Interview with Nancy Zhou, Winner of the 2018 Shanghai Competition

September 11, 2018, 11:11 AM · For U.S. violinist Nancy Zhou, participating in the Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition was more than a set of challenging performances; it was also an experience full of deep personal connection.

Earlier this month Zhou was awarded First Prize in the competition, winning its record-high $100,000 cash prize. At age 25, Nancy is a veteran of the competition circuit, having won first prize earlier in the year at the inaugural Harbin International Violin Competition; second prize in the 2017 Isang Yun Competition; Paganini Prize at the 2014 Indianapolis Violin Competition; and having been a laureate in a host of other competitions over the last 10 years, including the 2015 Jean Sibelius Competition, the 2012 Queen Elisabeth Competition and many more.

But for her, Shanghai had a special attraction. "It's where my father studied," Zhou said, speaking to me in the lobby of her hotel in Shanghai, the day after the competition ended.

Nancy Zhou
Violinist Nancy Zhou. Photo by Violinist.com.

Zhou, an only child, studied with her father, San Antonio Symphony violinist Long Zhou, during her entire childhood, from the time he started her on the violin at age 4 until she went to college at the New England Conservatory. There she studied with Miriam Fried until her simultaneous studies at Harvard University grew too demanding, and she dropped out of NEC to complete her English degree at Harvard.

"I wanted to secure a sure footing on academics, because I thought this was important for developing as a person, and for developing an artistic personality," Nancy said.

Both of Nancy's parents are natives of the Guizhou province in southwestern China, and as a teenager her father had studied at the Middle School Division of the Shanghai Conservatory, before moving to Houston to study with Fredell Lack. Nancy had been to Shanghai only a few times before, but "because my father was such a formative figure in my development as a violinist and a musician, I feel comfortable here."

"Shanghai is a relatively cosmopolitan city in China. It's a port, a junction where West meets East," Nancy said. The competition was named after Isaac Stern, whose 1979 visit to China helped give classical musicians in Shanghai the courage to restore Western music to their country after the Cultural Revolution had banned it for many years. David Stern, who is co-chair of the jury for the Shanghai competition that bears his father's name, has said that the competition is meant to be more like a festival.

"I just want to go off of that and to say that this is more like a celebration of people coming from outside of China into China, which was a country that was pretty secluded before, in terms of having exposure to Western music," Nancy said. "The repertoire for the competition was comprehensive, and there were a lot of great classical composers that we were able to share with the audience here. I didn't really see it as a competition, to be honest. It's more of a festival, as David Stern said, and it's more of a chance to educate and to share music with the students here in Shanghai."

One of the things that Finalists shared with the audience was a performance of a new concerto by a Chinese composer: Qigang Chen's "La Joie de la souffrance" ("The Joy of Suffering"), which was commissioned in part for the competition. For Nancy, that performance turned out to be a deeply personal experience.

"I loved (the piece) from the beginning, after I started learning it," Nancy said. She had played other Asian-influenced pieces before, such as the Butterfly Lovers Concerto, and "all the Asian, Chinese-influenced melodies evoke something really deep inside of me," she said. "The melodies are so singable, and there is a shred of pain in all of it." It made her think about the composer's personal adversity - the tragic loss of his son in an accident. It also made her think about her own struggles with a dysfunctional family life, she said. "There was much to relate to, just listening to the melodies. Considering the orchestration of it all, it's very fragmented, very episodic, and you have to be able to conjure a lot of emotions within the span of 25 minutes. I forced myself to get into the mode of an emotional chameleon," she said. "Actually I don't think there is any moment of happiness in the piece; I'm sure the composer might say something different. But the fact that he called it the 'Joy of Suffering' - the suffering is still the focus. But through suffering, can you see hope? For me, the joy was in the form of hope, and hope doesn't always have to be tinged with something positive."

When she was performing the piece onstage, Nancy had the unusual experience of feeling overwhelmed by its emotional content. "When I was playing, I started phasing out and thinking about things that happened during my own life," she said. "It was a particularly special moment for me." Since she was the first of six violinists to perform the piece, "I had the pressure of setting a standard, but in the end, it was about giving it all and not thinking about that. And I actually didn't know that the composer was in the audience, until the next day when people told me he was there. It's a piece that I really like, and I hope that he enjoyed it!"

