Just as summer menus naturally steer clear of steaming soups and
hearty stews, the music world is sparing of orchestral concerts with
solo performers. The dearth of orchestral offerings seems to make
those that are scheduled all the more appealing. Lincoln Center’s
"Mostly Mozart" events is an example.
On a smaller scale, Princeton Festival is following the Lincoln Center
lead in two ways. It is offering a rare summer orchestral evening on
Saturday, July 8, in the Lawrenceville School’s Kirby Arts Center, and
the program is all Mozart. Pianist Natalie Zhu solos in Mozart’s Piano
Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K 466, with the Princeton Festival
Orchestra under the direction of Daniel Beckwith. The program also
includes the overture to Cosi fan Tutte; the Serenade for Wind
Instrument, K. 375; and Symphony No. 41 (The "Jupiter.") The Princeton
Festival Orchestra consists of about 40 instrumentalists based
primarily in Philadelphia. Richard Tang Yuk, Princeton Festival’s
artistic director, assembled the group, which also includes some New
York-based musicians. Many of the players performed in the orchestra
for Opera Festival of New Jersey, which dissolved after its 2003
Returning for a second season, the Princeton Festival has increased
the number of its productions from two to five. Still to be presented
in 2006, in addition to the orchestral concert, is the last
performance of Puccini’s "Madama Butterfly," Sunday, July 9. Helene
Kulsrud, chairman of the board says, "The Princeton Festival
originally chose as its two main goals professionalism and excellent
quality. This year we added the word `celebration’ to our vision.
We’re celebrating the performing arts. It’s a joyous atmosphere."
Soloist Natalie Zhu, in a telephone interview from her parents’ Los
Angeles home, mirrors Kulsrud’s sense of joy when she talks about the
D-minor concerto. "A lot of people think minor is sad and major is
happy. But those are inadequate words." As to the fact that 2006 is
the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s death, Zhu notes, "All great
composers are celebrated every time their music is played."
Putting the concerto in perspective, Zhu says, "Mozart wrote only two
piano concertos in minor. [The one she plays in Lawrenceville, and the
C-minor Concerto No. 24, K. 491]. The Requiem [K. 626] and the opera
`Don Giovanni’ are also in D-minor. They are all serious works. The
[D-minor] concerto has a dark nature. The counterpoint and harmonic
writing are deeper than simple melodic lines. The young Beethoven
admired this concerto and kept it in his repertoire. He wrote a set of
cadenzas for it. Brahms also wrote a set of cadenzas. I prefer the
Beethoven cadenzas. They are closer to Mozart musically, and very
Zhu’s professional career places her before the public as an
orchestral soloist, a chamber music participant, and a solo
recitalist. "Playing concertos and solo recitals is similar," she
says. "Chamber music is different because of the communication with
others. But concertos and solo performances are more challenging than
chamber music because you have to memorize."
Zhu enjoys the challenge of memorization. "For me memorization is a
necessity because when I look at the music it is almost a distraction.
When I play by heart there is more feeling coming out, and I don’t
have to worry about looking at the notes. I feel completely in the
music when I play by memory. The composer and I are in one world.
Memorizing enables you to see the whole picture.
"Memorizing is not that complicated. I look at the whole structure
first, and memorize section by section. If there’s no apparent
structure, you have to find one, and group passages intellectually and
logically. Physical memory is also important; you have to train your
muscles to memorize fast passages."
Zhu was born in Beijing in 1975 to a pianist father and a gymnast
mother. Her father had studied at the Shanghai conservatory but never
had a performing career. Her mother worked as an instructor with folk
It was the Cultural Revolution, and both of Zhu’s parents were
government employees. The family lived in a large apartment complex
that housed members of performing groups sponsored by the government.
Their task was to perform before official visitors. She finds
translating the name of the governmental organization from Chinese
into English difficult, and settles for an approximation: "Central
Arts Performing Consortium." "We were all under one roof," she says.
