No Time Like The Present

No Time Like The Present

Violinist celebrates marriage of musical styles


He just won the 2018 Leonard Bernstein Award. He performs solo and with one of the most innovative trios currently touring. He’s been described by the Boston Globe as someone who “plays classical violin with the charisma of a rock star.”

But if Charles Yang ever decides to quit his “day job,” he could have a future in spoken word/stand-up comedy. He’s smart, funny, charming and doesn’t seem to take anything about his meteoric rise to the international stage seriously. Did he ever want to be anything but a musician?

Courtesy Photo
Since 2016, violinist Charles Yang has been collaborating with Nick Kendall, also a violinist, and Ranaan Meyer, who plays double bass, in the “category-shattering” Time for Three. The trio will perform Oct. 20 with the Fort Smith Symphony.

“I’m Asian, and my mom plays the violin, so I automatically got thrown into it,” he says, opening a phone conversation with his first laugh. “I started when I was 3. I’ve seen little videos from when I was a kid playing, and I seemed to enjoy it, but from my memory? I hated practicing. I did it because my mom wanted me to play, and seeing her teach other students made me jealous, so then I wanted to practice to get her attention. And believe me, I needed to practice! I was terrible!

“I can’t tell you what else I might have been — although I remember really wanting to be a bus driver. Music was always in my mind as something I would always do. It comforted me to know that it was there.”

Yang grew up in Austin, Texas, the musical capital of everything but classical, where his friends were listening to Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel.

“I didn’t have that many classical music buddies or colleagues or peers when I was growing up,” he remembers. “The school system I went to offered orchestra and strings, but I was playing concertos already and had won some competitions, so I was on another level of sorts. (That sounds awful. I feel like I’m bragging saying that!) There was a wonderful orchestra, great chamber music, but when you think of Austin live music, you think of ‘Austin City Limits’ and SXSW.”

Yang’s introduction to playing outside his classical comfort zone came when he was invited to jam with a friend. “He played in a band called Peach Fuzz! Isn’t that a great Austin band name?” He laughs again.

“I had learned Beethoven and Tchaikovsky violin concertos by that time, so I walk in and ask, ‘Where’s my music?’ He said, ‘I don’t read music; I just know the blues pentatonic scale.’ I was frozen — no idea there was so much I didn’t know. It kind of changed my mindset.”

His experiences at the Juilliard School continued to broaden his perspective. Yang says he went to study with Glenn Dicterow, who was concertmaster for the New York Philharmonic for 30 years. “He was just a wonderful teacher.” But along the way, the violinist “got to interact with actors, dancers — and also jazz musicians. And I’m one of those kind of open-minded people — I’m obnoxious; that’s what I am! — and I became friends with a lot of those people and became collaborative with them. So that’s the main thing I took away from Juilliard.”

Since 2016, Yang has been collaborating with Nick Kendall, also a violinist, and Ranaan Meyer, who plays double bass, in the “category-shattering” Time for Three, which transcends classification by combining elements of classical, country, gypsy and jazz into something all its own.

“Mr. Yang is a true crossover artist, a pioneer who can hop between classical and popular music and bring fresh ideas to fans of both genres,” The Texas Observer wrote. “Rather than maintaining an insular focus and simply assuming that an audience for classical music will always exist, he wants to actively create that audience, to persuade and seduce others into enjoying a type of music as passionately as he does.”

“A lot of new artists are blurring the lines of what music is,” Yang says. “You can’t define what [kind of music] is what now. It’s beautiful! I love it!”



Fort Smith Symphony:

It’s Time For Three

WHEN — 7:30 p.m. Oct. 20

WHERE — Arcbest Corp. Performing Arts Center in Fort Smith

COST — $30-$50

INFO — 452-7575

Categories: Music