It was a fortunate group of approximately thirty music lovers who had an opportunity yesterday afternoon to hear pianist Ning Zhou in an intimate recital at the home of Joseph and Maria Sekon in Aptos. This event was part of the Aptos Keyboard Series, founded by Sekon that has been bringing fresh and exciting pianists to the Santa Cruz area during the past few years.
Zhou, a native of China, but now resident in San Francisco, has been a laureate in several distinguished international competitions — the 2013 Van Cliburn Piano Competition in Ft. Worth, the 2015 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, a semi-finalist in the 2015 Queen Elisabeth Piano Competition in Brussels, in addition to victories in several competitions while living in China. He has received master’s degrees from the Shanghai Conservatory and the San Francisco Conservatory, and is now pursuing an Artist Certificate in Chamber Music while studying with Mack McCray and Sharon Mann, also at the San Francisco Conservatory.
As has often been pointed out in these columns, you can tell in the first 30 seconds of a recital whether a pianist’s attitude is “I am a virtuoso and will impress you with my powerful technique” or “I love these pieces and want to share them with you.” Zhou definitely exhibited the latter attitude and consistently charmed us with his expressive playing while revealing a masterful technical control that permitted him to go way beyond technical challenges and reveal the essential beauty and significance of each work he performed.
From the first notes of his opening work, Mozart’s Sonata in B-flat Major, K. 570, Zhou demonstrated a refined understanding of Mozart’s style with beautifully clear articulation, expressive shaping of phrases and nimbly executed passages that sparkled effortlessly, while always remaining essentially musical. In the lovely Adagio slow movement, Zhou showed his masterful command of cantabile and lyrical expression (especially poignant in the C Minor section where Zhou revealed subtle suggestions of pain and regret). The final movement, Allegretto, danced along with sparkle and wit. This was a deeply satisfying performance that left us with a desire to hear him play more Mozart.
The following group of three works by Ravel, Oiseaux tristes, Une barque sur l’ocean and Alborada del gracioso, revealed en entirely different Ning Zhou as a master of a wide variety of subtle changes of tone color and the widest range of dynamic expression, from the quietest pianissimo to the most thundering fortissimo. None of this was done for effect, but was always appropriate to the composer’s intent. There was a lovely mystical quality about Oiseaux tristes (sad birds) with expressive dynamic shadings that had us totally absorbed in listening intensely for each magical change. Une barque sur l’ocean positively shimmered and enveloped us in Zhou’s lovely sounds, while Alborada del gracioso just blew us away with Zhou’s fabulous control and effortless virtuosity that made this piece so appropriate as an ending for the first half of the recital.
After intermission Zhou treated us to a magical journey through Schubert’s beloved Sonata in B-flat Major, D.960 — a 45-minute work that plumbs the depths of Schubert’s emotional being. Zhou took us lovingly through the deeply expressive first movement, charmed us in the profound Andante, had us dancing in our minds during the Scherzo, and then wound us up in the powerful finale movement, Allegro ma non troppo. This was powerful and totally expressive playing.
An appreciative audience was rewarded with two encores — a lovely performance of Ondine, from Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, and finally the wildest performance I have ever heard of Beethoven’s “Rage over a lost Penny.” It was dazzling.
After the recital, the guests lingered and had an opportunity to chat with Ning Zhou and his charming companion from the San Francisco Conservatory, herself a pianist, Xiaoxiao Ji, who it turned out is the present owner of the Carmel Music Society’s 1942 Steinway concert grand, which the Society sold when it acquired a new Hamburg Steinway D.
Ning Zhou made a powerful impression on this occasion and whetted our appetite for a return engagement. May he return soon!