In 2019, Zlatomir Fung–who has been playing his cello around Portland this summer–won the International Tchaikovsky Competition, among the most prestigious honors awarded to young classical musicians. He was 20 years old at the time, the youngest ever cellist to do so, and the first American in four decades. His career, of course, took off, but only after the pandemic calmed down. He was a sophomore at Juilliard when he received the gold medal in cello performance, and said the pandemic interruption gave him time to finish his degree.
Some of his many post-medal engagements included ones in Portland with Chamber Music Northwest. He kicked off its fall season in October 2021 and played several times in back-to-back concerts in early July at this summer’s five-week-long festival.
Despite his enormous achievements, this talented musician, rarely short on a smile, is so personable and generous that he’s already mentoring cellists. On his “day off” in July in Portland, he took four high school cellists out to lunch. The other days and nights, he played in Chamber Music Northwest concerts, gave a solo recital, and conducted a master class.
The younger-than-Fung cellists, none yet in college and all from CMNW’s first-ever Young Artists Institute, spent four hours with him. “I am sure that was an afternoon they will never forget,” said Gloria Chien, CMNW co-artistic director with husband Soovin Kim.
It certainly was a good day, several “next generation” cellists said.
Joshua Kovac, 15, from Johnson City, Tenn., has played the cello for 10 years and was one of the fortunate musicians that July day. He also attended Fung’s master class. “Zlatomir told me to play a particular lyrical phrase without vibrato. It was more difficult for me to create a direction in the phrasing by just using the bow. It’s more challenging to do it that way, but it was extremely beneficial because I was able to determine how much vibrato was necessary for particular locations of the phrase.”
Joshua found Fung’s talent and skill remarkable.
“Zlatomir is an unbelievable cellist. His intonation is flawless, he has a resonant, projecting sound, and a gorgeous vibrato. However, what truly sets him apart from most other young musicians is how he puts thought into every phrase in the piece. Nothing gets left out because it’s the entire work that has to be interesting, not just certain parts that would be easier to phrase.”
Kira Wang from Portland was another lucky teen-ager that day. She has played cello for 13 years and is headed to Yale University in the fall. At the master class, she said, “We got a peek at the minute details and nuances he thinks about in a piece. At one point, he broke down his approach to legato, which sounds effortless when he plays, but actually takes time and diligence to master.”
And how did she know he is so accomplished?
“Mr. Fung brings each piece he plays to life through his refined musical interpretations and perfected technique,” Wang said. “He captivates the audience through unique tone colors that capture profound emotions and experiences.”
CMNW’s Soovin Kim, a violinist when he’s not running the festival or teaching, agrees. He called Fung’s July 5 solo recital, where he played pieces by Bach, Tania Leon, Dall’Abaco and several encores, “one of the best string recitals he’d ever heard,” according to Chien.
“Every time we step on stage with him,” Chien added, “Zlatomir elevates the whole group and makes everyone around him play better.”
Chien played five movements of Reinhold Gliere’s Selections from 12 Album Leaves with Fung on July 9 at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, and earlier on July 7 at the Reser in Beaverton. On July 9, Fung played Anton Arensky’s String Quartet No. 2, Op.35 with Soovin Kim, Nicolas Cords and Peter Stumpf (read James Bash’s review here). And Fung performed Judith Weir’s 15-minute five-part Unlocked July 6 at The Armory (read Charles Rose’s review here).
Not one to make a big deal about himself, Fung wrote in an email interview earlier in July to me that his “playing style is introverted, focused, and emotional. Many of my musical heroes are more extroverted, often projecting their musical ideas out to the audience. Still, I feel that my strength lies in drawing audiences into my musical world.”
The cello might have been bigger than Fung
Fung began playing the cello at three and a half years old after his parents noticed he was interested in his older sister’s violin. Though Fung now is based in New York, his parents live in Boston, where his mother, Maria Fung of Bulgarian heritage, is a math professor at Worcester State University and his Chinese-American father, Francis Fung, works as a Google software engineer. The Fungs lived in Corvallis when Zlatomir was in elementary school and when he began taking lessons with Ann Grabe–principal cellist of the Oregon Mozart Players and the OSU/Corvallis Symphony, and a cellist with the Eugene Symphony. Grabe taught by the Suzuki method, which focuses on instilling a love of music and developing a child’s character.
“In my first year of playing, I did not learn much besides how to sit still and take a bow,“ said Fung. “At that age, it isn’t easy to maintain one’s focus for long periods! Ann Grabe was highly methodical and did not permit me to advance too quickly through the first few pieces I learned.”
Grabe, he said, “taught me the most valuable lesson: how to have high standards for myself. Another teacher who was an enormous influence was Emmanuel Feldman, a Boston-based cellist with whom I studied for three years. He taught me to be curious about the cello’s history and love recordings of other cellists. Finally, Richard Aaron (my teacher throughout my high school and college years) helped me develop a robust technical approach to the cello, giving me the confidence and flexibility to approach music without any sense of limitation.”
Now that Fung has grown up, he continues to listen primarily to classical music and said he has “always admired three musicians above the rest in the cello world: Mstislav Rostropovich, Yo-Yo Ma, and Steven Isserlis. Each of them is a profound artist who has influenced my way of thinking about music. “
He credits Yo-Yo Ma as the reason he wanted to be a cellist: “my amazement for him only grows with each passing day.”
Fung knew he wanted to become a concert cellist when he was 12 years old and attended a summer program at Indiana University in Bloomington. “I was surrounded by other young people who were serious about devoting their lives to music. Their passion and devotion inspired me.”
He has a hard time choosing among his favorite tunes to listen to and to play. “There are so many that are great. It is hard to choose! I love Bizet’s Carmen (listening), Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker (listening), Mahler’s First Symphony (listening), Dvořák’s Cello Concerto (playing!), and of course J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites (playing and listening).”
A blitz chess player who also loves to read, Fung’s imaginary dinner party of five musicians and five non–musicians would include “Dmitri Shostakovich, Yo-Yo Ma, Martha Argerich, Ludwig van Beethoven, and J.S Bach. For non-musicians, perhaps Elenora Duse (actress), William Shakespeare, Magnus Carlsen (current world chess champion!), Vladimir Nabokov and Ada Lovelace.”
What has made him such an exceptional player? Ever modest, he said, “I’m flattered, but I feel like a beginner every day. I try to question everything I do; perhaps that’s why I’ve had some modest success.”