"Everyone was a musician or a dancer or in the theater. There was a
lot of western music as well as folk music. A lot of my Mom’s
colleagues wanted me to be a gymnast but my Mom opposed the idea
because being a gymnast means a short career and it is brutal."
Zhu started piano studies with her father in Beijing, and he remained
her teacher for 10 years. "He’s a wonderful, wonderful teacher. He is
especially good with developing the technique of kids. Like most
pianists in China at the time, he was trained in the Russian school.
It’s a solid, clear, finger technique.
"China was a poor country at the time," Zhu continues. "Parents wanted
their kids to be artists. If you had an artistic job, you had better
economic opportunities. And you had a chance of coming to the west."
Zhu made her first public appearance at age nine in Beijing. When she
was 11 the family came to Los Angeles. In the United States Zhu’s
mother gave up gymnastics to dedicate herself to Natalie.
The transition to the United States was easy, Zhu says. "I was young,
and I went to public school. The big problem was learning English. I
lived in a neighborhood where Chinese was spoken, and we spoke Chinese
in the family." Today, in addition to English, Zhu speaks Mandarin
well. She also writes Chinese.
Zhu completed grades seven through nine in Los Angeles, and then
enrolled in Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, where she was a student
of Gary Graffman. While still a Curtis student, she established a
performing duo with violinist Hilary Hahn and managed to juggle her
academic work and other Curtis commitments, in addition to her public
appearances. The warm teamwork of Hahn and Zhu was obvious in a Peddie
School concert in Hightstown some years ago.
"Hilary Hahn and I have known each other for a long time," Zhu says,
"more than a decade. We first played together in 1994 and formed an
official duo in 1997." The duo has now disbanded. "It’s sad," Zhu
says. "But I have my own commitments professionally and personally. I
thought it was time to do something for myself. I got married two
years ago. And I wanted to do more solo playing and more chamber music
– trios and quartets."
After graduating from Curtis, Zhu earned a master of music degree from
the Yale School of Music, where she studied with Claude Frank.
Immediately after, in 2001, she became a Curtis staff pianist. "It was
a transition from school to real life. I took the job because you
learned sight-reading. Usually, there was a week’s notice before you
had to play. That pushes you to learn. I trained myself to learn
Zhu considers her two years on the Curtis staff well-spent. "I played
for students and teachers. It was like having lessons from the
teachers. It helped my solo and chamber music playing. It helped me
Recording a solo CD is Zhu’s next major project. Beethoven, Ginastera,
Schumann, and Chopin are represented on the album. Recording sessions
begin in March, 2007. The recording will probably be released in the
fall. "Before March," Zhu says, as if suddenly remembering, "I have to
play two Mozart concertos." They are the A major concerto, K. 414, and
the two-piano concerto [K.365].
Zhu’s fellow performer in the two-piano work is Chiao-Han Liao, who
lives in Taiwan. "We met my second year at Curtis, and we were both at
Yale. We had different teachers but we have the same chemistry. It is
like with Hilary. It is hard to find friends like that."
"We’re best friends," Zhu says about Liao. "She was one of my
bridesmaids." The wedding took place in Los Angeles. Zhu’s husband is
Che-hung Chen, a violist in the Philadelphia Orchestra, where the
couple now lives.
Philadelphia is also the scene of a major turning point in Zhu’s
career. The change of direction took place after Zhu entered Curtis.
"I was always considered a child prodigy in China," she says. "After I
entered Curtis I realized that there are so many other people who are
talented. I learned not only about developing my own abilities but
about communicating with people."
The confirmation of what she learned at Curtis came after a summer at
Vermont’s Marlboro Chamber Music Festival, where music envelopes the
life of participants. "I went to Marlboro in 1997," Zhu says, "and
realized that this is what I want to do for sure for the rest of my
An Evening of Mozart, Saturday, July 8, 8 p.m., Princeton Festival,
Kirby Arts Center, Route 206, Lawrenceville. Daniel Beckwith presents
a program featuring the overture to "Cosi fan tutte" and Mozart’s
Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor. Natalie Zhu on piano. $40.