In conversation with Pianist Zuo Zhang (Zee Zee)

Vantage Music | June 2022 | Shanghai, Hong Kong

Having just given a press interview the previous week, Shenzhen-born pianist Zuo Zhang (Zee Zee) spared some time to talk to us about her musical experience growing up, as well as her present projects and plans. As the student of renowned Chinese piano educator Professor Dan Zhao Yi (但昭義), Zee Zee has performed extensively worldwide, and is the winner of numerous international competitions. Recently, she released her second solo album, the details of which we will discover shortly. She is grateful for the opportunities she has to play concerts and for the chance to release an album. In what follows, Vantage will share what has been discovered about the pianist.

Earliest Musical Memory

At the age of five, Zee Zee moved to Germany with her father. As a young child without any friends in a new environment, she felt extremely lonely. Although her parents were not musicians, Zee Zee was encouraged to learn an instrument to help ease the feeling of loneliness. She remembered that the first piece she learnt was Mozart’s Fantasia No. 3 in D minor, which she had once heard on the radio. After that, classical music became the background to Zee Zee’s everyday life and she felt connected to it.

Recollection of the Best Advice from Her Various Renowned Music Teachers

With regard to her teachers, Zee Zee felt that she was lucky to have always met the right teacher at the right time. Speaking of Leon Fleisher and Alfred Brendel, Zee Zee regarded them as more than just teachers: as inspirations and great influences. “They’re like books,” she said, “they’re like a reference.” Rather than instructing her on what to do, Fleisher and Brendel provided guidance instead and let their students grasp the essence of what they wanted to transfer. Zee Zee looks back at Fleisher’s notes at different times with growing life experience and changing understanding.

Professor Dan Zhao Yi was the first teacher to initiate her into the piano, and he built up her fundamental understanding at the same time as training her technique. Professor Dan had been Zee Zee’s teacher from the age of seven up until 17 and he taught her how to listen to her own playing. For Zee Zee, the teacher who was the most effective and life-changing was Robert McDonald from the Juilliard School, who is particularly noted for collaborative playing. As a chamber musician, McDonald taught Zee Zee the importance of musicianship and balancing sound with her fellow players in the trio ensemble. “He is a sensitive and nervous person,” she recounted, “a fantastic musician.” Zee Zee recalled that her teacher had once commented, being rather critical, that “if the violinist is out of tune it is [your] fault because [you] didn’t balance this chord well enough”. This prompted her to pay more attention to the music by writing down and analysing the chords from a Beethoven or Brahms piece, for instance, in order to play more harmoniously with the other two members of the trio. “The piano is not the most important but it is the most responsible part of the trio,” Zee Zee commented.

The First and Second Solo Piano Albums

In October 2019, Zee Zee released her first solo album, titled Ravel · Liszt, presenting Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G and Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2, recorded with Deutsche Grammophon. She wanted to present something with which she was familiar and she wanted to tell listeners about herself.

Her second album, titled Journey (旅行歲月), which features Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, was released in May this year. The recording of this album took place at Xinghai Concert Hall in Guangzhou (廣州星海音樂廰), with the support of recording engineer Yang Zhen (楊震), Jeffrey, over four days.

Alongside Ravel, Liszt is one of Zee Zee’s favourite composers because of his pianistic style, technique, and inventive nature. The colour and texture that he brings with chromaticism, for instance, is mesmerising. Ravel’s Jeux d’eaux serves as a parallel to Liszt’s Les Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este on the theme of water. Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act 1 is listed in the album and it is clear what the connection is with Liszt as Wagner was greatly influenced by him, as well as being his son-in-law. However, when asked why Schoenberg’s Drei Klavierstücke Opus 11 was also included in the album, Zee Zee replied that the work features a motif development on the Tristan chord from Wagner’s opera, where the composer began to explore atonality. Another composer featured on the album is Poulenc with his Napoli Suite. This work shares the theme of an illustration of Venice with Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli.

Deciding Moment on Becoming an Artist

Zee Zee studied at the Shenzhen Arts School, where she received her early music education. The music path came naturally for her and opportunities followed as a matter of course. At 17, when Zee Zee applied for college, her father asked her in all seriousness whether the music life was what she really wanted. Zee Zee knew nothing else and embarked on her musical journey. Looking back, Zee Zee told us that from a young age she had taken everything for granted as she had a relatively smooth music experience. She had no fear of the stage; she had no self-awareness and believed that she won competitions through talent. In 2006, Zee Zee won the first China Shenzhen International Piano Concerto Competition. In 2013, she received the William Petschek Piano Debut Award. Zee Zee also won awards at the Gina Bachauer International Artists Piano Competition, the Krainev International Piano Competition, and the Queen Elisabeth Competition.

