At age 16 violinist Betty Zhou has behind her a substantial collection of competition successes and a substantial list of public performances. Now, as winner of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s Young Artists Auditions, she confronts her biggest musical project when she solos in Max Bruch’s “Scottish Symphony” on Friday, November 24, with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra at Richardson Auditorium, and repeats at three New Jersey locations.
The Young Artists Auditions winner is selected from a field of competitors whose ranks are winnowed to four finalists after three rounds of auditions. The four finalists perform a single concerto movement in public with the orchestra. The first prize winner receives a cash prize of $10,000 and an opportunity to play an entire concerto with the orchestra.
Some observers consider the “Scottish Symphony” more difficult than any of Bruch’s three violin concertos. In addition to the Bruch work, the program includes Edvard Grieg’s Suite No. 1 from Peer Gynt and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4. NJSO music director Neeme Jarvi conducts. A post-concert chat guided by cellist Fran Rowell takes place immediately after the Richardson performance.
Competing as a Young Artists Auditions finalist, Zhou played the long first movement of the Tchaikovsky D major concerto with the NJSO last spring. “I was amazed at how well we worked together,” the poised high school student says in a telephone interview from her home in Edison. “The movement is so long, I thought it might take a while to put it together. But the orchestra followed me really well. It was easier than I thought. At the second rehearsal we just had to do bits and pieces.”
Zhou worked on the Tchaikovsky movement for about a year, longer than she usually spends preparing a piece, and she tried to perform as much as possible. She is using a similar strategy for the Bruch concerto, which she performs in its entirety with the NJSO. To learn a concerto, she says, “first, you have to know the piece well. You have to look at the score, and listen. You have to think about how the solo part fits together with the orchestra while you’re practicing alone. For instance, you have to think about the harmonies, and what they’re doing below you.” At her regular lessons with Naoko Tanaka at New York’s Juilliard School, a pianist helps Zhou polish the performance, simulating the orchestral accompaniment.
Zhou singles out the first movement of the Bruch as her favorite. “I like the mood,” she says. “It’s sad and nostalgic. Then it moves on to a happier theme. The most difficult movement technically is the last movement. It’s fast and show-offy — virtuosic. The middle movements are lyrical. Really, all the movements are difficult.”
I confirm her view about the difficulty of all music by telling an anecdote about violin virtuosos Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein. Strolling down a street, chatting, one of them asks, “What do you think is the most difficult thing to play on a violin?” His companion replies, “An open string (the first bowed sound used by total beginners, where the bow is drawn across the string without altering the pitch to which the string is tuned), depending on how well you want to play it.”
In preparation for performing with the NJSO and Jarvi, Zhou has been attending the orchestra’s concerts, observing from the audience. Zhou and I share our delight in the energy and enthusiasm that Jarvi brings to the orchestra. Now in his second year with the orchestra, Jarvi turns each performance into a festive event. At the official opening of the NJSO season before a sold-out New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, the audience responded even to Jarvi’s rousing leadership of the national anthem by applauding afterwards.
Born in New York City in 1990, Zhou and her family moved to Edison when she was one month old. Despite an aunt who graduated from Juilliard, she says that her family is not musical. Her father is a computer software engineer; her mother sold her hairdressing salon in order to take care of daughter Betty. Zhou is a seasoned concertgoer, who regularly attends the Lincoln Center concerts of the New York Philharmonic.
The attentive Mrs. Zhou is present on a telephone extension during the interview, and contributes to our conversation. Devotedly, Mrs. Zhou drives her daughter to school in the morning, and the younger Zhou returns by school bus. “That saves 20 minutes,” the mother points out. She sometimes drives her daughter to 8:30 a.m. lessons Saturday mornings in New York. Mrs. Zhou is happy to take care of all the transportation but her teenaged daughter prefers to take the train.
Zhou began her violin studies at the Woodbridge Academy of Music at age four. Four years later, at age eight, performing with piano accompaniment, she gave her first public recital. The program included the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, a Mozart violin concerto, Massenet’s “Meditation,” and Tchaikovsky’s “Scherzo.”
