Cover We talk to Zhang Zuo about her upcoming solo piano recital in Hong Kong (Photo: Marco Borggreve)

Pianist Zuo Zhang will be captivating the audience with her upcoming performance at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre on May 17

Some know her as Zuo Zhang, others call her Zee Zee, but for many, she's a world-class pianist. Zhang has graced the stage of some of the greatest concert halls throughout Europe, the US and China, winning global acclaim as a piano virtuoso. The Gen.T honouree was the prize winner of the 2013 Queen Elisabeth Competition as well as the Gina Bachauer International Artists Piano Competition.

Following her critically acclaimed performance with Paavo Järvi and the NHK Orchestra in the Hong Kong Arts Festival 2019, Zhang is coming back to Hong Kong to perform Ravel and Liszt pieces, captivating the audience with her powerful performance.

Ahead of her upcoming piano recital, we talk to Zhang about how she feels about playing in the city again, her love for music and how she deals with rigorous practice and pressure.

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Congratulations on your upcoming recital! How does it feel to be back in Hong Kong?

It's my first time travelling outside of China since the beginning of the pandemic, so having such an opportunity to perform means a lot for me as a musician.

Is your experience playing in Hong Kong different from overseas?

Definitely. Growing up, I was influenced by Hong Kong's culture so I have a special connection to the city. When I was in Shenzhen as a teenager, I visited Hong Kong every week to watch concerts, attend lessons and go shopping. I also grew up listening to music and watching TVB.

I have been also visiting Hong Kong frequently in recent years. Back in 2007, I performed with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time for Symphony Under the Star, with over 30,000 audiences enjoyed my performance.

Then, I came back in 2015 with Tan Dun, and in 2019 with NHK Symphony at the Hong Kong Arts Festival, followed by a tour with my Z.E.N Trio and to take part in the chamber program with Premiere Performances and many more. But this is actually the first time that I'm playing with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra as a soloist for a concert in the music season, so it's definitely a milestone for my career.

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You're going to play Ravel and Liszt at the upcoming concert, do you consider them your signature pieces?

Ravel and Liszt are not really my signature, I just played them more in recent years and I got the chance to record them for my album. In my heart, there's always an important place for the German-Austrian repertoire. When I practice, I usually play Schubert’s piano sonatas and Brahms’ Handel Variation.

How do you deal with rigorous practice and pressure?

I eat well and sleep well. I love dancing too.

You began your musical training at the age of five in Germany, how was the experience like especially since you were so young?

Back then, I couldn’t speak proper English nor German so music became the way for me to get in touch and communicate with the outside world. Thanks to Berlin’s classical music scene, I got the chance to attend many concerts with my parents, listened to the best orchestra and musicians from all over the world so I didn’t learn music in a “tough” way.

For me, it was more like I needed to feel, touch and listen to music so that I can learn to build myself up musicality, not just in terms of the techniques.

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How did you find your love for music?

It was from my time living in Berlin where I was constantly exposed to great classical music, so music has always spoken to me at a very early age. Of course, cartoons like Tom and Jerry helped as well when you're young.

How has your approach to music and playing the piano changed over the years?

I listened to a lot of recordings when I was younger and had many musical heroes who I'm constantly inspired by. That's why when it comes to playing a legendary piece from a recording, I tend to mimic some techniques from that person and I want to sound more like them as well.

But later on, as I begin to understand music, knowing more about the musical history and tapping into my own performances, I no longer listen to recordings before I learn a new piece. Instead, I want to make my own version and vision of it. I also changed the way I approached the piece and ask myself "there are thousands of famous legendary pianists who have played all these pieces already, why should people listen to me playing the same thing again"? From there, I’m able to discover and develop my own style of music.

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What are some of your most unforgettable performances?

In this season, it would be Hong Kong definitely. I also had a recital tour throughout China and played the complete piano concertos of Beethoven and of Saint-Saëns with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. I will also have my recital debut at Lucerne Festival this summer.

In the past seasons, I cooperated with orchestras such as BBC Symphony, BBC Proms, London Philharmonic, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Philharmonia Orchestra, Estonian National Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony and many more. All of these experiences remain unforgettable.

As a chamber musician, I played worldwide with the Z.E.N. Trio, alongside violinist Esther Yoo and cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan which is close to my heart too.

What do you hope your audiences will take away from your upcoming performance?

For people who are watching me play for the first time or even those who are coming to a classical concert for the first time, I hope I can bring joy to them. After seeing my performance, I hope they will be happy to attend classical concerts again. For audiences who have seen me play the piano before, I hope I can give my best performance in front of them and connect with them through music.

What else can we expect from Zee Zee in the future?

I hope to bring more recordings and high-quality performances. I also want to be "seen" in more places all over the world.

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Zuo Zhang will be performing a solo recital at the Hong Kong Culture Centre on May 17. For more details, please visit the official website.

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