By Laurence Vittes | From the January/February 2020 issue of Strings Magazine
When 22-year-old Hao Zhou won the 18th Concours musical international de Montréal in June and then, as one of the Viano String Quartet’s violinists alongside Lucy Wang, shared first prize in the Banff International String Quartet Competition three months later, the relaxed young virtuoso realized that he would have to process the implications of accelerating on two major career tracks at once, while still finishing his work at Colburn.
The two awards, after all, carry some dazzling, if weighty, prizes. Zhou the soloist won $30,000 from the city of Montreal, and a career-development grant of $50,000, in addition to an artist residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts, and a recital at the New Generation Festival in Florence. The chamber-music win at Banff will see him touring Europe with the Viano quartet in January of 2020, with performances in Berlin, Luxembourg, Brussels, and Hamburg. They will return in September on a tour that includes a visit to Haydn’s Esterhazy.
While many top-flight musicians engage in both solo and chamber work, usually one defines a career, while the other takes a supporting role. With Zhou’s career at such an early stage, in what way will these awards—and responsibilities—affect what comes next?
I caught up with Zhou after he and the Viano had begun a residency at the Beijing International Chamber Music Festival, playing Beethoven and Bartók quartets, and Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet with the principal clarinet of the Beijing Symphony Orchestra at the Central Conservatory. “So far,” he said, “it’s been great exploring the city and having Chinese food!”
Will the European tour be the quartet’s first?
This will be my first time being on a major organized tour, and I was both thrilled and shocked to see how condensed everything will be. All the performance dates are within one or two days of each other, so our schedule will be packed with moving from place to place between concerts. I’m hoping to squeeze out a bit of time to go explore each city a little before we have to pack up and shuttle over to the next one!
The quartet is heading for a second time to Europe in September.
What I’m particularly excited about is returning to Europe in September of 2020 and performing at the Schumann House and Esterhazy Castle. As you can probably guess, we’ll have some Schumann and Haydn prepared for those concerts. To visit these places would have been a treat already, but being able to perform there is something that will surely be special. It seems like such a unique experience to play a composer’s music in a space that his life was so attached to, and I’m sure it’ll be inspiring on a whole new level for us.
Montréal and Banff must also be special places for you now.
I remember falling in love with Montréal’s vibrancy the first time when the quartet and I participated in the McGill International String Quartet Academy. Having the chance to be a part of the 2019 Concours and return so often has been very fulfilling for me. Banff is also an unbelievably beautiful place and I’m eager to return to the Banff Center twice for artist residencies! Once alone for Montreal and once with the quartet for Banff.
How will you allocate time and resources?
Even though I’ve had my share of experiences traveling for performance before, I’m sure the next few years will require a different caliber of commitment and energy. We spent a lot of time with our friends and mentors in the Calidore String Quartet discussing life on the road when they were at the Colburn School for the “Beethoven 250” week. They mentioned how physically demanding it can be dealing with time differences and trying to acclimate to new environments with different food, air, and living conditions, but how rewarding it is to give your all on each concert one night after another to all kinds of different audiences. Honestly, I can’t wait to just be onstage for the variety of different performances coming up.
During Colburn’s recent “Beethoven 250” festival you got to play with the quartet and with faculty and colleagues.
The entire school was in overdrive as we delivered events and performances one after another. I personally had the chance to perform twice. Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 18, No. 6, with the Viano was our first performance at the school as the quartet-in-residence! Then I performed Beethoven’s Op. 59, No. 1, with Clive Greensmith and two colleagues from the conservatory. I had a blast during both performances and it was a valuable experience to have to put together a big piece like the 59/1 in such a short amount of time. I realized how much I was taking for granted the automatic communication I have with my Viano colleagues after four years together as a serious ensemble! On the other hand, it was quite refreshing and inspiring to prepare a performance with musicians I don’t get the opportunity to work with on a daily basis. It gives us the chance to create something new and places the demand on us to communicate our intentions clearly and effectively.
What’s the difference between playing solo and with the quartet?
The experiences of performing solo and chamber music are different, but I have been discovering more and more how similar they are. The conceptions that soloists can play as they please with their ears closed and that chamber musicians can hide technical flaws behind their colleagues onstage are untenable past a certain point. Although it may be true that the very top priorities will be different, both require keen listening and solid playing, and I have found that working on both solo and chamber-music repertoire in the past few years has dramatically helped my improvement in each.
There are all kinds of benefits.
Absolutely. The kind of artistic commitment that soloists embody is a key aspect of presenting ideas in chamber-music rehearsal and performance, while the spirit of teamwork and communication that string quartets revere is vital for successfully establishing a viable rapport with the conductor and orchestra.
What’s the difference between traveling solo and with the quartet?
I have had wildly different experiences traveling to cities on my own. Scheduling and logistics suddenly become worked out much sooner than they would be otherwise! With the quartet, the trip bears a small resemblance to a family vacation. Decisions can be four times harder to nail down—but certain tasks can be accomplished four times as quickly!
How has Colburn contributed to your success?
The faculty—primarily my teacher Martin Beaver, as well as Scott St. John, Paul Coletti, Fabio Bidini, Clive Greensmith, and Arnold Steinhardt—are not only great teachers and coaches, but also providers of important guidance in terms of repertoire planning, possible community-engagement projects, and staying mentally dialed-in amid the whirlwind of performances and engagements. Laura Liepins, who manages the Colburn Artists roster, has been invaluable for finding new opportunities and preparing me for professional life. And I’m incredibly grateful for the endless dedication of my family as well as the musical and personal support I receive from my colleagues in the Viano String Quartet.
How would you like your accomplishments and dreams to come together?
My dream is to have a full international touring schedule in a few years and to perform in all the beautiful concert halls around the world. I used to think that flying and traveling would be such a miserable experience, but now the prospect of exploring a new city and performing there has become quite the thrill for me. I was at the Kronberg Academy Festival a month ago and had a wonderful time playing in the Streitkirche and exploring the medieval architecture in the town. I also love trying the food everywhere I go—I’ve had a huge appetite ever since middle school!