Ditching a tenured seat in the Houston Symphony to pursue a dream as a recording artist terrified Christine Wu.
But on the cusp of 30, she knew it was the only way to go. “All or nothing,” Wu said in a recent interview. “And it scares the crap out of me, probably almost every day.”
Switching from classical to rock wasn’t that difficult for Wu, a self-proclaimed “black sheep in the orchestra,” who grew up listening to rock instead of reserving all her time for the diligent study of traditional composers.
“I don’t try to sound classical at all,” she says. “I try to sound less nerdy, really.”
The now-31-year-old Santa Monica resident grew up playing the old masters, a violinist from the age of three who remembers the excitement of her first youth orchestra.
But even as she excelled, landing her first professional gig at the age of 17 in the orchestra pit at the Pittsburgh Opera, something was pulling her towards a less traditional path.
“I was listening to Jane’s Addiction. I was listening to Led Zeppelin,” she said. “As soon as I was old enough to really develop a strong interest in Metallica and hearing strings on Led Zeppelin, that really took over my focus.”
Wu spent time playing with the St. Louis Symphony before getting her biggest job, as a full-time tenured violinist at the Houston Symphony.
“Tenure is basically the job for life, unless the orchestra disappeared, so it was really something to give up,” Wu said. Three months paid vacation couldn’t keep her from uprooting last April and moving on to California for a career in the record business.
“It was really scary, but I’m sure now that it was the right thing.”
Of course some people thought she was “completely nuts,” for walking away from the coveted seat. “Especially players who were still striving for that job,” she says.
“My parents were supportive but skeptical, because they, maybe as all parents do, want you to have a stable situation. Maybe they’re afraid I’m going to start calling them for money again.”
Since her arrival Wu has enjoyed her first breaks playing studio sessions and, most recently, signing on for a world tour with Leonard Cohen, who’s been on sabbatical from the live show circuit for some 15 years.
“That was an amazing experience,” she said just after the audition for the songwriting legend. “It seems like everyone’s done a cover of his. He was really nice and had a certain intensity. By the end of each song I was just amazed.”
So far, Wu has wracked up gigs on American Idol, America’s Got Talent, and playing back-up for the Foo Fighters on Grammy night. That last one was courtesy of showcasing furious bowing skill in a YouTube video contest.
“The Grammys was a blast!” Wu said. “We got to rehearse with the Foo Fighters and hang out with them. It was really cool.”
The talented violinist has also done some string plucking for both Beyonce and Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child fame and for Nickelodeon’s The Naked Brothers Band.
“It’s a different language,” Wu said, of switching from the somber orchestral pieces to rock â€˜n roll rhythms. Part of that is being thrust into the role of accompaniment for a lead vocalist. “If there’s already a rock band there, you should enhance that and not get in the way,” she said.
For now she’s flying solo, with no back-up plan.
“I’m sure that I imagined that I could practice and audition again for an orchestra,” she says. “You just don’t know where your next call comes from. It’s tough. Ultimately I want to be producing and writing and arranging the strings and be the force behind it,” she says.
Though there will always be the allure of the stage lights. “I really do love that.”