Downtown's Master of the Strings

Last month, some of the world’s finest classical music students descended on Montreal for a series of prestigious concerts and competitions. By the time the proceedings wrapped, a Downtown Los Angeles student had walked away with one of the highest prizes.

Hao Zhou, a recent college graduate at the Colburn School, won the violin competition at the event known as the Concours Musical International de Montreal. With his performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Violin Concerto No. 1,” he beat out 23 finalists, earning a prize package worth more than $70,000.

“I was really shocked when they announced I won. I was feeling so many emotions at once,” Zhou said during a recent interview on the Colburn campus. “I couldn’t believe it. Everybody played so well.”

Zhou’s victory earned him a cash prize of 30,000 Canadian dollars, which works out to about $22,500 in U.S. currency, from the city of Montreal, as well as the Azireli Foundation’s Joseph-Rouleau Career Development Grant worth about $37,500. Additionally, he received a violin worth approximately $15,000.

Friendly and with an easygoing countenance that gets animated when he talks about performing, Zhou said that he entered the competition as a way to test himself. He graduated from Colburn’s academy in 2015 and this year finished his undergraduate degree at the Colburn Conservatory of Music. In the fall he’ll return to start a Master’s program.

For the last four years, Zhou, 22, has also been part of the Viano String Quartet with other Colburn students, and has regularly competed with them. In the fall, the quartet will become the Colburn Conservatory’s first ensemble-in-residence.

Zhou said he chose the Shostakovich selection for the Montreal competition because it requires a lot of the musician.

“It’s a great piece. It has a lot of intensity and it takes a lot of stamina and commitment to play. It was something I really wanted to do,” Zhou said. “I love pieces that have that kind of drive to them.”

Zhou’s violin teacher at the Colburn School, Martin Beaver, said that nearly any type of performance seems to delight his student, whether a solo work or one that is part of an orchestra. But Beaver added that there is more to Zhou’s talent than his affinity for performing.

“It goes without saying that Hao is a very gifted violinist on a technical level, but he is also gifted person on an artistic level,” Beaver said. “He is able to understand music, to make sense of it, to assimilate it, to also bring out a message. That’s a quality few people of his age have.”

The Montreal competition marked the first event where Zhou participated as a solo violinist. During the contest, Zhou said he tried to watch as many of the other finalists perform as possible, and expressed awe at their ability. Even with the win, Zhou said that there is a lot he can learn from the other performers.

Zhou also relished a chance to perform with the full Ochestre Symphonique de Montreal during the finals. Video shows Zhou’s nearly 30-minute performance flowing seamlessly with the orchestra, guided by conductor Alexander Shelley. Zhou credits that to Shelley, who he said could “read” what the finalists wanted to do with their performances and provide support.

After winning in Montreal, Zhou had a break. This month, he and the Viano String Quartet will travel to Connecticut for the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival. In August, Shao will return to Montreal with the quartet to compete at the McGill International String Quartet Academy.

For Zhou, that’s the dream life.

“I honestly just want to be performing a lot,” he said. “One year, doing a lot of concerts, all over the world? That sounds fantastic.”

He has another reason to return to Montreal. One of his prizes was a custom-made violin from the Manufacturers’ Forum, and the instrument was assembled during the competition and engraved with the names of its builders and judges. Zhou got to hold it after winning, but it needed to be varnished and tuned.

He’s looking forward to holding it again.