Ling, a Shanghai master luthier, lives a love story with music
A viola made by Ling Zhenhua, a Shanghai local craftsman, won the Silver Medal for Tone at a top world violin-making competition in the United States on Friday. This award is the latest confirmation of his status as one of the leading luthiers from China.
The event, called the 2022 VSA Convention & 24th International Competition and Exhibition, held in Anaheim, California from November 13-18, was organized by the Violin Society of America, a nonprofit created to promote the art and science of making, repairing and preserving stringed musical instruments and their bows.
Being long regarded as one of the most celebrated international contesting platforms for top violin makers from all over the world, the biannual event returned for the first time since 2018, featuring over 400 competitive instruments and bows.
Ling entered this year's VSA competition 14 years after his first appearance in the event in 2008.
However, his romance with violin making started nearly 50 years ago, when he was around 20.
Music and musical instruments had captured Ling's interest when he was only a schoolboy. He learned by himself to play harmonic and erhu, a two-stringed Chinese fiddle, in primary school. After he entered the junior middle school, he joined the school band and performed violin on stage. Also, he often volunteered to help restore and repair musical instruments for the school band.
"That's all because I was lucky to be born with a pair of dexterous hands and a great sensitivity to tones and acoustic quality," said Ling.
After middle school, Ling enrolled into an aviation industry technical school in Shanghai, majoring in precision manufacturing. His manual dexterity could have helped him excel in this field. But his real interest remained in music and musical instruments. When he was around 20, Ling was totally drawn to the craft of violin making.
In 1984, he landed a job as an electronic engineer in Shenzhen in southern China. The city, developed from a small fishing village, was one of the first special economic zones where the central government wanted to try out its newly adopted opening-up and reform policy.
However, Ling's real purpose of going to Shenzhen was to learn violin making and take advantage of the city's adjacency to Hong Kong to get access to quality wood, as individuals on the Chinese mainland were then banned from directly importing goods from overseas.
Soon, Ling set up a violin factory in Shenzhen to make hand-made violins.
After spending about 10 years honing his skills in violin making, Ling returned to his hometown of Shanghai in 1995 to set up a workshop, namely, Shanghai Lin Hua Violin Workshop, to focus on making replicas of ancient Italian violins, which are widely regarded as the Holy Grail in the violin making world.
A turning point in Ling's violin making career came in June 2006 when Pinchas Zukerman, a world-famous violinist, planned to give a concert in Shanghai. But just a couple of months before Zukerman's journey to the city, the original sponsor suddenly withdrew from the program because of a change in its management.
So eager to see Zukerman's concert being held in his home city as scheduled that Ling immediately sold one of his apartments to help raise the money.
Eventually, Zukerman's concert was successfully staged.
Zukerman's visit also created an opportunity for Ling to meet this master violinist face to face for the first time. During the meeting, Ling showed Zukerman one of his favorite violins and asked the latter to try it out. Zukerman picked up Ling's violin, played on it for just about 10 seconds before he put it down without making any comments.
At that moment, Ling said he felt so disheartened, but he immediately realized that his violins were far from being good enough.
That's when he decided to further improve his skills in violin making and particularly, to shift his focus from the "similarity in form" to pursuing the quality of sound of Italian violins, because it had dawned on him that an elegant antique look rarely equates to a good-sounding violin.
Thanks to his unwavering dedication and great talent, his new endeavor began to pay off in just two years' time.
In May 2008, when Zukerman came to Shanghai again, Ling invited him to play on one of his new violins. After playing the fiddle for a little while, the violinist immediately said that he wanted to buy it. Today, that violin is among the three Ling instruments in Zukerman's collection.
Just a month later, Ling received a letter from Andres Cardenes, then the concertmaster of Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra.
In the letter, the violinist said that in a recent concert with his orchestra, he saw Zukerman play on a violin other that his usual 1742 Guarneri del Gesu. He told Ling that he was amazed by the tone and strength of the instrument, which was nearly as good as any top grade old Italian violins.
Later, he learned that the instrument was made by Ling, a Shanghai luthier he never heard of before.
Cardenes wrote the letter to extend his heartfelt congratulations to Ling while expressing his appreciation and admiration.
In the same year, Ling participated in the Violin Society of America (VSA) Competition for the first time, winning four prizes. The four awards were the Silver Medal for Tone of viola, Silver Medal for Tone of quartet, Certificate of Merit for Tone of violin and Certificate for Merit for Tone of cello.
Then, Ling started to look for the best wood for violin manufacturing around the world. Every violin maker knows that selection of wood and wood species plays a key role in influencing the overall quality of a violin and eventually its sound.
Later he came to the conclusion that the most suitable wood to make Italian violins must be produced in Italy itself.
More than 300 years ago, he said, the greatest Italian violin makers, such as Andrea Amati (1505-1577), Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) and Giuseppe del Gesù Guarneri (1698-1744), wouldn't have imported their raw materials from far away. Instead, they got to source them locally.
