Zero to Infinity

Versatile violinist Yue Deng has traveled a rare path—from Hebei, China to the sun-kissed Ojai Valley. LESLIE A. WESTBROOK explores the past and present of a Juilliard-trained wunderkind with a jazzy side.

“My father always told me,” Yue Deng, the petite new principal concertmaster and violin soloist for the Pacific Shores Philharmonic, informed me, “that no matter what you achieve, or how far you go, you start from zero.”

Deng has experienced many “new beginnings” throughout her budding career, making her a power to be reckoned with. The versatile, classically trained musician first tasted fame at the tender age of eight after winning the National Violin Competition in China against other aspiring musicians from all over the vast country.

Local musicians and music lovers nurtured Yue’s interest in alternative genres, adding a splash of cool black to her classical repertoire.

Don’t let her diminutive frame fool you: Deng is a powerhouse, with an ear and natural affinity for jazz and pop, a rarity among classical musicians. Recently married to UCSB mechanical engineering professor Rousln Krechetnikov, she has performed in the classical mode with the Santa Barbara Symphony, the Ventura Symphony, and Master Chorale of Ventura County, and recorded an album of compositions by Claus Ogermann with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. But she has also performed on albums and/or worked with Diana Krall, Barbra Streisand, Barry Manilow, Willy Nelson, and Johnny Mandel, among others. And she’s played not only Carnegie Hall, but Birdland, too.

How in the heck did that happen? Like this: One summer, in 1999, during Yue’s second term at Montecito’s Music Academy of the West, the highly regarded, intensive summer program for talented young classical musicians from around the globe, Yue met a volunteer by the name of Janet Lees. Mrs. Lees, who resides in Ojai, happened to be the wife of the highly respected jazz author and lyricist Gene Lees. Gene and Yue met, and the rest was a mutual admiration society kismet.

A colorful standout at Ojai’s Libbey Bowl, Yue Deng was principal concertmaster and violin soloist for the Pacific Shores Philharmonic’s inaugural summer season.

In his delightful book, a collection of profiles titled Friends Along the Way: A Journey through Jazz (Yale University Press, 2003), Gene devoted the last chapter to Yue. “I have pondered how the young lady happened into our lives,” he wrote, “and what would have occurred had she not done so. But the existential reality is that what is, is. What happened, happened. And there is no turning back from it.” It was a fateful connection for all parties, and one that I imagine Gene, who passed away two years ago, would delight in and not wish to rewind.

“Gene and Janet opened my eyes to all types of music, literature, the arts, and politics,” Yue said enthusiastically, recalling her friends’ influence on her life and career. They also introduced her to their fine circle of influential friends in the music business, which included Hank and Ginny Mancini, composer/lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman, and Ojai-based jazz pianist/composer/arranger Roger Kellaway. Gene wanted Roger to hear the young violinist, who knew nothing of jazz until she heard and went crazy over a Dizzy Gillespie album in Janet’s car. Roger had written a piece for violin titled “Nuages.” Yue nailed it, and her youthful musical world was soon to be expanded.

Though trained at The Juilliard School in New York, Yue has an uncommon ear for jazz and pop as well as classical music.

The duo recorded an album, appropriately titled “Both Sides Now,” perhaps a double entendre referencing both the Joni Mitchell song on the CD as well as Yue’s versatility. “Yue was brilliant. She’s a fantastic talent and I look forward to working with her again,” noted Roger recently.

At that time, Roger, obviously impressed by her playing abilities and wanting to showcase her talent, also invited Yue to perform at a gig he had booked at The Jazz Bakery in Culver City. She met and was praised by jazz aficionados including noted film director Sidney Pollack, world famous architect Frank Gehry, and actor/director Mark Rydell. “Sydney Pollack kissed my hand!” gushed Yue. “All my friends said, ‘Don’t ever wash your hand!’”

Larkspur Trio, Yue with pianist Miriam Arichea and cellist Virginia Kron.

But back to her roots. “[China] started the one-child policy the year before I was born, so parents were very devoted to their only child. People really value education in China; I was six-and-a-half when I began playing (her first violin cost two dollars) … I learned English in middle school in China, but not spoken English. I did not become fluent until graduate school at Juilliard in New York.”

Yue tasted fame at a young age after winning the National Violin Competition. A local television station made a documentary that was picked up by Central China TV and shown all over the country. At age nine, she was accepted to the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, a boarding school that the “always independent” young lady “loved.”

Among her classical accomplishments is an album of compositions by Claus Ogermann that she recorded with French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

“Gene told me that performing is shy man’s revenge, but I am not really shy,” she said. “I got used to it from childhood. I used to get boxes of fan letters, but my parents didn’t want me to see them or become arrogant. People would stop me in the streets and say, ‘You’re the person in the documentary.’ What I really care about is making music.”

In an unusual twist—a sort of role-reversal—her mother (originally an electrician) started teaching violin after Yue moved to the United States to attend college on a full scholarship at Oberlin College. “She would observe me practicing and we would speak about it,” recalled Yue, noting that her mother taught her to sing Chinese folk songs as a child, although she no longer remembers them. “She then figured out her own way to train violinists, when she was in her forties.”

Jazz legends Roger Kellaway and Gene Lees fostered Yue’s interest in the genre.

Because Deng has been immersed in not only the classical music oeuvre, but, thanks to friends in Ojai, jazz and even pop tunes, she is bringing a fresh outlook and groove to the new Pacific Shores Philharmonic Orchestra. “She’s a rising star—the perfect package of poise, grace, brilliance, and fire,” said Pacific Shores Philharmonic conductor E. Burns Taft. “What more could you ask for?”

There’s plenty more musical praise and details about Deng in Gene Lee’s book, but I happen to love this nugget, for which I can personally vouch: “She is insanely funny, both intentionally and unintentionally. I have never known anyone who is so easy to crack up, and when she cracks up she is liable to roll off a sofa and fold up in a quaking ball of laughter.”

A fateful friendship with Gene and Janet Lees introduced Yue to an influential circle, including two of the music world’s most distinguished lyricists, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, seen here.

Yue Deng needed to find her own way—on her own time and terms. Which brings us to now. Not bad for a kid who starts from zero every day.


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