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Taking up the baton

By Chen Nan| China Daily| Updated: March 25, 2024 L M S


Yu Lu conducts Beethoven's nine symphonies in five consecutive days, with the Ningbo Symphony Orchestra, in 2020. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Young homegrown maestro exemplifies a new generation, as he prepares to conduct 135-year-old Dutch orchestra, Chen Nan reports.

When the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, one of the world's leading symphony orchestras, announced its 2024-25 season on Sunday, a young Chinese conductor, Yu Lu, was featured in its program as a guest conductor.

The 34-year-old Yu describes the invitation from the 135-year-old orchestra, which is based in Amsterdam, as an admission ticket to the top of the classical music scene.

"It's such an established orchestra with their unique sounds. It's challenging but in a way that I like," says Yu.

"Unlike being a soloist, such as pianist and violinist, a conductor is silent but shoulders the responsibility of leading the orchestra and shaping the music. For a young conductor, in his early 30s and from Asia, it's quite tough to lead such a great orchestra with a very long history," he adds. "I have to be well-prepared and be careful since such kind of opportunity is rare and valuable."

The invitation was first sent to Yu about two yeas ago, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the conductor, the orchestra planned to have him perform Pictures at an Exhibition by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, but the upcoming season will have Yu play something "interactive" since they believe that the young conductor would inject new energy into the program.

In fact, it will not be the first time that Yu will work with the orchestra. When he was 22 years old, he was selected and invited by maestro Mariss Jansons (1943-2019) to participate in a conducting master class, and take up the baton at the orchestra in Amsterdam. In 2018, he also recorded with Camerata RCO, an ensemble consisting of musicians of Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, on an album, titled Salon, featuring pieces including Johannes Brahms' Serenade No 2 in A Major, Op 16, and Hector Berlioz's The Death of Cleopatra.

"I have known and worked together with Yu Lu for several years now. In my opinion, he is one of the most talented conductors in his generation," comments Michael Gieler, principal violist of the orchestra. "We have worked together when he conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in a master class given by the legendary Mariss Jansons. He really stood out from his colleagues in expressivity and confidence."

Calling Yu a "versatile conductor "with a broad repertoire, Gieler also says the conductor's beat is "clear "and "he is expressive without neglecting precision".

"All those master classes, rehearsals and performances seem like building a solid foundation for my collaboration with the orchestra again during its new season. I am honored and excited to perform as a Chinese conductor with the world-renowned orchestra," says Yu.

Born and raised in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, in 1989, Yu began to show his music talent at a very young age by learning to play the violin and the piano. His interest in conducting started when he was 3 years old, "conducting to the air while listening to The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto".

His parents, though sensing their only son's talent, didn't want him to take on a music career in the beginning since they believed that an occupation like a doctor or a lawyer would be stable for their son.

In 2002, when Yu's father played a video of Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa (1935-2024) at the New Year's Concert in the Golden Hall of the Vienna Musikverein, Yu, 13 years old then, conducted again while watching the video. Since then, his family supported his music learning and his decision to become a conductor.

Ranked in first place, Yu was admitted to the affiliated middle school of the China Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing at the age of 15 and enrolled at the China Central Conservatory of Music with the top score in the admission exam at 18 years old.

In 2012, Yu gained his bachelor's degree from the conducting department of the conservatory and continued to pursue a master's degree.

His first break came when he was 22 years old when maestro Jansons, who was the chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra then, selected three young conductors from around the world to participate in a master class in Amsterdam. Yu was the only one from Asia.

"He was one of three active participants selected from more than 70 young conductors. He is a talented conductor who prepares his scores thoroughly, has a clear technique, and knows how to communicate nonverbally with an orchestra," maestro Jansons comments on Yu's performance.

Before Jansons, Yu was also trained by Ozawa. It was in 2009 when the established conductor came to tour in China. The Central Conservatory of Music recommended five top students from its conducting department and Yu was one of them. After rounds of fierce competition, Yu stood out among his peers and became Ozawa's student and assistant conductor.

"I flew to Japan to study with him every month. One day, he told me to pay attention to the beat. On my way home, I bought a metronome and spent the whole night conducting to it without any sleep. The next day, he was surprised by my progress," recalls Yu. "Two days later, he said that he wanted to go back to China to perform with me, with him conducting the first half of the concert and me doing the second half. Though the trip didn't happen due to his health, I was very touched because he was such a great teacher, willing to support and help his students."

One of his generation's most sought-after and celebrated conductors, Ozawa was born in Shenyang, China, in 1935, and from a young age studied piano and then conducting in Japan.

"He had a very deep love for China. Besides music, he also inspired me to think about pursuing a career in the West. He himself had achieved great success in the West, so his encouragement was very convincing to me. He gave me lots of confidence," says Yu. "I used to set a goal of conducting all the top orchestras in the world. But now, I want to train and lead a Chinese symphony orchestra to stand out on the world classical music scene with the top level, which I will consider the highlight of my career."

The highlights that Yu has already achieved include conducting Madama Butterfly by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini in Japan in 2012, which was his first time to conduct an opera. In 2022, the Shanghai Opera House appointed Yu as its first ever principal guest conductor.

By the end of 2020, Yu initiated a challenge of performing Beethoven's nine symphonies in five consecutive days, by working together with Bilibili — one of China's biggest video-sharing platform, and the Ningbo Symphony Orchestra.

The online live performance was a great success and captured widespread attention both at home and abroad. It also made Yu the first conductor in China's music history to do so.

"The Ningbo Symphony Orchestra was only five years old back in 2020, and I was also very young. We made it together," says Yu.

Maestro Ozawa, who was in the hospital then, wrote Yu a note, encouraging him and cheering him up since the project was very challenging for any young conductor and any orchestra.

"I still have it, it is like a treasure to me," says Yu, adding that he is planning to launch a commemorative project by gathering Japanese and Chinese musicians to perform in concerts in Beijing and Shanghai this year, paying tribute to the great conductor.