So, from 2008 to 2011, Ling paid five visits to Cremona, Italy, which is widely believed to be the birthplace of violin. Each time, he bought a large amount of wood of different species and brought them back home. Then, he would carefully reexamine the wood one piece after another to keep the very best of them and auction off the rest in the world market.
When he was short of money, Ling sold his second apartment in downtown Shanghai in 2009. His friends all called him crazy, because the prices in the local property market were then skyrocketing and if he had kept his apartment for a few more years, he might have raked in 10 times more money.
But Ling said that he couldn't wait, he wanted to have the quality violin wood as early as possible.
His investment in Cremona wood later proved to be a wise decision.
During the wood drying process, a vital step to reduce its moisture content for an effective use for a final product, Ling found two unique features of Cremona timber.
First, Cremona wood can better endure sunshine than wood produced in other places. So, he usually airs the raw boards and plates in his glass-sealed balcony on the third floor of his workshop for at least 12 to 18 months before he begins to process and varnish them.
Second, but more important and to his great pleasant surprise, after the long drying process, the wood boards he bought from Cremona gradually began to show a beautiful pale golden hue.
This pale golden color, always found on old Italian violins, has long been cherished by both violinists and luthiers around the world. But few really knew where it came from. Many violin makers have tried various means, such as adding special ingredients or pigments into the undercoat, in an attempt to create such a hue. However, the artificial coloring could never match the enigmatic shade of old Italian violins.
"So, in fact, the pale golden hue comes naturally from the Cremona wood itself through a long, proper conditioning process," said Ling. "I was thrilled by the discovery."
After having learned to read the grains of wood, Ling began to take the challenge of deciphering the secret codes of the ground, or undercoat, and varnishes that are responsible for the extraordinary tonal characteristics of old Italian violins. This has been the goal that every top violin maker in the world wishes to reach since the ancient recipes of making such ground and varnishes have long been lost in history.
To achieve his ambition, Ling first tried to lay his hand on some top-grade old Italian violins, but he couldn't afford the million-dollar ones. So, he bought some broken old violins or fragments of them from Europe and then brought them back to arduously study their ingredients and traits.
Day and night, Ling stayed in his workshop, trying to reproduce the same or at least very similar undercoat and varnish typical of old Italian violins.
Meanwhile, Ling also studied the varnish and craftsmanship of ancient guqin, a seven-stringed Chinese plug instrument like zither.
"Guqin has a history of more than 3,000 years in China, much older than the Italian violins," said Ling. "But some existing old guqin can still produce excellent music."
"I believe there must be something that I can learn from the old guqin making techniques," he added.
Eventually, Ling formulated his own "secret" recipe of undercoat and varnish that he believed could help recreate the acoustic properties of ancient Italian violins.
His belief proved to be well-grounded. Gradually, his instruments began to win the hearts of many top violinists around the world.
In addition to Zukerman and Cardenes, Robert Chen, the concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Wei Lu, the concertmaster of German Symphony Orchestra, Berlin; Guy Braunstein, the former first violin of Berlin Philharmonic and a few others all have spoken highly of Ling's instruments and used them in their performances.
Once in Berlin, Etienne Vatelot, a world-renowned French violin expert and luthier, was shown a violin made by Ling. After carefully checking the fiddle, he said that for Ling there were no more secrets of Italian violins.
Li-Kuo Chang, the assistant principal viola at Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a professor at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, is a very good friend of Ling.
Chang once said in an interview with local media in Shanghai that Ling is not only an extraordinary craftsman, but also a man who has a deep insight and great inspirations in music. Therefore, he is able to fine-tune his instruments according to his understanding of the music works and the characteristics of their composers.
In early 2020, after playing on several new violins and violas made by Ling, Chang became very excited, saying that his friend had made tremendous progresses in his craftsmanship and his instruments were practically as good as old Italian violins.
Besides violin manufacturing, Ling has frequently sponsored concerts and stringed instruments competitions.
He has also tutored young music students and offered support to young violin players to participate in international competitions.
For example, Ling had helped to tutor Sihao He, now a renowned Chinese cellist, for more than six years until He graduated from high school.
Now in his late 20s, He won first prize at the Gaspar Cassado International Violoncello Competition in Hachioji, Japan, in 2013. He was also the only ethnic Chinese to enter the final of 2017 Queen Elizabeth Cello Competition.
Meanwhile, the young cellist has played in many concerts on cellos loaned by Ling.
He always talks of Ling appreciatively and praises his wonderful sensitivity to music and good quality sound.
"I envy him for his extremely keen ears and his rare gift for empathy," said He.
Luosha Fang, a young and great Chinese violinist and violist and a winner of several top international competitions on both instruments, echoed He's words.
"Ling is not only a great luthier, but also a fervent aficionado of Western classic music," said Fang.
In 2018, Fang won the first prize at the 4th Tokyo International Viola Competition by playing on a viola made by Ling. The luthier accompanied the young fiddler all the way to Japan and helped readjust her instrument according to the music she's going to play every day.
Now 68, Ling remains single. People around him all believe that he has devoted himself solely to making the best fiddles because he regards violin making and music as his true love in life.