However, as she got older, she began to experience difficulties. “Everyone else is just as talented,” Zee Zee told us about moving to the US. It was then that she realised that just being a pianist was not enough; she needed to become a musician.

Opinions on Competitions

As the winner of numerous international competitions, Zee Zee offered her thoughts on the nature of competitions. “Competitions mean different things as time changes,” she said. “For me, during my time, they were healthy.” She further elaborated that it was fairly difficult to find the chance to engage in concerts, and competitions provided the platform to gain recognition and stage experience. It was a way to introduce herself to the audience.

On the cruel reality of competitions that go by the process of elimination, Zee Zee admitted that it was harsh but it is even more so in the music world outside of competitions. “If you get eliminated from a competition, you also get eliminated from being a concert pianist,” she said. The fact that a musician’s concert opportunities decrease if they do not do well is comparable to getting disqualified from the second or final round in a competition. “The real competition is with yourself,” Zee Zee said as a closing remark. “Now when I look back at competitions I feel like it’s nothing.”

Interactions with Fans

Zee Zee is amazed by how much her fans know about music and she is grateful for them. She told us that she has met them quite often, especially in China, and she talks to them after concerts, answering their questions. “They would give me feedback like they enjoyed the concert programme but maybe not so much the encore,” Zee Zee added.

Working with Composers

On working with living composers, Zee Zee has collaborated with Tan Dun (譚盾), who composed the film score to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (臥虎藏龍), Yi-Mou Zhang’s Hero (英雄) and Feng Xiaogang’s The Banquet (夜宴), which features the piano played by Zee Zee. Altogether this work is named the Wu Xia Trilogy (武俠三部曲). The finale, named Resurrection (復活), is a piano trio that presents the musical themes expressed by the three instruments using polyphony.

Zee Zee illustrated this further by comparing it to playing the works of classical composers: “If someone played Beethoven or Bach so beautifully, so convincingly, that if Bach were still alive he would approve of it.”

Definition of a Good Teacher…

Zee Zee told us that she does not teach, though she would like to. When asked about whether she would give masterclasses, she responded that she is not very good at giving advice. For her, a good teacher like Robert McDonald or Professor Dan Zhao Yi can help students solve their problems but Zee Zee feels that she can only solve her own. “I can only tell you what kind of problems I’ve experienced, and I hope my experience can help you,” she said. Performing and teaching are different professions and not everyone can pursue a career in both.

One of the Most Indispensable Aspects of Being a Musician – Daily Instrument Practice

Zee Zee spends around three to four hours practising the piano each day, two of which are dedicated to concert repertoire in preparation for her upcoming performances. The rest of the time is allocated to music that she loves to play but perhaps is not yet ready to present. “When I was young, I practised a lot,” she emphasised.

Musical Endeavours during the Pandemic

The arrival of Covid imposed many restrictions on performance. In April 2020, Zee Zee did a livestream concert with the Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra where she played Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1. “I did plenty of those with Chinese orchestras because in China they were still very strict with the Covid conditions and had cancelled concerts here and there,” she lamented. It is agreed that live performance can never be replaced or substituted, and it is hoped that live concerts can resume soon.

On the same note, making a record and playing live are incomparable experiences. A recording is a single performance captured in time and is repeatedly listened to, perhaps by a one-person audience. It is also a more intimate and personal listening experience. On the other hand, a live performance is ephemeral. That particular rendition is heard once only by a large audience and the whole atmosphere is different.

Perspective on Chamber Music

Zee Zee enjoys playing chamber music immensely as she feels that it brings her closer to music itself. “You lose the sense of music if you only hide inside the piano world,” she observed. “The piano solo repertoire is too narrow; there is so much more other music that has been composed.” Zee Zee reflected on the nature of the piano, which is a solo instrument and the only one that can be played alone in solo recitals. “The piano has always been the loneliest instrument,” she said. Through chamber music, she discovered the beauty of other solo instruments and how sounds combine, which fascinated her.

