A major event in the New Jersey Symphony’s (NJS) 100th anniversary season will take place July 20, 2022, with “East/West: A Symphonic Celebration.” Along with Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring the concert will feature music by several Chinese composers, creating modern East-meets-West sonic experiences.
Produced by China Arts and Entertainment Group (CAEG), Ltd., the concert is part of CAEG’s Image China cultural exchange initiative. It fits well with what Maestra Xian Zhang has brought to the orchestra during her six-year tenure as Music Director – championing juxtapositions of Western and Eastern musical traditions, genre cross-pollination, and new music in general.
One of the evening’s soloists is award-winning violinist Nancy Zhou, who will take center stage in Jiping Zhao’s Violin Concerto. Nancy Zhou was kind enough to speak with us about the upcoming concert and about her blossoming career.
A milestone for you was winning the 2018 Shanghai Isaac Stern Violin Competition. What did you perform, and how did this honor help advance your career?
I remember the repertoire to be versatile and challenging. The final, third round of the competition required a compelling commissioned concerto by Chinese composer Qigang Chen, alongside which I elected to perform the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.
The competition facilitated the growth of not only my career but also my musicianship, predicated on a set of critical skills that were tested through the repertoire. [Also], through the competition’s robust network and affiliations with various high-quality orchestras, I was able to form and continually foster connections with conductors, mentors, and orchestral administrators.
As an American-born musician whose parents immigrated from China, what does it mean to you to engage with the music of Chinese composers who work in the Western orchestral tradition?
To engage with the music of Chinese composers is to pay tribute and identify with the narrative my parents bestowed upon [me]. Since early childhood, I was immersed in not only traditional Chinese music – my uncle and grandfather played the erhu – but also Mandopop, originating from 1930s Shanghai – where my father grew up, by the way!
The marrying of East with West, as clichéd as this phrase sounds, symbolizes the unity in heterogeneity and diversity. Because of multiculturalism and [with] the confidence to communicate through these multicultural roots, one is obliged to continually develop and reinforce empathy.
Zhao Jiping is known for his film scores. How would you describe his Violin Concerto? How does it link Eastern and Western musical traditions?
Zhao Jiping’s first violin concerto is lushly cinematic and exhibits, most literally, compassion. Several characteristics perhaps lend credence to this statement. First, it is set in E-flat major, the key of egalitarianism, heroism, peace (for example, I think of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony). Second, the melodies and rhythmic motifs generously [express] comfort, arresting elegance, and noble pursuits.
For me, the underlying theme of the concerto is the pursuit of the particular (sounds derived from traditional Chinese instruments) in the universal (multiculturalism). The audience will hear these unique soundscapes structured in Western compositional forms – the work features an exposition, thematic development, a cadenza, and an enthralling conclusion that will be sure to leave a lasting impression on the listener.
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, you began operating an online studio, teaching private students and public group classes on “fundamental training and cultivating mindful awareness.” How does mindful awareness intersect with musicianship? And are you continuing this studio as the pandemic eases?
Mindful awareness implies a level of consciousness that is actively (if not hyper-actively) in use. I believe there is the triangulation of mind, body, and instrument that is crucial for communication through music. Music is a language with a phonic system, and therefore involves utterance, through-line, flow, and rhetoric. These concepts depend on the conscious design of breathing.
Because music is transmitted through the violin from the body, we as instrumentalists must be aware of how both the violin and our body work and how to allow the former to conform to the latter – not the other way around, I believe.
Violin technique is organized into categories that align with defining a language. Our [task] is to discover how to execute these two “phonemes” through the violin, and that in turn necessitates both the understanding of the violin and bow as a scientific phenomenon and the understanding of the body as a physiological phenomenon.
This being said, the act of teaching is an act of learning. At this point, it is unthinkable for me to stop, despite performances picking up!
Can you tell us a little about your tour with Anne-Sophie Mutter, whose foundation has supported your career?
Touring with Anne-Sophie Mutter is not only a pure joy but also a truly educational experience. One is able to interact with her both on and offstage and witness her grit, integrity, and offhand ease in such occasions. The last few tours took place in Europe and South America, and both times, my experience is a mixed bag of inspired empowerment, analysis of creativity, and sheer fun.
In a recent interview you said: “I think as a musician all of us have the responsibility to stand up for the values that we strongly believe in. I think the more famous you get, the larger the responsibility…to voice out and speak for others who are discriminated [against].” How do you see yourself addressing this responsibility, now or in the future?
First and foremost, we are members of a civil society, with the duty to extend compassion towards the downtrodden or the marginalized. Art and justice intertwine; as a musician, we can engage in community outreach and educational endeavors in inner city public schools or online platforms that make music/instrumental lessons financially feasible, and participate in social activism through the vessel of music. I also envision opening a school.
Other than July 20 in New York, where can audiences look forward to seeing you perform?
In the fall, I am looking forward to visiting Ecuador, Armenia, Germany, and Italy for performances – the program will be eclectic, featuring both staples in the classical canon and a work by the contemporary composer Alexey Shor.
See Nancy Zhou’s performance schedule at her website.
“East/West: A Symphonic Celebration” takes place on July 20, 2022 at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. In addition to Jiping Zhao’s Violin Concerto featuring Nancy Zhou, the program includes Qigang Chen’s Er Huang piano concerto featuring soloist Chelsea Guo; Sida Guo and Qu Zhang’s Image China Suite; Shiguang Wang’s The Song of Yangtze River; and Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Tickets are available at Lincoln Center’s website.