Playing It Forward

April 11, 2012 12:00 am0 comments
Liza Sobel

Andrew Zhou ’14 is Cornell’s first ever Doctorate of Musical Arts pianist specializing in contemporary music studying with music professor Xak Bjerken. Zhou recently received four prizes at the Concours International de Piano d’Orléans, one of the most competitive new music competitions.  The Sun chatted with Zhou about the competition and his time at Cornell.
The Sun: How did you start playing the piano?
Andrew Zhou: I started learning the piano when I was six. It was the result of my sister getting a new piano teacher when we moved to a new town. Of course, my parents had to take me along. Her piano teacher asked if my parents wanted to give me a lesson as well. So that’s when it started.
It was fun for me because when I first looked at a piece of music, it made sense immediately when I was learning notes and rhythm. Even when I was a teenager and I didn’t want to practice anymore because I had so many other interests and I didn’t want to sit at the piano and concentrate on something for that long, I kind of pushed through. I never felt stuck. When I was a kid, I also improvised a lot in order to avoid practicing things for real. I think every kid learning piano does that, but it’s pretty important: you learn the structure of music and it doesn’t get stuck on a page. Improvising and learning kind of feed into each other; you learn the structure of music, which you use to improvise. When you’re just fooling around on the piano, you get a sense of how the instrument works.
Sun: When did you decide that you wanted to be a professional pianist?
A.Z: Well I knew I wanted to major in music when I went to undergrad at Stanford, but I also knew that I wanted to study something else because that place offers so much. Like at Cornell, you have the option of doing a lot of things at Stanford and diversifying. I studied international relations and music, and I did a minor in modern languages (French and German). I was really happy that I did all of that.
I realized as I was finishing up my college career, that I really couldn’t imagine not spending a lot of time at the piano every day. I couldn’t imagine just taking it up as a hobby. Even when I was at Stanford I knew that I could take it to the next level but I would actually need to dedicate myself and take that leap to do it. I decided in college to apply to conservatories for a master’s degree. I ended up going to New England Conservatory (N.E.C) in Boston. I managed to find my niche and to surround myself with people who were very supportive. And I loved my teacher, Bruce Brubaker, who let me be my own musician but challenged me a lot. It was a great experience. It made me believe that I could do this for the rest of my life.
Sun: How did you get interested in playing contemporary music?
A.Z: [Growing up in British Columbia] did a lot for my training. When you’re young and you’re learning any instrument, Canada has a nationalized system of musical training. The repertoire you get to play is actually very open. You get exposed to a lot of contemporary music very early. When you go through the system, there are repertoire lists you have to play and you always have to play contemporary pieces, and there are a lot of pieces. Even if you don’t play the weirdest piece, you’ll still get exposed to some new music. I remember there was this piece when I was seven. It was just these clusters jumping up and down with these giant sharp signs. I understood when I was a kid that this was a possible sound world — that this existed. Some people never know that. They only get it later on when their have minds already been set and they think their aesthetic principles have become more solidified.
I fell in love with Debussy when I was really young, when I was around ten. I would spend my own paper route money to buy Debussy scores. That guy opened up sound worlds, and I couldn’t play half the stuff obviously. Debussy was one and [Olivier] Messiaen was another. Messiaen is a gateway drug because you can win a lot of people over with Messiaen. He’s sort of like Debussy but pushed over the edge. There was some stuff even when I was a kid that I noticed was so remarkable about Messiaen.
This was right when the Internet was coming around and you could hear a lot of stuff. That was key because if I hadn’t been able to have access to music that quickly, I might not have been exposed to as much interesting music, being twelve and having the attention span of a fly.
When people approach contemporary art or music, they think “I don’t get it,” because there’s no melody and there’s nothing that they can hold onto. You want to think about it as more of an experience than something you should intellectualize over. Granted, a lot of contemporary music is intellectually composed, but still you should let it waft over you. Don’t be so tense about it and maybe you will get something out of it. You don’t have to get it all at once. Contemporary music gives you a little, and if you’re attracted to it, it will more than pay you back.
Sun: What led you to come to Cornell as the first ever Doctorate of Musical Arts (D.M.A) pianist?  (Don’t just say the money.)
