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IU Feature: Going solo

School of Music students Fabian Wettstein and DaXun Zhang tune up for solo debuts in New York City

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The bright city lights will shine on two of Indiana University's most promising young musicians -- violinist Fabian Wettstein and double bassist DaXun Zhang -- when they make their solo debuts in New York City on May 10 and 18, respectively.

For the two IU School of Music students, it's an opportunity to further their music education and to showcase their burgeoning talent in a city that always has its eyes open for the next big star.

"It's the pinnacle," said IU Professor of Music Lawrence Hurst. "It's the point in time when many music careers really begin."

Fabian Wettstein

How much does Fabian Wettstein love New York?

So much that he agreed to make his U.S. solo debut there even though he'll be playing a concert in his native Germany the day before.

His decision was made even easier by two words: Carnegie Hall.

"The possibility to play in a concert hall like this is great, especially because the city is one of my favorite cities," Wettstein said. "I immediately said 'yes' to play in this concert and to fly only for this reason to the U.S.A."

Fabian
Violinist Fabian Wettstein will perform at Carnegie Hall on May 10.

Wettstein, 25, who is studying for a performer's diploma in violin at the IU School of Music, will give a solo performance at "Sound Understanding," the annual gala concert and fundraiser for the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) Alumni Association. The concert, which will be at 6:30 p.m. EDT on May 10 in the Weill Recital Hall on the third floor of Carnegie Hall, will feature 13 of the most talented young jazz and classical musicians from Germany. Each of the musicians was selected in a nationwide competition of the best graduates of German music colleges to win year-long fellowships to study in the United States.

Born in Furtwangen, Germany, Wettstein began his first violin lessons at the age of four. Since 1988, he has won several competitions both in solo violin and with his string quartet. He also served as the concertmaster of the National German Youth Orchestra from 1998 to 2002. During his tenure, the orchestra played concert tours in Europe and America that were conducted by Kurt Masur, Heinrich Schiff, Heinz Holliger, Mario Venzago, Rudolf Barschai, Gerd Albrecht and Bernhard Klee. In 1998, the orchestra played a concert in New York City that was conducted by Masur, the legendary German conductor and music director emeritus of the New York Philharmonic.

Wettstein currently holds a DAAD grant to study at IU with Miriam Fried, the Dorothy Richard Starling Chair in Music. His string quartet won the Kuttner Competition at IU last year and, this spring, he joined IU's New Music Ensemble. He also has studied Bach's solo sonatas and partitas with violin professor Stanley Ritchie.

"(Fabian) is an incredibly serious worker," said Fried, one of the world's preeminent violinists. "He has particular flair for the virtuoso violin repertoire. I think that the combination of his fine qualities and his great desire to succeed are great assets in this very competitive field."

Wettstein credited Fried with helping him focus on the "quality" of sound. He described his musical style as "virtuosic. I try to be characteristic in every style of the music. I prefer to play with a lighter sound, and the articulation is very important for me, too."

Wettstein hopes that the Carnegie Hall concert will raise enough money to support future exchanges and give other musicians the same opportunity he has to play one of the nation's premier concert halls.

"Hopefully it will connect Europe and the U.S.A. musically, at least a little bit," he said.

DaXun Zhang

DaXun (pronounced DAH-shoon) Zhang is used to being alone. Such is the life of a double bass player.

"There aren't that many bass players who want to make a career as a soloist," said the 22-year-old native of Harbin, China, who last year became the first double bassist ever to win the Young Concert Artists Auditions. "The instrument is just so hard to travel with."

Daxun, Zhang
Double bassist DaXun Zhang will make his New York City solo debut on May 18.

Zhang will gladly lug his instrument and its 160-pound case to New York City for his debut there on May 18 at 8 p.m. EDT at the 92nd Street Y. The concert will be sponsored by the Claire Tow Prize, one of the five prizes he won during the 2003 Young Concert Artists competition. Zhang's program will include performances of Bach, Beethoven, a Chinese folk song, gypsy music and a duet with professional violinist and YCA alumna Chee-Yun.

Remarkably, Zhang almost wasn't allowed into the YCA competition. Since the double bass is considered an "odd" or "novelty" instrument, Zhang had to ask his teacher at IU -- Lawrence Hurst -- to write a letter on his behalf. Hurst, who chairs the Department of Strings at the School of Music, was more than happy to sing the praises of his prize student.

"He's one of the biggest talents I've ever seen play the instrument," Hurst said.

"The first time I saw him play was in Beijing at the Central Conservatory of Music when he was just 10 years old," Hurst continued. "He was good for a 10-year-old, but there was nothing that turned my head at the time.

"The next time I heard him was 10 or 11 years later at (the) Interlochen (Arts Academy in Michigan), and the transformation was stunning. He was playing a piece for the cello and playing it better than most cellists would play it."

Zhang was one of four winners selected at the YCA Auditions from a pool of more than 300 other instrumentalists from 42 countries. With the honor came an opportunity most young musicians can only dream about -- a three-and-a-half-year contract with YCA that provided for solo concert engagements in some of the nation's leading cultural centers including Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. Additionally, beginning last fall, Zhang has or will appear as a soloist with the Minnesota Orchestra, the Pacific Symphony in California, the Orchestra New England in New Haven, Conn., the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle in Raleigh, N.C., and the La Jolla Music Society in La Jolla, Calif.

"I always wanted to make a career as a soloist, but there are not that many competitions for bass. I've won other string competitions, but they didn't give me a chance to make a solo career like YCA," said Zhang, who also was the youngest artist ever to win the International Society of Bassists Solo Competition in 2001.

The YCA victory was a culmination of years of practice, said Zhang, who started playing the double bass at the age of nine and began studying at Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music at the age of 11. It also marked the beginning of a new stage of life for a musician who, Hurst said, is seeking to carve out a niche in the world of classical music.

For inspiration, Zhang has to look no further than IU alumnus Edgar Meyer, who is considered by many to be the world's premier bassist. Meyer, who recently received one of the MacArthur Foundation's "genius grants," has garnered worldwide acclaim for his unparalleled technique and musicianship, including the ability to transcend various styles of music, from classical to bluegrass.

"DaXun is in a league with Edgar, but they're totally different," Hurst said. "Edgar has a concept of sound on the instrument that is necessary for the crossover projects he does. I call him the seventh wonder of the world. He is extremely talented and has the ability to easily jump from one genre to another. DaXun plays a more lyric style. It's just different. It's like comparing a Rolls-Royce to an Alfa Romeo."

Hurst believes that Zhang is well on his way to a promising career, no matter what path he chooses. "It's difficult, and there are no guarantees or clear-cut ways to succeed, but he's very talented. He may find that he can imitate many different instruments on double bass. In that respect, this is a kind of exploration for him. He's a pioneer."

As for the immediate future, Zhang said he would be happy to perform a great debut in New York. He hopes to introduce more Western audience members to Eastern music and culture, and he wants to turn more people on to the instrument he has mastered as only a few others have.

"I'm still trying to figure out how to keep the audience, how to make them more interested in the double bass," he said. "I want them to come to another double bass concert after they see me perform."

To speak to Fabian Wettstein or DaXun Zhang, contact Ryan Piurek, IU Media Relations, at 812-855-5393 or rpiurek@indiana.edurpiurek [at] indiana [dot] edu (rpiurek@indiana.edu ) .