Another highlight for Nancy was playing Mozart Concerto No. 5 -- and writing cadenzas for it.

"That was fun for me," Nancy said. "I didn't want to stray from the style of Mozart, and that was the challenging part. I had to find the balance of being creative and not being too far away from that style. I feel that cadenzas shouldn't distract from what was presented before in the movement. I used a lot of the themes from the movement, thinking more in terms of melodic lines rather than little segments of gestures, and that's how it started. I was happy with it."

The Shanghai competition is a very long competition, lasting nearly four weeks -- contestants arrived Aug. 7 and finals ran through Sept. 1.

"I liked the fact that it was long. I got to just shut myself in a hotel and practice," Nancy said. She spent some time exploring the city during her first few days, but "once this competition started, I went into what I call a 'solitary retreat.' I like solitude, to be honest," she said, laughing. "It might be strange, but I like spending time just learning how to practice, because I think this is an ongoing process. It's very hard to practice well, and I think this is something that I've come to improve on, over the course of the last year."

Preparing for the competition, Zhou did not practice only the competition pieces. "I tried to treat it as a little step on a very long road; so I wasn't viewing it as the ultimate destination," she said. "I practiced a lot of other pieces, other concerti like Brahms Concerto. It was more a challenge for myself, an excuse to push myself even more."

Before the competition began, David Stern told the young artists that he did not want them to "play it safe"; he wanted them to take risks in their performances.

"Before I came here, I already had an idea of what I wanted to do with the pieces; then when I came here I sort of wanted to re-learn it all," Nancy said. "Especially after hearing what David Stern told us to do: You have to take risks! And so that's why I locked myself in the hotel room. I was studying the score. I had my little journal, I like to keep ideas in it, new fingerings, new bowings. I like to try something fresh, especially in the competition. It's a lot of stress."

And how does one handle that kind of stress?

"You don't. You cope with it," she said. "You don't try to distract yourself, and you don't try to evade it; it's more about embracing the stress, being in it, and appreciating it."

Appreciating it?

"Letting it excite you even more, and treating it as an advantage, and knowing that everyone will be stressed," she said. "There's no way to avoid it; the more you try to avoid it, the more it just comes back and eats at you."

For the competition Nancy played the 1690 "Stephens" Stradivari, a long-pattern Strad on loan from Florian Leonhard Fine Violins.

"I met Florian through (Anne-Sophie) Mutter; she recommended me to him when I did the Tchaikovsky Competition back in 2011, and she said, 'You need a good instrument for competitions.'"

Nancy has enjoyed the support and guidance of Mutter since 2008, when Nancy auditioned and was accepted into the Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation.

"I've always admired her musicianship; she has a lot of integrity and her career has been very solid for many years -- she's a superstar," Nancy said. "But other than that, she also has a strong sense of giving back to society; this is what she talks about every time I meet with her and all of the other members of her foundation. She's helped me tremendously in terms of financial support and even loaning me an instrument. And just being able to be with her, off-stage and on-stage, is really thrilling."

"She is a bundle of energy -- I'm sure you can tell from her playing," she said. "She's very well-grounded and very strict in terms of her daily routine and getting things done. She doesn't procrastinate at all, this is my sense of her character. She's always for musical freedom; she's always for taking a risk -- as David Stern talked about during this competition!"

"I think that's very important, to find a voice and to have integrity, to be sincere in expressing your way and not to be scared of anything," Nancy said. "Just to be yourself, because no matter how you play, there will always be critiques and praise, and this is a good thing for arts; this is the beautiful thing about being an artist."

Nancy's next step will be to go to Belgium, where she recently started studying at the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel, with Augustin Dumay. And after so many years of doing multiple competitions while also earning a degree at Harvard, Nancy said she is ready to connect more with her musical colleagues. "I think the next step is just to meet more musicians and get involved in the community, in the classical music scene. At this point I'm 25, I think I'm ready to socialize!"

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September 11, 2018 at 10:36 PM · Well, an English degree from Harvard! How wonderful. I recall Yo-yo Ma also got a non-music liberal arts degree from Harvard. It just goes to show the good ones don’t need to a music degree!

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