi.
MUSIC- Estrin: Giocosa for Solo Cello
Hanako Yamaguchi: Zlatomir Fung performing Marshall Estrin's Giocosa for solo cello on the Young Artist's Showcase. Zlatomir, I understand that Marshall Estrin is a friend of yours from your Juilliard days. Can you tell me a little bit about how this work came in to fruition?
Zlatomir Fung: Absolutely. So, Marshall and I are really close friends and, uh, this is not the only piece that we've worked on together. Uh, the first piece he wrote for me was another solo cello piece, and I enjoyed performing it and playing it so much that, uh, I asked him offhand at some point, would you be interested in writing an encore for me to play after concerto performances? Because, In the cello repertoire, we have some encores, typically people play Bach and there are a couple other standard ones, but I think it's really interesting to introduce the audience to something new and something fun and lighthearted. So he actually surprised me at some point after we had had this conversation several months after, and he said, I have a gift for you, and he gave me the score for this piece.
And I've since, uh, had the opportunity to perform it a number of times as an encore, uh, after concertos. And it's a real pleasure to play because it it has a sort of jest.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Yes.
Zlatomir Fung: And a lightheartedness...
Hanako Yamaguchi: Yes.
Zlatomir Fung: That it's, it's, um, It's unusual.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Zlatomir, tonight, you're exploring your cultural heritage through traditional music.
Tell us a little bit about your background and set us up for the next piece.
Zlatomir Fung: Sure. So I was born in the United States. I was born in Ithaca, New York. Both my parents have, um, I guess you'd say ethnic backgrounds. My mother was born in Bulgaria. And she came to the United States in her early twenties.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Mm-hmm.
Zlatomir Fung: And my father was also born in the US but he is, uh, ethnically Chinese. So he's, uh, a first generation Chinese American. And the music that I'll be playing tonight, I think is, uh, reflective of sort of the different folk styles that come with these ethnic backgrounds. Um, and then of course, also, uh, strong sense of, uh, American tradition as well, which I think Marshall Estrin's piece is a representative of.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Yes, yes. The next piece connects to your mother's side. What is it? And tell us a little bit about it.
Zlatomir Fung: Sure. So the next piece I'll play is a wonderful suite, uh, in three movements by the Bulgarian-British composer, Dobrinka Tabakova. And this piece is called Pirin, uh, which is the name of a beautiful mountain range in Bulgaria.
And I've actually had the fortune of, of meeting, uh, miss Tabakova and playing this piece for her. And she told me that the piece is, uh, inspired by the natural landscape of Bulgaria and, in particular, it draws inspiration from a traditional Bulgarian folk instrument called the Ulka.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Mm-hmm.
Zlatomir Fung: Which is, uh, also a bowed instrument, but the sound is quite different from, uh, the western European string instruments.
It's a bit rougher, uh, perhaps earthier.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Is it bowed or plucked?
Zlatomir Fung: It's bowed as well.
Hanako Yamaguchi: It's bowed. Okay.
Zlatomir Fung: Yes. And uh, throughout this piece, you can hear various small ornamentations that are, um, typical for, for Bulgarian folk music, as well as the prevalence of the seven eight, uh, rhythm, which is a very common Balkan dance rhythm in the first and third movements.
Hanako Yamaguchi: So there are three movements, right? Can you describe each one?
Zlatomir Fung: Absolutely. So the first movement, it kind of begins as if there's like a mist coming from very distantly. Um, And eventually comes to the foreground. It's this wonderful kind of, kind of dance, very rhythmic, uh, groovy as well. The second movement is, it's also very dance like, but it's a, it's a pure improvisation.
Um, there's a, uh, fascinating interplay between this double stop idea where the, the cello is asked to play very melodically and then this very rapid, um, Offbeat dance rhythm. And then at the end of that movement, the second movement, um, Uh, Tabakova actually asks the player to improvise freely for about 30 seconds.
So it's kind of in the spirit of the piece, this improvisatory quality.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Nice.
Zlatomir Fung: And then the final movement is, uh, is another wonderful seven eight dance, uh, with a slow introduction. And, uh, it actually goes straight back into the first movement, uh, to recapitulate it. And then that's how the piece ends. And she originally wrote it for viola.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Is that true?
Zlatomir Fung: That's correct. Um, and, uh, she approved this, uh, cello transcription.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Got it. Okay. Well, great. Let's listen to it. Pirin written in three movements by the composer, Dobrinka Tabakova performed by Zlatomir Fung.
MUSIC- Tabakova: Pirin for Solo Cello
Hanako Yamaguchi: That was Dobrinka Tabakova's Pirin with cellist Zlatomir Fung. In the next set, we get to hear our composer Bright Sheng's take on some popular traditional Chinese folk songs, but before we do, Zlatomir, I understand that you've been learning how to speak Chinese. Maybe you can tell us about that and also share a little bit about your background growing up as a Chinese American.