Since 1999 Zhou has attended the pre-college division of New York’s Juilliard School of Music. Her teachers there have been the late legendary violin pedagogue, Dorothy Delay, and Naoko Tanaka, herself a Delay student. For the past three summers Zhou has joined Tanaka in Aspen, Colorado, home of the heady Aspen Music Festival, where Tanaka is a member of the Aspen Music School.
Zhou’s second instrument is piano. She has won national awards in piano competitions, as well as in violin competitions. In Carnegie Hall’s Weill Concert Hall she has twice played both instruments in the same program. The pattern, as Zhou describes one concert, consisted of playing a solo piano piece, a solo violin piece, and the piano accompaniment for a violinist friend.
She continues to have a 30-minute piano lesson weekly at Juilliard, despite focusing on violin. “Not too much piano” is how Zhou describes her current commitment to her second instrument. At the moment she is working on the stormy Rachmaninoff Prelude in G minor and the tuneful Mozart Fantasia in D minor. Not to worry about Zhou’s being trapped in a dreary world of pieces in the minor mode. The Fantasia slips cheerfully into D major.
A junior at J.P. Stevens High School, Zhou follows a full academic program with Advanced Placement courses in calculus and statistics. The statistics course is aimed at seniors, but some juniors are admitted by lottery. “I got really lucky,” she says.
In the year when most college-bound high school students start seriously exploring their educational future, Zhou is not sure what she wants to do. “I’ll wait and see what I’m better at in next year. I’m thinking of double majoring in college. Maybe I’ll go to two places at once.” I tell her about someone I know who simultaneously attended Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute and Swarthmore College. Zhou likes the idea. “My parents are interested in academics for me. Me too. But I don’t want to drop music.”
In the meantime, Zhou has a bulging schedule. “During the school year, to tell the truth, I have no time for much other than music,” Zhou says. “I have no time for TV anymore. And after I stopped I didn’t really miss it.” Another casualty of her busy schedule is dance lessons. After five years of ballet, tap, and jazz lessons she could no longer find room for dance.
At five-foot-three-and-a-half, she is a diminutive size 1 or 2. At 111 pounds, Zhou doesn’t have to worry about her weight but she says she is gaining. “All I do is stay home and practice.”
Because of her commitments Zhou has to use her free time economically. She takes a yearly ski trip with her father. “When I have time off,” she adds, “I like to do computers. Who doesn’t?” Her cyber-destinations are chatrooms, FaceBook, and instant messaging. In addition she likes to hang out with her friends, and to read.
Recently, she read Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind.” “I finished it in three days,” she says. With her father, she visited an uncle in Toronto. “They spoke Shanghainese,” the resourceful Zhou explains. “I didn’t understand what they were saying, so I read.”
Zhou grew up speaking Mandarin. “Betty can speak Mandarin well,” says her mother. She attended Saturday Chinese school for five years starting at age four. When she entered Juilliard she gave up her Saturday lessons in reading and writing Chinese.
Mother and daughter took time together to look for a dress for the impending performances. They ended up unable to resist three long dresses of various styles, one orange, one blue, and one green, all with sequins. “They’re shiny so they can catch the stage lights,” Zhou says. “Miss Delay says that looks are important.”
Zhou likes bright colors. “I had a bright yellow dress for the concerto competition,” she says. “When I came out people must have said ‘What is she thinking?’”
Any disciplined, well-trained violin student who would dare to wear bright yellow for the big-moment concerto competition can’t possibly play a wimpy violin. Betty Zhou and Neeme Jarvi seem to be on the same exuberant track.
Fire and Serenity, Friday, November 24, 8 p.m., New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Richardson Auditorium. Neeme Jarvi conducts works of Grieg, Bruch, and Beethoven. Concerto by the 2006 Young Artist Auditions winner, Betty Zhou, on violin. $37 to $64. 800-ALLEGRO.