A.Z: That is really attractive, but really, I hadn’t originally intended to apply for a D.M.A. program. In fact, this was the only D.M.A. program I applied to. I got a prospectus from a faculty member at N.E.C. about this program, and basically everyone agreed that I had to apply for this program. It was what I wanted to be doing. What attracted me to this program was the welding of the academic side that I was very comfortable with coming from Stanford with actual playing, which I got to do in my master’s program. What’s expected of me is that I work with the composers here and do a lot of contemporary music, although I’m by no means restricted to contemporary music.
Sun: Would you please tell me about the contest you participated in?
A.Z: It’s the Concours International de Piano d’Orléans held in Orléans, France, a city that is an hour south of Paris by train. It’s a contest that’s held every two years. It was created in 1994 by this French pedagogue who was adjudicating a competition in Munich in 1989 and thought that you get easily jaded by the sixth, seventh time you hear that same Beethoven sonata. She thought about a competition where you set a time limit where all the repertoire is composed from 1900 onward. The inaugural competition happened in 1994. Generally the winner receives the grand prize (the Blanche Selva Prize) and the chance to record the album of his or her choice.  He or she also gets to do a tour of the Centre region of France.
There are four rounds in total and they eliminate about half of the participants in each round.  In the first round, you have to play an etude by an earlier 20th century composer from a list of six composers, such as Bartok, Scriabin and Rachmaninoff.  Another round is a list of etudes by more contemporary composers, Unsuk Chin, Pascal Dusapin, [György] Ligeti.  You also have to play a Debussy piece and then, most interestingly, you have to premiere a brand-new work.For the premiere, you have to bring a work that’s less than eight minutes in length that competes for the Chevillion-Bonnaud prize. The piece “Two Handed Narrative” was written for me by Chris Stark (D.M.A.’12), a Cornell graduate composer. He has always been interested in electronics, but has never written a piece for solo piano. The piece required me to have a laptop next to me that has sound patches that are engaged by a pedal that is put to the left of the piano. So instead of having three pedals on the piano, I have four pedals. You engage in it in specific parts of the score, in fact you engage in it in nearly the whole score.There’s the grand prize, which another American pianist Christopher Guzman won, and then there are quite a few subsidiary prizes. I received the prize for having played the best premiere in the first round, and Chris [Stark] also gets a separate prize for that. That’s one of things I’m the most proud of from coming out of the competition was that it was a team effort. Chris gets rewarded; in fact he gets handsomely rewarded for his efforts.
You play one round, maybe you get a little bit of downtime, but you have to assume that you’re getting into the next round because you don’t have time to guess if you are moving on, and because it’s all different repertoire. I ended up playing three hours of music. I was over the moon simply from the fact that I ended up getting to play everything I had prepared. But I did four recitals my second week, including learning an incredibly difficult piece for piano and string quartet commissioned specifically for the competition. It was so exhausting; I never worked that hard before.
One of the great things about this competition was the jury.  There were very renowned members of the musical community there. The people there were fantastic, and I received support from the staff, the audience, the page turner and even the people who were photocopying my music for the jury.  I also loved meeting the other participants.  Another great thing about the competition was that you had the opportunity to stay with a host family.  I always elect to stay with a host family if possible when I go abroad for festivals and in this case I thought that it would be great because I can speak French, appreciate all the support I get and gorge myself on raw milk’s cheese.  And they were super-supportive.  They made all of my meals, they drove me to places and they were there at all of my rounds. My French parents spoiled me ridiculously.
The public there was also just astounding. To have a packed house listening to five hours of contemporary music every day; you don’t get that here in this country. I must say that is something that you get more in Europe than you do here.
The day after the competition was over, Chris Guzman and I played a “prestige concert” in Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris.  It is pretty spectacular getting to play in Paris. I was pretty bowled over. It was broadcasted on a French radio station there.
One of the nice things was that I played Chris [Stark’s] piece and Charles Wuorinen, which doesn’t really get played in Europe. American music doesn’t really make it across the pond. I saw this as a great opportunity for some sort of cross-cultural exchange.
Sun: What are you working on now that you’ve finished the competition?
A.Z: Right now I’m working on Schubert because I haven’t played anything really tonal in half a year. I’m playing something for Mayfest, the weeklong music festival that’s here in May. When the end of April and May rolls around, I’m going to be even busier because I’m doing Tanglewood [music festival] this summer. I’m playing the Benjamin Britten here in October with the Cornell Symphony Orchestra. It looks like in November of this year, as a direct outgrowth of doing the competition, I might have a few concerts as a result of that. Because Chris Stark also won this award, I potentially have the chance to play a concert that prominently features his piece.  We will see.