Zlatomir Fung: Sure. So one of the things, it's actually interesting that this comes up with regards to my Chinese side, but having grown up in the United States, English is my first language, and, uh, I don't, I, I didn't grow up speaking either Chinese or Bulgarian. And, um, it would always be a strange experience, especially whenever I went to Bulgaria, like on, on holiday in the summer, uh, because my first name is so obviously Bulgarian, uh, everyone would assume that and they would just start talking to you in Bulgarian.
Uh, so it's, it's been interesting, um, in that respect. Also, you know, my Chinese side is even further removed culturally because my, um, my father doesn't speak Chinese. Um, so there was no hope for me. Uh, but uh, yeah, the past several years I've been learning and it has been very interesting to connect with, uh, that side of my, my heritage.
Hanako Yamaguchi: So, Are you learning to both read and write it?
Zlatomir Fung: Just, just reading. Writing is a bit above my pay grade.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Yeah. Okay. Um, all right, so the next work is a work by Bright Sheng. And, um, what can you tell us about that?
Zlatomir Fung: Uh, so similarly to the Tabakova, I think that this piece, uh, has a lot of imitative quality.
And, uh, uh, there are so many moments where the cellist is asked to, uh, play in a way that's not idiomatic to us as, as players who are trained in a certain tradition. Uh, for example, we, in the, in the first movement, uh, which is called seasons, uh, there's, uh, a lot of, uh, slides, um, some, uh, in a particular style that I'm just not very accustomed to.
And then also in the last movement, uh, there are many moments where the cellist is asked to hit the wood of the, of the instrument percussively. Um, and so being engrossed in, in learning this piece and, and spending time with it, uh, it's just fascinating to see that the, the way that the narrative is, is created through the music is something I think that has, uh, a, a fair bit more, uh, of a, of a static quality.
There's a sort of an unchanging emotional, uh, thread, um, and each of the movements is quite short. But, uh, sort of staying with that one idea is something, uh, it's been really interesting to experiment with in, in these pieces.
Hanako Yamaguchi: And each movement focuses on a different region in China, is that correct?
Zlatomir Fung: That's right. I believe each one is, uh, it's, uh, draws inspiration from the folk music of a different region. And these tunes are probably well known to Chinese people. I think many of them are.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Yes.
Zlatomir Fung: Um, unfortunately they weren't well known to me.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Right. But no, but now you know them. Um, okay, so you're going to play four out of the seven that Bright Sheng composed?
Zlatomir Fung: Yes. Uh, so the first movement is. It's called seasons and, uh, it's just a very, it's a delightful, beautiful expression of nature. The second movement is called Guessing Song, and it's kind of a very, um, uh, combative piece of music. I think there's a lot of, uh, there's a lot of accentuation in odd spots, but I think on the whole, it's coming from a place of, of joy and fun.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Mm-hmm.
Zlatomir Fung: And, uh, then I'll be playing the sixth movement, uh, which is called Pastoral Ballad. And, uh, I believe it's inspired by the Mongolian landscape and it's a very, uh, vast scope for such a short movement. It really takes you into another world. Um, And, uh, it's, it's probably my favorite to play. And then the final movement is a really fun and exciting, uh, movement called the Tibetan Dance.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Mm-hmm. And there's no text connected to that one?
Zlatomir Fung: Correct. I believe it's just a sort of a well-known folk dance, and it's, it's really wonderfully rendered, uh, by, by Bright Sheng here for solo cello.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Wonderful. Okay, let's hear it. Four selections from Seven Tunes Heard in China by Bright Sheng with Zlatomir Fung on cello.
MUSIC- Sheng: Selections from Seven Tunes Heard in China
Hanako Yamaguchi: Selections from Bright Sheng's seven Tunes Heard in China. Played by my guest today, cellist Zlatomir Fung here in the studio at WQXR. It's time for a quick break and then we'll be back with Zlatomir Performing Music by Judith Weir on the McGraw Family's Young Artist's Showcase.
Welcome back. I'm Hanako Yamaguchi, and you're listening to the McGraw Family's Young Artist's Showcase.
I'm here tonight in the studio with cellist Zlatomir Fung, a member of WQXR's Artist Propulsion Lab. The last work on today's program is by Scottish composer Judith Weir. Zlatomir, for today's program, you chose a work of hers entitled Unlocked, which came out of her interest in American Folk Song.
I'm interested to hear about how she came to write this work and why it's important to you.
Zlatomir Fung: So this work, uh, is one that I've actually known for almost 10 years, and, uh, it was one of the first. Contemporary solo cell works that I learned, uh, when I was quite young. Um, it was actually introduced to me by my former composition teacher.
And, um, I think that this is a really fascinating, uh, work in terms of its relationship to the other pieces we're playing the concept of the folk, uh, and folk music. And the story behind this is that Judith Weir became very interested in a collection of field recordings housed at the Library of Congress, uh, that were recorded by Alan Lomax.
