Musical odyssey

Updated: 2012-02-10 09:36

By David Bartram (China Daily)

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Musical odyssey

Di Xiao says that playing different types of music is the best way to explore culture. [Provided to China Daily]

Di xiao has experienced the solitude and the hardship of a concert pianist

Di Xiao, one of classical music's new generation of rising stars from China, has spent much of her life traveling the world to pursue her music. It is of little surprise that she has not only called her recent second album Journey, but used it as a chance to reconcile her humble childhood in China with her new life as a soloist in Europe.

"The stage is the loneliest place in the whole world when you are performing," says Di, who moved to the UK in 2005. "Just you and your piano, but I love the challenge and the chance to connect with the audience."

Di's own journey began in Guangzhou in the 1980s. Growing up in a poor yet musical family, her father sold his motorcycle to buy her a piano when she was just 2 years old.

But it was not until Di was a teenager, and an encounter with a Ukrainian professor at the Xinghai Conservatory of Music in Guangzhou, that her passion for the piano was truly sparked.

"I was a bit rebellious when younger and didn't do a lot of hard work. But one day while I was at secondary school at the conservatory this professor gave a recital of Rachmaninoff.

"It was very passionate and powerful music and it really touched me. I remember I was in tears in the concert hall. That was the point I decided to devote myself to practice.

"Over the next year I worked really hard and reached the top of my class. I was 13 years old at this point and looking back it was an important stage of my life. It is the time you try to find a way in life. I was very grateful someone opened the door for me."

Di followed the professor to Ukraine to continue her studies in 1997, while still only 16, but did not have the best of experiences.

"The situation wasn't like what I expected," Di says. "At the time Ukraine was not a very safe country. The city cut its power after 8 pm, and there was even a serial killer on the loose who murdered someone in my apartment building."

She returned to China after a few months, studying in Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music for seven years until a chance encounter gave her the opportunity to give life in the West another shot.

"Just as I was graduating the vice-principal of Birmingham Conservatoire was visiting and heard me play. He was impressed and offered me a full scholarship to come and study in the UK."

While Di's early years in Birmingham were not as traumatic as her time in Ukraine, despite the scholarship she found it hard to make ends meet.

"Life was quite a struggle. It's very expensive to live in England and my parents had retired so couldn't give me any financial support. One way I discovered to save money was to go to the market just before it closed. I could get very cheap vegetables this way, although it was always a big box of one type, so sometimes I'd go for a whole week only eating aubergines."

She eventually found a couple of part-time jobs, teaching at a local school and playing piano in a city center bar, which provided some spending money. But Di is grateful for these experience.

"I think these experiences made me who I am. I am grateful for my very humble upbringing. My parents didn't give me much and I know that I've earned with my own work. I'm very proud of this."

Nowadays Di is more likely to be spotted in one of Europe's great concert halls than at the local market. She recently performed at London's prestigious Wigmore Hall, and has toured extensively. "I feel very lucky to have played in all these beautiful places. I'm inspired by these concert halls, especially somewhere like Wigmore which is so beautiful and very intimate."

But despite these glamorous new surroundings, Di's performances attempt to bring an element of China to Europe's classical music scene. Her recent Wigmore Hall performance, described as "dreamy" by one critic, paired staples from great European composers with Chinese folk songs, all tied to the theme of moonlight.

"I played everything from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata to Chinese folk songs like Colorful Cloud Chasing the Moon. I find this a very interesting combination. There are not many Chinese pieces being played in classical programs, so it really feels refreshing and so far audiences seem to like it."

And just as European audiences are beginning to appreciate Chinese music, Di believes that Chinese audiences are becoming more and more interested in classical music.

"A few years ago the audiences in China didn't really know how to appreciate music," Di says. "It was slightly noisy and some people would take pictures during the performance."

"But in recent years I've gone back and am really impressed at how things have changed. Now the audiences are really civilized and they listen closely.

"China is becoming very important for classical music. In Europe the audiences are mainly elderly people but in China there are middle-aged people, teenagers, even children. In a few years time China will have a very good foundation for classical music."

Regardless of whether she is performing in China or Europe, Di takes the art of performance seriously and knows that audiences expect the highest quality from soloists.

"Even now I feel nervous before I step onto the stage, but I've learned to turn the nerves into excitement. I think nervousness is important as if you feel completely relaxed then you are probably not going to perform your best. You need it to give you a push, a bit like a bungee jump.

"In fact I enjoy adventure sports as well. I have taken flying lessons, I enjoy horse riding. Last year I went hang gliding. People ask me why I do it, but I've always thought that you only live once, so you have to live life to the full."

Her search for adventure has already been rewarded with a host of awards and prizes, but it is the desire to collaborate with different artists and share different types of music that really drives Di.

"I believe playing different types of music is the best way to explore cultures. Music is a language itself. It can bring you in touch with all sorts of different people. In future I'd like to work with people of different nationalities, different art forms."

Di has already begun working on collaborative projects with cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, brother of Andrew. Will this be the next stop on the Di Xiao journey? "I've always thought that life isn't about the destination, it's about the journey. That's what counts and I want to make the most of it and share it with many people."