How smalltown America raised a Tchaikovsky winner

How smalltown America raised a Tchaikovsky winner


norman lebrecht

July 04, 2019

From our diarist Anthea Kreston:

Clocking in at 54,462, it’s the largest westernmost city in the contiguous 48 States. Its Mayor is named Biff, and it was founded in 1845 by Joseph C. Avery, who arrived from the East in search of fortune and a new life. He built a log cabin, which he left soon afterward to try to find gold in California, which was totally unsuccessful, so he came back to his poorly constructed cabin with plans to open a store of some kind.

Nestled between two mountain ranges in a fertile valley filled with grass seed farms, Corvallis is home to Oregon State University and Hewlett Packard, and the yearly Da Vinci Days Festival, which features a kinetic sculpture race from sand mountain, through mud pit, to river. It’s also the home to several notable people, including Robert Cheeke (bodybuilder and vegan activist), Edmund Creffield (founder of the “Holy Rollers“ religious sect), John Krakauer (author, Into Thin Air), and Zlatomir Fung (winner of the Tchaikovsky International Competition for Cello, 2019).

How do people grow up in small towns and find a path towards international recognition as vegan activists, authors and cellists? Zlatomir was 9 when he moved away (that was 10 years ago) but his first 9 years, like everyone’s first 9 years, were very, very important. Let’s take a look.


I was able to track down his first teacher, who is actually a friend of mine, because I used to live in Corvallis and I hope my second child, who was born there, can somehow, some day make it onto that intriguing list of “Notable People from Corvallis”.

Her name is Ann Grabe. She is a suzuki teacher, and has had a pretty interesting path towards that little city which is currently rated as the #2,967th best place to live in America, according to

Anthea Question:
Hello, Ann! What was Zlatomir like when you met him? What was his first lesson like?

Zlati had good focus at 3 when he began lessons. He had a strong bond with his mother which helped make lessons so positive. He brought his foot chart and correct sized stool to all lessons.

At his first lesson he learned about bowing feet, cello feet, how to sit without the cello, sitting with the cello, and how to bow. (bough)

His mom was very attentive and took copious notes and totally trusted me, they did EVERY assignment, every week. I think his mom taught middle school math, though with her good brain I think she could have walked into any place an gotten a fabulous job. She said such supportive and warm comments at just the right moments…she had a very good sense of timing when to ask question and to give compliments.

I know the Suzuki method is based on the idea that everyone is equally able to play an instrument (I was a suzuki child from age 2.5-7). Do you find this to be authentically true, or can you tell when one student or another might have a unique gift?

The Suzuki method is based on the idea of teaching music with the same method that children learn to speak their mother tongue. Young children learn to speak their native language at such a high level at such a young age. All children learn to speak, thus all children can learn music. Dr. Suzuki does not say every child will become a concert cellist.

I personally strongly believe that talent is trained, Suzuki himself wanted his method to be called Talent Education.

If you do run into someone with an unusual talent, what do you do to foster that? Do you feel a particular responsibility to that family?

If I run into someone who is ready to go, i.e. ready to learn (because of their very strong environment at home being surrounded with music, music games, warmth, support, etc.) I do not give them more attention than my other students. Everybody gets special attention. I teach skills as if every student will play the Dvorak Concerto. If they move slower, it won’t be because of my prejudgements limiting them. I both expect a lot and demand a lot from all.

If everybody plays well, the whole class improves.

When Zlati started lessons, there was another little boy 4 years old who also was ready to go, his mom took fabulous notes and they also came every week with every assignment well practiced. There wasn’t any competition between them, (such a destructive thing) but it was so helpful to have two kids of similar age start together and see each other at our bi-monthly group classes.

What was Zlatomir like as a cellist and person?

Zlati was always a thoughtful, warm, and gentle soul. I think he learned this from both his mom and dad . I got to meet his grandfather at one of our recitals, that grandfather was so smart, respectful, and thoughtful; I loved watching his interaction with his grandson.

What are some of the challenges and benefits to living in a small town?

