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 season.
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 emotional.”
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 dance companies.
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 quickly.”
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 memorize.”
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 life.”
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. 800-595-4849.