About the series: On Main Hall Green With … is an opportunity to connect with faculty on things in and out of the classroom. We’re featuring a different Lawrence faculty member each time — same questions, different answers.
Whether teaching in the Lawrence Conservatory of Music or performing on the most iconic stages in the world, violinist Wen-Lei Gu brings a passionate commitment to excellence.
The associate professor of music has been part of the Lawrence Conservatory faculty since 2006. She has balanced her teaching and studio work with a virtuoso career as a violinist that has included performances at the Berlin Philharmonie, Beijing Concert Hall, and the Smetana Hall in Prague, among others. She has performed at the Bach Festival at Carnegie Hall commemorating the 250th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s death and at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for the Millennium Concert Series.
Gu continues to perform frequently throughout North America, Europe, and Asia as a soloist, recitalist, and chamber musician. That has included local performances with the Fox Valley Symphony and the Lawrence Symphony Orchestra.
A native of China, she made her international debut at age 13 and would eventually attend The Juilliard School for her bachelor of music degree, Mannes College of Music for her master’s degree, and Indiana University Jacobs School of Music for her doctor of music in violin performance.
We caught up with Gu to talk about her passions in and out of the classroom.
In the classroom
Inside info: What’s one thing you want every student coming into your classes to know about you?
I thought it might be more helpful for my current students to answer this question from their perspective of me as a teacher, therefore I asked for their suggestions. Here are a couple of their answers:
“In response to the first question about what students expect in your teaching, I think I would say there is never a moment where passion isn’t present; I typically leave lessons with a new and more passionate understanding of whatever repertoire I am playing. I also recall very early last year that you described me and other students as ‘artists,’ which has really resonated with me; I think you successfully are creating a space in the Conservatory where we can consider ourselves as more than just ‘students,’ but as real developing artists, which resonates with me and the musicians around me.” – Ben Campbell
“Some things that I think students should know about you and your teaching is that you are very accepting and encouraging at every step of the process. Your teaching makes complicated and often redundant (but necessary!) topics such as technique and music theory understandable in a way that is relatable and personal. You really get to know us as individuals and find ways to compare certain movements or emotions from the music to the other things we have interests in, such as cooking. You once told me to think of the sautillé bowing as the little motions needed to beat eggs quickly with a whisk.” – Kathryn Williams
Getting energized: What work have you done or will you be doing at Lawrence that gets you the most excited?
I have been teaching at Lawrence since 2006. Even after 16 years of teaching here, I’m still super excited and pumped when I start each day of teaching. Sometimes when I’m coming to school feeling tired or sleepy from taking care of kids at home, as soon as I start teaching, my fatigue miraculously goes away. Teaching is a two-way stream: I give advice and suggestions culminating from years of learning and experience. In turn, I also get stimulated, inspired, and energized by my students. One emotion I often feel is an overwhelming sense of gratitude—gratitude for the talented, motivated, and intelligent students we have and the incredibly wonderful and supportive colleagues whom I admire very much.
Going places: Is there an example of somewhere your career has taken you (either physical space or something more intellectual, emotional, or spiritual) that took you by surprise?
My performances have taken me to some of the world’s most prestigious concert halls such as the Berlin Philharmonie, the Smetana Hall in Prague, Teatro Verdi in Florence, Beijing Concert Hall, and Carnegie Hall in New York. I think above all, what I cherish the most is the connection I make with colleagues and audience while performing—to feel the palpable energy in the hall with the audience, to have a dialogue with my colleagues when playing chamber music, to feel weightless, being supported and lifted up by an orchestra, such as at the end of the second movement of the Bartok Second Violin Concerto. The best part about performing is the magical moment when I forget about my small self and give in to something greater.
Out of the classroom
This or that: If you weren’t teaching for a living, what would you be doing?
I think if I weren’t teaching music for a living, I would still be doing things related to music—performing, writing, composing, etc.
Right at home: Whether for work, relaxation, or reflection, what’s your favorite spot on campus?
My favorite spots on campus are 1) my studio, because I spend so much time there and have so many precious and fond memories there. 2) Lawrence Memorial Chapel, because it’s so beautiful and has wonderful acoustics. Besides performing in the Chapel multiple times as a guest soloist with the Lawrence Symphony Orchestra in works of Bartok, Berg, Saint-Saens, Sarasate, Tchaikovsky, I also recorded the entire Brahms Sonatas for Violin and Piano with my wonderful colleague Cathy Kautsky there.
One book, one recording, one film: Name one of each that speaks to your soul? Or you would recommend to a friend? Or both?
I love reading anything written by Nora Ephron. I love the directness, honesty, and wit in her writing. I have read all of her books. My favorite is probably I Remember Nothing, which is a collection of short essays. She has also written scripts for such movies as Julie and Julia, You’ve Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle, and Heartburn.
For movies, I like anything that features Audrey Hepburn. I even named my daughter after her. One of my favorite movies featuring Hepburn is Love in the Afternoon in which she “plays” the cello! Some of my other favorites (not featuring Hepburn) are Ghost, Cinema Paradiso, and To Live.
I listen to music all the time and it’s really difficult to narrow down to one recording. But here is something I listen to quite often: Vladimir Horowitz’s recording of the Schubert Sonata in B flat and Schumann's Kinderszenen.