When William Pu was 7, his father came home one day and put a violin in his son’s hands. “He said, ‘Here you are,’” Pu recalled. “This is what you are going to play.”
Pu’s father was a scientist, not a musician. But he was a practical man.
The Pu family lived in Shanghai. The Chinese Cultural Revolution was going on all around them. As the elder son of educated parents, William appeared destined to be sent to work on a farm.
But his father knew that if the boy mastered the violin, he might be able to be classified as someone who possessed a special skill. That would mean he could avoid being forced to do manual labor.
So, at age 7, mastering the violin became Pu’s challenge. As a competitive child, he set himself to the task.
Why the violin? Even now, Pu’s not sure. “I never asked,” he said one recent morning as he and his wife, violist Amy Chang, sat in a Dunwoody coffee shop.
Pu supposes his father chose the violin because he knew a man who played the instrument and could teach young William. The choice paid off.
At age 11, William was one of eight chosen from some 10,000 who competed for slots to study music in the Shanghai conservatory. He was chosen after a week of competitions, he recalled. “Every day, my parents would go to the conservatory and check the board and say, ‘OK, yes, you can go back tomorrow.’
“I was pretty excited to get in,” he said, “because I got a free meal every day. That was a big deal. It was equivalent to one-third of my father’s salary.”
IN 1987, he came to the U.S. with $47 in his pocket, a violin and two suitcases of clothes, he said. He studied in Houston and later landed a job in the Houston Symphony Orchestra. He met Chang there. She had grown up in Taiwan and also had come to the U.S. to study. She was playing with the Houston Ballet.
A decade ago, Pu took a job playing violin in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Now 46, Pu is the ASO’s associate concertmaster. And he and his wife, who teaches at Agnes Scott College and plays with the Atlanta Ballet, have organized the Dunwoody Chamber Ensemble. The ensemble allows Pu to explore the pleasures of self-expresssion and of playing with a small group.
Pu describes his musical journey as “upside down.” Most classical performers start with a love of the music and then struggle to master difficult instruments. He was given the instrument first, he said, and drove himself to be best in competitions for slots in schools, for chairs in orchestras. “I’m a competitive guy. The competitiveness is what keeps motivating me,” Pu said.
Chamber music offers an alternative. “I feel chamber music gives me much more freedom,” he said. The man who learned the violin as a boy to escape the Cultural Revolution now sees a different sort of revolution in himself.
“I was striving to be perfect all my life,” he said. “Now I’m more into the joy, to enjoy the music-making, rather than to be the perfect craftsman.”