At first glance, Chinese pianist Zhang Zuo (MM ’12), the winner of this year’s William Petschek Piano Debut Recital, may seem like your average 20-something classical musician: energetic, ambitious, and clearly hungry for the opportunity to put on a show at Lincoln Center. But it doesn’t take long to realize that beneath the young exterior lies a truly gifted and accomplished performer. At 24, she has already made a name for herself as a pianist who displays “an impressive blend of authority, power and grace,” according to The Washington Post. With first prizes at the Gina Bachauer International Artists Piano Competition (2000) and the Ukraine Krainev International Piano Competition for Young Pianists (2002), it is no surprise that Zuo has landed this much sought-after recital at Alice Tully Hall on May 9.
In one of several recent discussions with The Journal, Zuo referred to herself as the “black sheep” of her family—she’s the only musician. Her romance with the piano began when she was 5 years old and her family moved from China to Germany for her father’s job (he’s a successful businessman). During those early years, Zuo found herself isolated in her new, foreign environment. “I didn’t speak the language and didn’t have any friends, [so] my parents bought a piano for me,” she wrote, hoping it would provide their daughter with a productive way to spend her free time. And, to put things mildly, the plan worked out: she earned the top prize at the International Steinway Piano Competition soon after her studies had commenced.
Zuo’s star continued to rise with her return to China in 1995, the year she turned 7, where she enrolled at the Shenzhen Arts School and began studying with Dan Zhao Yi, who would also soon take under his wing several other rising Chinese piano stars. As Zuo explains, “Everything after that just happened naturally.” She soon was winning more national and international competitions and gave her first concerto performance at the age of 8, when she performed the Haydn Concerto in D Major with the Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra. She gave her first solo recital, at the Shenzhen Grand Theater, when she was 9.
Her training continued in the United States, where she attended the Eastman School of Music for her bachelor’s degree, and, in 2012, her master’s at Juilliard, where she studied with piano department chair Yoheved Kaplinsky and Robert McDonald. Zuo said that while she fell in love with music at Eastman, it was her time at Juilliard that ignited her passion for performance. Noting their complementary approaches to teaching, Zuo explains that Kaplinsky helped her broaden her playing technique, while McDonald pushed her to become a more thoughtful performer. “They completely changed me,” Zuo said.
That change didn’t go unnoticed. Zuo’s vivid and tangible connection to the music sets this pianist apart from her peers: “Her playing is very organic, very emotionally motivated,” Kaplinsky told The Journal. “She makes an impact on the audience because they respond to her on a very instinctive basis.”
And speaking of instinct, Zuo’s response when asked to identify the inspiration behind her Petschek program was an enthusiastic “Passion! Romance!” A self-described “romantic,” as a pianist and otherwise, Zuo will present a program that seems to nicely complement and reinforce those traits. The evening will feature Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, Gyorgy Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata, Franz Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody, Robert Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, and the New York premier of Zhou Long’s Mongolian Folk-Tune Variations.
“I try to be as colorful as I can,” Zuo said. “I chose what I think is most passionate and romantic” about the composers. Of her decision to include a piece by Zhou Long, a prominent contemporary Chinese-American composer, she said, “as a Chinese pianist, I always like to find connections with Chinese music [and] composers. This recital is a great opportunity to share some of my cultural sound.” The composer’s approach to harmony and structure, she adds, “is somewhat Westernized,” lending the work a mix of Eastern and Western elements that is beautiful, simple, and “suits the rest of the program well.”
Looking ahead, Zuo will give a recital tour in Asia this summer and also has upcoming debut concerts with the Cincinnati Symphony, plus a notable collaboration in the fall with soloists from the Berlin Philharmonic. Modest despite her accomplishments, she admits that it’s “very exciting.”
And, if you’re seeking insight into her process of preparing for major performances like the Petschek recital, Zuo’s response brings to mind the old “how do you get to Carnegie Hall” joke. “Practice, practice, and practice. I would like to know if there is any other way.”