Zee Zee is part of the ZEN Trio, made up of violinist Esther Yoo, who is based in Korea and London, cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan from Armenia, and Zee Zee herself as the pianist of the ensemble, based in Berlin or Shanghai. All three members of the piano trio are soloists who perform all over the world and they only meet once or twice a year to play as a group. Moreover, they have been BBC New Generation Artists, Zee Zee in 2013–2015, and Esther and Narek in 2014–2016. “As we are solo artists, not regular chamber musicians, we come together maybe after two or three years with our own developments and new insights and inspire each other,” Zee Zee said. “And then we would make a tour again.”

Her Role Models

Different individuals have been inspirations for Zee Zee throughout her development as a pianist. Talking about a recent listening experience, she told us that she loved Clara Haskil’s rendition of Mozart’s works so much that she bought her complete EMI recordings. She has always been a fan of Alfred Brendel, from whom she receives guidance. Other influences include Vladimir Horowitz, Murray Perahia, and Radu Lupu. During her time at the Juilliard School, Zee Zee had the chance to attend concerts where the pianists whom she admired gave performances. She found that they sounded completely different from what she heard on their recordings. “Murray Perahia was wild!” she exclaimed. Zee Zee told us that she still had the ticket stub from Murray Perahia’s recital, held around 10 years ago. She said that it serves as a reminder as well as encouragement for when she feels disheartened or lacking strength.

Zee Zee is amazed by conductors like Neeme Järvi who know the music being performed inside-out, and she aspires to become that kind of musician. She is stunned by how knowledgeable Järvi is on music: he could catch up with her even when she got nervous or suddenly played spontaneously.

On Juggling a Busy Performing Schedule as a Mother of a Two-Year-Old

Zee Zee became a mother to a daughter named Yue Yue (悅悅), or Charlotte, two years ago. When asked how she juggles her time between performing and family, Zee Zee told us that Covid provided some rest from touring so she was able to spend more time with her young daughter. In 2021, Zee Zee had to be away for more than four months due to her performance schedule. She made her recital debut at the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland in August 2021. This year, she will be away for a longer period performing on tour, leaving her daughter in the hands of her parents.

At the beginning of her motherhood, Zee Zee was confident that she would be able to balance her performing career and taking care of her young one. She took little Charlotte with her to performances within China and breastfed backstage. “I was too naïve,” she said. “I thought that I could balance motherhood and the piano life.” She gave us a little anecdote: “I went on stage and played Brahms’s concerto and I came back to take the milk from backstage.” Zee Zee hopes to be able to bring her daughter on her travels again soon when the Covid restrictions are lifted.

Performing with an Orchestra/Ensemble Setting

She believes that there is always something to be learnt from each collaboration, whether the experience is good or bad. “Some orchestras may not be able to follow you very well, but you have to try to work with them the best you can,” Zee Zee shared. “It is very good training and I treasure these experiences.” The presentation of a good performance is the ultimate goal and she tries her best to make it work for the audience.

On Her Upcoming Plans and Projects

For her new solo programme in the coming year, Zee Zee will be performing Debussy’s complete études, as well as Chopin’s Trois nouvelles études, which are not so well known as the ones from Opuses 10 and 25. Apart from these, she will also be presenting solo works from Brahms, and from Clara and Robert Schumann. Federico Mompou’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin is also part of the repertoire that Zee Zee will bring to her audience.

Regarding engagements with her chamber ensemble, the ZEN Trio, they will be touring in Europe, giving performances in Australia, the US and France. Previous touring concerts that had been cancelled due to Covid will also be rescheduled and Zee Zee will be embarking on her musical journey around the world once again, which she is very excited about.

When asked what she hopes to achieve in the long run, say in 10 or 20 years, Zee Zee replied simply, “Just be with music forever.” She enjoys what she is doing now, continuing to learn new works such as Debussy’s études, and perhaps Mozart or Beethoven sonatas too.

Zee Zee will be performing with the HK Philharmonic Orchestra on 4 and 5 November. She will present Chopin’s Grande Polonaise Brillante as the opening to the concert with a programme that also includes Un Temps Disparu by Chen Qigang and Requiem by Fauré.

With exciting plans ahead of her, including the possibility of recording another album, we wish Zee Zee every success on her musical journey and future endeavours. We look forward to hearing her new repertoire and performances.

Interview written by Puntid Tantivangphaisal.