One of the most popular compositions for the violin, the 8-minute-long “Zigeunerweisen” (Gypsy Airs), Op. 20, depicts the struggles of gypsies in the face of life’s trials while they, through music and dance, maintain their spirit. The piece by Spanish composer Pablo de Sarasate has been recorded by many violin virtuosos of our time and is a beloved part of concert repertoire.
I first saw Shen Yun soloist Fiona Zheng’s rendition of “Zigeunerweisen” at Carnegie Hall with Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra in October 2015. It was the first time I had heard her play. My reaction was, “I’ve never heard such bright and yet detailed sound!” I couldn’t help but smile as I saw this new violin virtuoso.
In just a few treble notes, Zheng earned my admiration. Her music was expressed with fine detail and clarity, which requires power and control. What made Zheng remarkable was that the quality of her sound had a sense of brightness that soothed the ear and touched the soul.
The precision in Zheng’s legato and fingering techniques made me speechless, given this young virtuoso is only in her early 20s. Perhaps what was most extraordinary about Zheng was her captivating musicality. Her music had a penetrating power because of an intense clarity that was peaceful and stirring at the same time.
Other violinists’ renditions of “Zigeunerweisen” may touch you, while Zheng’s may make you cry, particularly during “Un poco più lento,” the third section of the music. Here, her ability to interpret human emotion with pure simplicity and compassion is outstanding.
It is no accident that she is able to interpret “Gypsy Airs” with such unusual ability.
Zheng started playing the piano at age 3 and was taught the violin at age 5 by her father, who is also a violinist.
Also at a young age, she started doing a meditation practice called Falun Gong with her family. Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a traditional mind-body practice based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance and, as reported by the Chinese regime at the time, was practiced by 70 million in China by 1999.
Unfortunately, due to fear of its popularity, the Chinese communist regime started a brutal persecution of Falun Gong in 1999. When Zheng was 12 years old, her home was broken into by a group of police and ransacked. Her grandmother and mother were taken away, and shortly afterward, they were killed—15 days apart—by the systematic persecution and police brutality used to enforce it.
In order to survive, Zheng and her father were forced to leave home and drift from place to place, much like gypsies. She obtained freedom and resumed her music career when she immigrated in the United States.
Perhaps her early experiences of life and death, as well as her unwavering determination and faith, explain the depth and power of her rendition of “Zigeunerweisen.”
Fiona Zheng and Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra return to Carnegie Hall on Oct. 14 and Oct. 15 for two performances. Zheng will perform the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35.
Xiao-Hui Zhao is a senior journalist and music critic from Taiwan.