Mom’s choice has served cellist well

Fortunately for cellist Sophie Shao, her mother, who was a piano teacher, knew something about music

Leave it to Mom.

“I was already playing piano when I started cello at 6,” said Sophie Shao, who will bring a few friends to play with her on Sunday for Union College’s 38th International Festival of Chamber Music. “Houston had a good Suzuki string program. And yeah, my mom chose the cello.”

This is one of several appearances Shao has made over the years at the festival. Her first was during the 1990s when she played with pianist Pei-Yao Wang, a collaboration that she’ll repeat on Feb. 14, when Wang brings a few of her friends to play. Shao’s “friends” include violinists Pamela Frank and Arnaud Sussman, and violists Mark Holloway and Lily Francis.

Sophie Shao and Friends

WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Union College Memorial Chapel

HOW MUCH: $25, $12.50

MORE INFO: 388-6080 or

Fortunately for Shao, her mother, who was a piano teacher, knew something about music, she said. Shao quickly took to the instrument and by 11 won a local young artists’ competition that allowed her to perform the Boccherini Cello Concerto with the Houston Symphony. Shirley Trepel, the orchestra’s principal cellist, took Shao in hand, but within two years Shao was ready for bigger things than what Texas had to offer: Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She resists calling herself a prodigy.

Early start

“There were a few others there [my age],” she said. “You do the best you can within your ability. But the median age at Curtis has dropped. It’s good to get an early start in a career that is so physical.”

While she attended Curtis, she also attended a high school sponsored by Friends. Despite a loaded concert schedule, she thrived.

“Many others did more than me,” Shao said with a smile in her voice. “People can do far more than they think.”

By the time graduation arrived, Shao knew she wanted to study with Aldo Parisot at Yale University. But Parisot wasn’t sure he wanted to take on more undergraduate cello students, so Shao spent a year in Yale’s artist certification program before she enrolled as an undergraduate with a religious studies major.

Her career was also in full swing and over the next few years would include solo appearances with such orchestras as the Orchestre de Paris under conductor Christoph Eschenbach, chamber music collaborations with the Guarneri, Juilliard, Orion and Cleveland string quartets, the Beaux Arts Trio, and recitals at all of New York City’s major halls, Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh and the Ford Centre in Toronto.

At 19, she received the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant and for the next two years was a member of Chamber Music Society Two, which is the emerging artists program run by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Dealing with school

While the transition most young artists face from teen star to a 20-something musician can be psychologically deflating, Shao’s concerns were about getting used to a large campus and the reams of papers she had to write.

“I had a lot of growing up to do, but most of the students were dealing with being away from home for the first time. I was dealing with homework,” she said.

She chose a religious studies major because her years at the Friends high school had got her interested in religious thought and she wanted a program that would have an emphasis. The topic also had connections to music in that music first appeared in churches, so there was an underlying spirituality, Shao said.

Eventually, she earned a bachelor’s degree and went on to obtain a master’s degree in music from Yale, during which time she also won top prizes at the Rostropovich and the Tchaikovsky international cello competitions.

“By then, I really wanted to be out of school and wanted to move to New York City,” she said.

Shao, who is now in her early 30s, has since become a regular at such music festivals as Marlboro, Ravinia, Caramoor and Sarasota; has collaborated with a long list of major artists from Martha Argerich and Gary Graffman to Andre Watts and Paquito D’Rivera; substituted in the New York Philharmonic and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra; and released a few discs, the most recent being “Diablerie” (Albany, 2005) which features the music of Richard Wilson.

“I’ve been lucky,” she said.

New collaboration

One of her newest collaborations is with violinist Pamela Frank, who will appear with her on Sunday. Frank, who had an international career, had herself performed on the series for 13 consecutive years with her trio of pianist Wu Han and cellist Yeesun Kim until 2002, when Frank injured her hand.

“I knew Pam a long time but more as a coach from Ravinia and Curtis,” Shao said. “Arnaud met her and began reading chamber music with her. She has been waiting a long time for her hand to heal.”

Those impromptu sessions led to more regular sessions this past year in New York City where Frank, Sussman, Shao and other friends read through a lot of chamber music. When it came time to pick the repertoire for Sunday, the choices were easy: the Brahms Quintet No. 2 in G, Op. 111 — “an amazing piece I had to play”; the “soaring” Mendelssohn Quintet No. 2 in B-flat, Op. 87; and Mozart’s early Quintet No. 4 in G minor, which is “a greater starter.”

Future assignments for Shao include the summer Vail Music Festival and several students that she teaches at Vassar College and Bard College’s Conservatory of Music.

Did Mom make the right choice?

“It could be worse,” Shao said with a chuckle.

Categories: Life and Arts

Leave a Reply