Young violinist wins competition, will solo with ESYO

Violinist Michael Zhu, concertmaster with the Empire State Youth Orchestra and winner of the Lois Ly
Michael Zhu will solo with the Empire State Youth Orchestra on Saturday.
Michael Zhu will solo with the Empire State Youth Orchestra on Saturday.

Violinist Michael Zhu has always had his eye on the prize.

“Yes, I’ve always dreamed of being concertmaster,” said Zhu, who has that role with the Empire State Youth Orchestra. “But it was a big surprise to win the Lois Lyman Concerto Competition.”

Zhu, who is a senior at Guilderland High School, will solo with the ESYO on Saturday at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.

Empire State Youth Orchestra

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 30 Second St., Troy

HOW MUCH: $20, $10

MORE INFO: 273-0038,

That Zhu won came as no surprise to ESYO music director Helen Cha-Pyo.

“I’ve had Michael a long, long time in the orchestra, since he was in seventh grade,” she said. “He worked his way up, working religiously.”

Unlike many other youth orchestras who hear their players only at the beginning of each season, Cha-Pyo auditions the strings before each concert period for seating placement.

“They grow so quickly, especially if they decide to sit down and practice,” she said. “It helps them to be prepared and also for us to pick the leaders. Michael came out as concertmaster for the April concert.”

For the Lyman competition, each competitor prepares a piece that is available and whose length must be no longer than 30 minutes, so if they were to win it would fit in with the rest of the concert program. They must also play from memory because the judges usually pick only sections of what they want to hear during the 10-minute audition.

Proving themselves

“This can be a huge difficulty for a 16- or 17-year-old because they must command an entire piece. They must prove they know the piece inside and out,” Cha-Pyo said. “This is not a baby competition. They must have a presence on stage and must show a deep understanding of the music.”

In Zhu’s case, he said he got to play almost all of Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending,” a piece he wanted to play and one that his teacher Jill Levy, concertmaster of the Albany Symphony Orchestra, suggested. After the 13 competitors were heard this year, the judges unanimously chose Zhu.

And he’s thrilled.

“I’ve always liked the piece, it’s so beautiful and awesome,” he said. “I’ve always dreamed about playing it with an orchestra. I just never thought it would be so soon.”

Cha-Pyo is also looking forward to conducting the work because it’s the first time in the 14 years she’s been music director that the piece has been performed, she said. She’s confident that Zhu will do a great job.

“The piece demands a laid-back attitude, it can’t be stressed,” she said. “But Michael is very laid-back. He’ll play with an unforced, gentle sound.”

Her only worry in the past has been that the soloist might make a false entrance or get nervous playing before hundreds of people. So far, that hasn’t happened.

Used to pressure

And Zhu said this will not be his first time in front of an orchestra. Last year he won the concerto competition at his high school, where he is also the concertmaster, and played a flashy piece by Sarasate. He’s also used to pressure as he’s the captain of his tennis team.

But becoming the great violin soloist might not be in the picture.

“I’ve not heard yet from my college applications,” Zhu said. “But I don’t plan to be a music major. I will try for the college orchestra, though.”

Also on the program Saturday are Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture,” Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” Arturo Marquez’s “Danzon #2,” and Luis de Freitas Branco’s “Suite Alentejana No. 1.”

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