And, uh, she selected five of them that she really enjoyed. And she described them, uh, as in the context of this piece, sort of fantasies on these, on these tunes. They were all, uh, they came from black prisoners in the American South. So, uh, there are folk songs with origins of real, uh, oppression. And, um, I had the honor to uh, play this piece for, um, Ms. Weir, and she told me something really beautiful. She said that when she wrote this piece, her intention was really to write it in honor of this music and in honor of the experiences that these people went through. And, uh, to share the, the beauty of, of the lasting quality of these incredible tunes.
And the thing that I find really interesting about her setting of, of this music is that she is able to express the qualities of the text and the meaning of the songs without any words, just through what she's doing musically with the instrument.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Mm-hmm.
Zlatomir Fung: And briefly what's happening in each song. Sure.
So in the first song, which is called Make Me a Garment, um, the, the origin of the tune was that, uh, it was recorded by a man in a tuberculosis ward in Florida who was very, uh, very ill, and he could hardly sing. In fact, he had to whisper. So there's this kind of, um, a temporal quality. It's just like pure improvisation and pure enjoyment of every moment.
The second movement is called No Justice, and it's based on a, a, a protest song, um, from Atlanta. And I love this movement because the text is actually quite, uh, angry and there's a sense of violence in the music, uh, that expresses the sort of radical core of what it's protesting. And the way that, uh, Weir sets it is she asks the cellist to do a lot of, uh, quite percussive violent things. So the main tune is first introduced by hitting the fingerboard with the left hand. And then there are later moments in the, in the movement where she asks the cellist to scratch to create a, a tone that is intentionally not beautiful. The third movement is called The Wind Blow East, and it's a song from The Bahamas and it's about hope for a better life.
The most interesting musical idea is this recurring scale that goes up. It's a five note scale and it rises as if a gust of wind is blowing by and it's a very calm, um, beautiful meditative movement. The fourth movement is called The Keys to the Prison, and it is, uh, about a boy and his mother who were in jail.
And it's a fantasy in the sense that the boy starts imagining that he has the keys to escape from the cell, but his mother keeps reassuring him, or not reassuring him, but unfortunately telling him that, uh, the keys are around the warden's neck and she can see them. So, uh, in this movement, uh, you can hear the very fast, uh, repeated notes representing the keys jangling.
It's a very beautiful movement. And then finally the Fifth Movement, Trouble Trouble is, uh, sung by a, a man in Alabama and it's a blues song.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Okay, so here we have Judith Weirs Unlocked, a set of five fantasies: Make Me a Garment, No Justice, The Wind Blow East, The Keys to the Prison and Trouble Trouble with Zlatomir Fung.
MUSIC- Weir: Unlocked for Solo Cello
Hanako Yamaguchi: That was unlocked, a poignant work by Judith Weir. Inspired by songs from the 1930s by black prisoners of the American South. Zlatomir, thank you for your thoughtful program today. You shared with us music from the mountains of Bulgaria, regions of China and the southern United States via Scotland. It's been so wonderful to have you on the show.
Before we go, I know you have some interesting things up your sleeve and perhaps too early to discuss, but tell us what you can about your other projects that are part of the Artist Propulsion Lab.
Zlatomir Fung: Sure. Well, it's, it's, uh, an incredible honor for me to be part of this year's class of, uh, the APL, the apple.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Yes.
Zlatomir Fung: And, um, yeah, I just want to thank WQXR for giving me the opportunity to explore some things that, uh, I might not otherwise be able to do, including this solo cello program, which, uh, is something that, uh, might not be possible to program in an ordinary recital setting. Um, so in addition to this, uh, there are two projects that I'm sort of working on and I, I won't say too much, but, uh, one of them is a, uh, sort of a radio interview type project where I focus on the discography of a particular artist and just hopefully discuss it with them and pick some of my favorite tracks. And then the other is I'm working on, um, sort of a Christmas children's special that's, uh, radio drama adaptation of a brother's grim fairytale. And, uh, We'll see how that goes.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Sounds like a lot of fun, Zlatomir. Um, I can't wait to hear more. Thank, thank you so much. I'm speaking with Cellis Zlatomir Fung, a member of the 2023 class of WQXR Artist Propulsion Lab. That completes another edition of the McGraw Family's Young Artist's Showcase, which is generously underwritten by the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Family Foundation. Here's Terry McGraw with more.
Terry McGraw: Good evening everyone. It's great to be with you and it's always great being with the Young Artist's Showcase and to hear these really wonderful and inspiring musicians as they continue to share their incredible gifts with us every week. I can't wait to hear the fabulous talent coming up on the showcase.
And I am so pleased to be able to support the series all through. Its well over four decades on WQXR and there's so much more to come.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Thank you, Terry, and many thanks to Zlatomir Fung for such a special program. Join us again next week as we welcome another APL-er to the WQXR studio, the delightful mezzo soprano, Brianna Hunter.
She'll share a program that includes works by Bach, Handel, and Massenet. Our WQXR program producers are Eileen Delahunty, Max Fine, and Laura Boyman with additional production assistance from Jade Jiang. Our session engineer this evening is Irene Trudell. I'm Hanako Yamaguchi. Thank you for joining us tonight.
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