I studied cello at the Hochschule fur Musik for five years in Stuttgart, Germany and received both an education degree and an Artistic Diploma (performance degree), I also taught cello for 7 years at L’institut Suzuki in Lyon, France. Both those cities had large populations, and one day I made a career choice to breath clean air, have access to the mountains and ocean, own a small house with a big back yard with a dog, and to live in a vibrant small town over art galleries, theatre, opera, world famous orchestras, and dirty air filled with coal smoke and diesel fumes. I was sick of all that pollution.

Could you have anticipated that Zlatomir would rise to this level?


Here is what Zlatomir says in Symphony Magazine about Corvallis and Ann Grabe, his first teacher.

Cellist Zlatomir Fung salutes a series of teachers who have molded him. “Every teacher has been right for that moment in my life,” Fung says. “I’m really lucky and grateful.”

Cellist Zlatomir Fung, a Juilliard School undergraduate who already holds a fistful of prizes, says his good fortune with teachers began when he was 3 years old. “Somehow or other, the town where I was living—Corvallis, Ore.— happened to have this brilliant Suzuki cello teacher. And I just fell into her lap,” Fung says.
Ann Grabe, a cellist in the Eugene Symphony, devoted Fung’s first year almost entirely to such basics as the correct finger position and bow hold, and the thorough grounding paid off from there on, Fung says.

Here is Zlatomir on “Skip the Repeat”




  • Mock Mahler says:

    Corvallis the largest western city? Take that, Los Angeles!

    Try this: Corvallis is the farthest west of any city in the lower 48 states with a population above 50k. (Difficult to work that into a billboard slogan.)

    • poul2 says:

      It baffles me how often this blog zeros in on incorrect, misleading, or garbled details that are irrelevant to the story he’s actually writing about. At least they don’t always make it into the headline like this.

  • Paul Brownsey says:

    ” it’s the largest western city in the contiguous 48 States”


  • Paul says:

    “Clocking in at 54,462, it’s the largest western city in the contiguous 48 States.” Really? Larger than western cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland Oregon….?

  • ariana says:

    Perhaps a bit disingenuous as Fung and family moved to the Boston area in his later childhood…

    • Anon says:

      They moved to Boston specifically so that Zlatomir could study at NEC’s Prep Division. His musical formation was well established before he got there.

      • Anon2 says:

        Zlatomir’s parents had the wisdom and foresight to give him a strong pre-college education. Ann Grabe is a well-respected teacher and teacher trainer, known to the entire national and international Suzuki community. It happens that she does not live in a major city. Many high-level teachers do not. She provided not only a technical foundation, but recognized and cared for Zlatomir’s artistic potential. When the family moved to the Boston area and he enrolled at NEC Prep, Zlatomir participated fully in the certificate program: lessons, orchestras, chamber music, theory, department recitals. When he graduated he received the school’s highest award, the Lanier, named for the Prep’s founder. It’s encouraging that many young musicians today are acknowledging their pre-college teachers and experiences and are not “beginning” when they enter conservatory.

    • Anthea Kreston says:

      Hi Ariana –
      He is 19. He lived in Corvallis for the first 9 years. Then to Boston and then to New York, where he currently He was a big part of the musical community in Corvallis, and I suppose, he lived there longer than anywhere else.

    • Anthea Kreston says:

      He says on his Facebook profile that he is from Corvallis…..

  • esfir ross says:

    Corvallis’s a sister city of Birobijan, capital of Jewish state. Must have a Jewish community. Is anybody speak Yiddish in Corvallis- official language of Jewish autonomy region?

  • Harry Collier says:

    Yes, well, PR musicians. Meanwhile back in France, Germany, Korea, China, Japan, Scandinavia … usw.

    Just jelaous; I never had a PR contract.

    • Anon says:

      Stop whining and be more interesting and people might want to write about you.

      Any US winner of this competition is going to be interesting because it almost never happens. The countries you mention dominate the competitions and all the PR that goes with them.

