Cellist Zlatomir Fung, winner of Enescu Competition 2016: “What makes classical music so amazing is the mix of feeling and architecture”

Winner of the 2016 Cello Section of the George Enescu International Competition, the 2015 Johansen International Competition for Young String Players, the 2014 Stulberg International String Competition, and the 2014 Irving Klein International Competition, among others – and this year also of the Alice & Eleonore Schoenfeld International String Competition. Soloist of various orchestras in Europe and the U.S.A. Currently a student of the prestigious performing arts conservatory Juilliard School in New York.

Or simply Zlatomir Fung, 19 years old, a passionate fan (and soon-to-be young master) of the cello.

A feature story by Cristina Enescu

Though an American born and raised, Zlatomir Fung has an interesting double heritage: Bulgarian from his mother’s side and Chinese from his father’s. There are three parts of the world that make up the personality of this rising star of the international cello stage. Whether it has influenced somehow his approach to music, this is something he is still pondering. “Actually, I don’t come from a family of musicians, my parents studied mathematics”. (Though his youngest brother also has the classical music itch and is pursuing the French horn). “Nationality wise, I feel very American. But from a musical point of view, sometimes I like to joke that my Bulgarian half has given me a certain Balkan intensity, people there are always so passionate and wearing their heart on their sleeve. Maybe my Chinese half has brought the hard work and the discipline to the equation.”

Hard work indeed, becoming increasingly harder as he steps up his game on the international stage. When he was 3 years old, he had his first sparks of chemistry with the cello and started to study it – and hasn’t stopped since. “It was my first instrument. I did play the piano for a bit when I was about 6, but the cello has always felt like my only musical outlet. Then, when I was 12 I went to a summer program at the Indiana University. It was the first time I was surrounded by extraordinary musicians, people who were just a couple of years older than me, but were really very passionate about making music and pursuing musical careers. Personality wise, I think I am naturally competitive, so when I see people who play at a very high level I always strive to be like that or even better, maybe. I think this really pushed me and ignited this flame in me, to pursue music and be the best I could be.”

But why did this particular instrument take such a hold of him?  As with many, first there was the magical sound, so much resembling the human voice. But this one is a more elaborate passion, with a physical side to it:” I’ve always loved the physical part of playing it as well, because the position is extremely natural. And having the ability to  just let all your weight into the sound, and draw the sound from the instrument, that is really satisfying. Sometimes, if I don’t practice for a couple of days, I really miss the feeling of creating that sound.”

Two years ago, Zlatomir won the first cello prize at the most prestigious Romanian classical music competition, also one of the prominent ones on the international stage. In the final round he had a standing ovations premiere performance of Enescu’s Symphonie Concertante for Cello, op. 8. “It was the first time that anybody had performed it in the history of the competition. When I was looking at the repertoire options, I thought it would be really interesting to play Enescu in Romania, a unique chance in itself, I thought – although last year I got a similar wonderful chance again, as I played with the Sibiu State Philharmonic in the Enescu Festival, which was an honor.”

Winning the Enescu Competition has been yet another step in his journey to becoming one of the best young cellists out there. But there is surely much more about this musician than hard work and a relentless desire to constantly become better. A review following his first prize in Bucharest described him as “a philosopher of the cello”. He is surprised and amused to learn about that. ”Interesting characterization… I’m very flattered by that description. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I have a rather introverted stage presence. Anyhow, I do think the cello has a certain philosophical element to it, and also the playing in itself – you have the craft and then you have the art and finding a way to blend them is somehow magic. There is also something about the richness of its sound, the depth… it has something mystical about it. Most likely I am biased, but I often see how this instrument really speaks to other people as well.”

Zlatomir Fung seems to be on a solid trajectory of constant study and improvement, doubled by a never subsiding joy at playing this instrument.  Last fall he moved to New York and became a Juilliard student, in the American capital of classical music, New York. “It’s been an excellent experience to live and be surrounded by all the culture in New York. There are so many concerts all the time, we have the Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, so there’s a lot of stimulation and many wonderful musicians around.”

Just a couple of months ago, he also won his first award in the country that gave him half of his heritage, the paternal one: China. But so far Zlatomir has performed mostly in the U.S.A and in Europe. “You know, in the U.S. it’s a common thing, every performance will get a standing ovation just because that music is new to them, people feel much love and excitement for a performance. But playing in Europe can be kind of intimidating sometimes, you know that the audience probably heard that piece before, maybe several times, or maybe they’ve seen the sheet music… It’s a different experience. Europe, on the other hand, is obviously  such a historic place for music tradition.”

Ok, he’s all about the cello, we get it – not just from all the awards but also judging by the smooth, delicate yet assured, powerful impression he creates when performing. There are no eccentric, show off moves or interpretation, rather a feeling of balance, mastery and definitely a touch of delicate emotion. But what other music does he revel in? “Well, classical music… there’s not much like it. What makes it so amazing, I think, is the mix of feeling and architecture. There is so much intellect that goes into writing a great piece of classical music. That’s what appeals to me. When I want to decompress I sometimes listen to American pop music, like the Billboard Top 100.”

There surely must be some appropriate cello music for when sad or anxious. What will do for him? “Probably the Bach Suites. There’s nothing like it. Maybe the first or third suite, there’s so much energy there, specifically for the cello.” On the other hand, when exuberant, there’s no Salsa or Rock’n Roll pieces that he would go to first, but “maybe the Haydn Concerto. Sometimes I have cravings for certain pieces, really powerful and emotional stuff, usually chamber music, but sometimes I might crave, for example, to listen to the Brahms F Major cello sonata, the Schuman or Dvorak cello concerto. You know, that Romanticism really speaks to me”.

A different kind of passion of his, unrelated to classical music, is chess. Actually… any chance that structured chess player’s mind is not completely unrelated to his methodical, professional approach of the cello? “That’s a really interesting question… I’m not a good enough or very experienced chess player, but the one thing I have noticed is that, in chess, when you’re playing and facing a decision with every move you make, you have to weigh in different options based upon the outcomes. I think, as a musician, often during the process of working on a piece of music you have those same types of decisions to make – whether or not to vibrate this note, whether to play this bar or phrase this way or another… So, the analytical element is very similar when it comes to the process of working on music. On stage it’s a different thing, so many times you’re just overcome with whatever you are feeling in that moment. But behind those feelings lies a lot of work and analysis.”

Enough about structure and practice. Let’s talk about deep feelings. How about one of the most emotionally intense performances of his life so far? “There was a concert that I gave several years ago, I was maybe 13 or 14. I was supposed to give a house concert for this woman that I had met at one of my performances. Two days before the concert she had a stroke and died, so my performance ended up being a memorial concert. That was very difficult for me to go through. I hadn’t known that woman very well, but there I was playing for people who had known her all her life.”

Plans, dreams, goals – there are many for Zlatomir Fung and his cello. Among his fantasies, though, there would surely be “to do all six Bach suites in a recital, that’s one of my dreams. The same thing with the complete Beethoven sonatas. Also, I’ve always been really interested in the idea of something like a marathon concert, where I’m just a small part of it, you know, a concert that goes on for 24 or 48 hours non stop, only with the intermissions between the pieces. People just keep playing, I jump on stage, I play, then come off, the performance goes on… It would be a really powerful experience.”