YeYe Xu

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your life, not necessarily music-related

I was born in London in 1995, and lived my first months in the student halls of Imperial College, right next to the Royal Albert Hall. No-one foresaw that after 17 years I might return to perform on that stage with a symphony orchestra. When I was little, we didn’t have much money, and nobody in my family played a ‘Western’ classical instrument. My grandfather used to play the Chinese violin, called the Er Hu ( 二胡 ), but that was about it. At the age of four, having moved to Edinburgh, I auditioned for the City of Edinburgh Music School singing Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. Miraculously, I was accepted, and studied there for seven years.

Later, I continued at St Mary’s Music School as a bursary student. There, I discovered the camaraderie of chamber and orchestral music, and a zeal for writing and foreign languages. After six years, instead of music I opted for university to read Law with European Legal Studies at King’s College London and the University of Strasbourg. I also took classes in politics, philosophy and anthropology, and found true enjoyment in academic research.

When I wasn’t reading I was nearly always playing my violin! I was a Principal in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and Leader of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland in 2016. Performance took me to China, Canada, the Caribbean and the Netherlands. While studying in France I helped establish a Sistema project in Alsace with François and Emmanuelle Dardant, based on the Venezuelan model, where children from different religious, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds could take free vocal and instrumental lessons. It was incredible to see how quickly they learned their instruments, working together, and how the enterprise harmonised the entire community. That year was definitely one of my most treasured memories, for I witnessed the ways in which music can make positive social change in the world.

Today I work for the Royal Philharmonic Society in London, the body responsible for commissioning several well-known masterpieces, including Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. We have a growing Membership and we support young performers, composers, as well as women conductors at both beginner and advanced levels. The age-old issue of gender inequality on the conducting podium is very slowly transforming for the better, which I’m pleased to see. Nonetheless, in a world where men are still taking advantage of women, where women don’t believe they’re as capable as their male counterparts, there’s still much work to be done redressing imbalances. So, I’m thrilled to be part of a small team dedicated to this cause – among many others. It’s really quite special. 

Outside office hours, you’ll probably find me playing violin or reading in a library. Finishing with some fun facts: my name, YeYe 叶叶, is Chinese and translates literally as ‘leaf leaf’. It is pronounced like two Es.

What are your favourite things?

Fresh Scottish water. My dictionaries. Cheese.
In London, it’s my local swimming pool and Westminster Cathedral.

How did you first get into music?

By chance! It was first presented to me like an everyday, out-of-school activity. I sang pop songs in the car and in a girls’ choir. I took part in children’s orchestras, like NCO, and chamber music programmes including Pro Corda. My mother was a wonderful motivating force in my development and took me to concerts all the time. I became aware of so many pieces and artists that way, and am eternally grateful to her for enriching my life in this way. 

What made you decide that music would be an important part of your life?

There has never been a single definitive turning point but several memorable moments, at which I learned to see music in a new light. After leaving music school I learned there is no one way to do music or be a musician. You don’t have to follow the classical prescription: you can carve your own path and play what you want to play, with people from all walks of life.

I’ve travelled a fair bit, playing in both professional and amateur ensembles. Music is the same for everyone. It’s a unifying force, and it’s story-telling. As a violinist, I feel the unspeakable magnitude of its powers most, when I play in an orchestra. Sound, created by multiplied forces, can reach heights and depths we didn’t think could even exist. An orchestra by nature fosters team spirit, cooperation, and individual responsibility, too. These human qualities are essential to the workings of any society which strives to achieve peace and mutual understanding.

Playing music is also psychologically and physically good for me, like eating my vegetables and swimming. It makes me feel free and superhuman, and once you’ve got that sensation, it’s so very hard to keep it out of your life. I hope others can experience this as well, whether onstage or in the audience, and I do Nevis, because it’s an emblem of all I have just described.

What has been your Nevis Ensemble highlight so far?

Travelling by boat to St Kilda, there’s no doubt about that. Or, making pancakes with Heidi for everyone’s breakfast! 

What kind of music do you like listening to?

Everything and nothing. All that is sacred.

How would you describe Nevis Ensemble to someone else? 

Pure colour for the senses. A breath of fresh air. Sweet and generous. Open-hearted.

You can follow YeYe on Twitter @_leafleaf