      This is a friend of this guy’s childhood cello teacher writing. It’s an interesting backstory about a major competition winner. No one is getting paid.

  • Jerrold Pritchard says:

    Corvallis is, indeed, an exceptional place. Having a population of just 30,000, plus another 30,000 students, this university town has exceptional musical and arts activities.

    Oregon State University was originally a state land-grant institution devoted largely to agriculture, forestry, engineering, and the supporting sciences, and had little focus on the social sciences and humanities, let alone music. (The University of Oregon in Eugene was–and still is–seen as the “artsy” place.) But, as the OSU campus grew to be the largest university in the state, it naturally broadened to include undergraduate and graduate study in all the liberal arts. At present, it has excellent programs in music, art, theater, and creative writing, which have led to a very active campus and community arts environment.

    In his 1961 book “A New Life”, the well-known novelist Bernard Malamud wrote a semi-autobiographical story about his years in Corvallis on the OSU faculty from 1949-1961. Despite having already written two prize-winning novels, because he didn’t have a Ph.D. he was only an “instructor” and not allowed to teach literature courses and he was assigned to teach only basic grammar and composition classes to unwilling farmboys and prospective engineers who saw little use for learning to write well.

    This “roman a clef” novel is really quite vicious in satirizing small-town academic life, but Malamud was also describing the new Post-WWII ethos of a changing America and, like many “escapees” from the conventions and restraints of the East coast, seeking a break with his past life, and was looking for the openness, potential, and hope that the West coast represented.

    (I had many college professors at the then-new and rapidly growing CSU Sacramento who been at prestigious research universities and liberal arts colleges back East and who had been lured west by good salaries, the sunshine, the open lifestyle, the chance to develop a new public university, and the energy and potential of California in its heyday after WWII when it was truly the Golden State.)

    Anyway, I was just in Corvallis and this a very pleasant place on a nice summer day.

  • Donald Hansen says:

    As I mentioned a few days ago if you live in the New York City area you can hear Zlatomir perform at Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players concerts on December 16, January 20, February 3 and 17, and on April 20. Check their website at in a few weeks for more details.

  • Cyril says:

    “I think his mom taught middle school math, though with her good brain I think she could have walked into any place and gotten a fabulous job.”

    Ouch! I’m sure she didn’t mean this to sound like a diss of middle school teachers, but it kind of does. K-12 teachers need good brains even more than many other types of “fabulous” jobs! Some teachers even think their jobs are fabulous.

    • Anthea Kreston says:

      Hello Cyril,
      I am sure you are right – no harm intended. I myself taught public school orchestra – grade 3-12, as well as holding Professorships. Both have their rewards and challenges.Thank you for writing in.

  • Gerry Feinsteen says:

    I am not sure there’s much significance in where he spent his first nine years. Clearly from what you describe given a good teacher alongside his obviously conscientious parents he would have thrived anywhere. What would be of significance is if numerous major performers from different backgrounds came from the small town.
    The fact that they moved to Boston long before he had won any major competitions, and still Juilliard years to come, only further diminishes the significance on his place of birth. He had no choice where he was born, but there were choices in making the move to NEC and Juilliard. Despite your obvious knock on his mother teaching math at a middle school, they were clearly ideal parents for the magical triangle with student and teacher. Applause for the first teacher who made the most of the potential and would probably do well anywhere.
    There were several small cities in post-WWII Germany where American musicians were sent to help rebuild the musical education system in small local schools. Quite a few of those cities turned out many of the leading German string and players and pianists.

    Again, if Mr Fung had won the Tchaikovsky (or any of the others he won) directly from Corvallis this would be interesting.

    Thank you for continuing to make much ado…

  • esfir ross says:

    Small town in America didn’t raised a Tchaikovsky winner. His family dedication to his talent and sacrifice to move to sources of good training made him a competitive cellist. I’m from small town Bendery, USSR were in 1950th we had good violin teacher that raised Enescu competition winner and concertmeister of 1st violins at Los Angeles Phil. orchestra-Alexandre Treiger. There was others with successful career violinist-all had tiger mom.