China’s Mi Zhou Wins Prix Credit Suisse Jeunes Solistes
09.08.2011Ten years after Sol Gabetta, the winner of the Prix Credit Suisse Jeunes Solistes is again a cellist: China’s Mi Zhou. „The cello is my best friend,“ she says. We profile this prodigious musical talent, who will be performing in the „Debut“ series at the Lucerne Festival on August 18, 2011.
Gian Marco Castelberg
„To be honest, I’m a pretty boring person,“ explains Mi Zhou at the very start of our chat. „I’ve never had a great deal of time for anything except my music. So there’s nothing much to tell.“ But it soon becomes clear that „boring“ is not the right word at all. In fact, Mi Zhou could best be described as reserved, polite and unassuming. Almost as if her parents had known the kind of person she would be from the moment she was born, her name even translates literally as „carefully,“ „conscientiously,“ as she reveals in her faultless English; an English that belies her age, particularly in her emails, which are full of youth jargon such as „C u soon.“
Precision in China, Expressiveness in Europe
Born on August 15, 1984, in Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province, the daughter of violinist and orchestra manager Kesi Zhou, Mi Zhou was an only child who spent most of her formative years with her paternal grandmother and then with the parents of her mother, Xia Liu. Mi is the first generation of her family to be born under China’s one-child policy; at some point she mentions an uncle who also plays the cello like her mother and her grandfather Yan Liu. But uncles and aunts will soon thing of the past in China – a stark illustration of the gulf between our two cultures. And where music is concerned? „Classical music is highly appreciated in China,“ Mi Zhou explains. „The Chinese love composers such as Mozart and Beethoven. The training is extremely disciplined, with precision and perfection as its aims. So it may well be that China produces many of the best musicians in the world in the next few years. For me personally, however, training in Europe is enormously enriching. Here, there is a strong emphasis on the love of playing, emotional expression and individual interpretation.“
Switzerland Is My Professional Home
On June 18, 2011, Mi Zhou successfully completed her training under Thomas Demenga at the School of Music of the City of Basel Music Academy with a diploma concert, though she is quick to put this into perspective: „I’ve still got a lot to learn, and I haven’t yet reached the peak of my performance.“ Which is why Mi Zhou wants to stay in Switzerland. Ideally, she would like a permanent position with an orchestra, combined with the opportunity to play chamber music and pursue her solo career. For Mi Zhou, this wouldn’t be a solution born of necessity, but another carefully considered stage in her development. She speaks with great respect of orchestral musicians, who are facing increasingly higher demands and who in many cases are eminently capable of a solo career.
A Role Model
Mi Zhou is also acutely aware that she has yet to acquire the magical aura of the enthralling, spirited Argentinian Sol Gabetta or the sensitive, philosophical German Nicolas Altstaedt, who won the Credit Suisse Young Artist Award in 2004 and 2010 respectively. Yet Sol Gabetta, in particular, who – like Mi Zhou herself – studied music in Basel and won the Prix Credit Suisse Jeunes Solistes exactly ten years ago, is a prime example of just what a young cellist can achieve these days.
A Latecomer to the Cello at the Age of Seven
Did she know from the very outset that she wanted to become a cellist like her mother? „Actually, my grandfather, Yan Liu, was the one who influenced me the most,“ recalls Mi Zhou, who lived with her father’s mother most of the time from the age of four to 13, so that her parents could devote their time to their demanding musical careers. „When I was four, my father decided that I should learn to play the piano, to train my ear,“ the sensitive artist tells us. „My father was very strict about these things. As a child, it wasn’t always easy for me, but now I’m extremely grateful to him. I didn’t start playing the cello until I was seven.“
Training in Singapore
As a 14-year-old Mi Zhou went to the Wuhan Conservatory of Music, where her grandfather, Yan Liu, was Director of the Conservatory and taught Mi Zhou himself. She remained closeted away there for the next six years. She then went on to study in Singapore for a further six years, from 2003 to 2009, at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music under the tutelage of Nella Hunkins and Liwei-Qin.
Alternatives? Working with Animals, Perhaps
Looking back, her teenage years were not plain sailing for Mi Zhou. She had hardly any friends when she was growing up, and only saw her parents for the occasional weekend. The cello became her best friend, and the huge amount of time spent practicing gave her such a sense of satisfaction that she never felt lonely. What other direction might she have taken? In the musical arena, none, though she likes listening to pop music and musicals. „I love animals. If I hadn’t become a cellist, I’d probably have ended up working in a zoo or a pet shop,“ reflects Mi Zhou, who is now starting to enjoy the new freedoms that Switzerland affords her, and blossoming in the process.
Avoiding Pressure in Her Professional Life
Mi Zhou has what it takes to join the ranks of soloists in her age group, Sol Gabetta and Nicolas Altstaedt, on an equal footing with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, and one day filling the shoes of the unforgettable Pablo Casals (1876-1973), Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007), Jacqueline du Pré (1945-1987), or Boris Pergamenschikow (1948-2004). But Mi Zhou doesn’t want to put herself under pressure. Instead, she plans to give herself time to develop, working her way up the ladder, carefully and conscientiously. Just as her name suggests …
Mi Zhou at the Lucerne Festival
Mi Zhou will be playing in the „Debut“ series at the Lucerne Festival on Thursday, August 18. The concert will be held at the Lukaskirche, and she will be accompanied by Paola de Piante Vicin on piano. The program will include Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), „Suite Italienne“ for cello and piano; Sulkhan Tsintsadze (1925-1991), „Chonguri“ for cello solo; Gaspar Cassadó (1897-1966), „Danse du Diable vert“ for cello and piano; Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, Op. posth., arrangement for cello and piano; Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), „Après un Rêve“ Op. 7 no. 1 for cello and piano; Thomas Demenga (*1954), „EFEU“ for cello solo; Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), Sonata for cello and piano in C Major, Op. 119.
Promoting Musical Talent
• ThePrix Credit Suisse Jeunes Solistesis awarded by the Lucerne Festival, the Conference of Swiss Institutions for Higher Education in Music and the Credit Suisse Foundation every two years, with the aim of promoting highly talented young musicians in Switzerland. The musicians are nominated by the Conference of Swiss Institutions for Higher Education in Music. Prizewinners to date are: 2011, Mi Zhou, cello; 2009, Andriy Dragan, piano; 2007, Aniela Frey, flute; 2005, Tecchler Trio; 2003, Pawel Mazurkiewicz, piano; 2001, Sol Gabetta, cello.• TheCredit Suisse Young Artist Awardwas established in 2000 and is awarded at the Lucerne Festival every two years, with prize money of CHF 75,000. The previous winners are: 2010, Nicolas Altstaedt, cello; 2008, Antoine Tamestit, viola; 2006, Martin Helmchen, piano; 2004, Sol Gabetta, cello; 2002, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin; 2000, Quirine Viersen, cello.