Arts & Culture

Girls, boys and toys

Lansing Symphony Orchestra taps into youth in season finale


There are many reasons to be intimidated by the energy and prodigious musicianship of Harmony Zhu, the featured piano soloist at the Lansing Symphony Orchestra’s season finale on Friday (May 10).  

But she won’t let you be intimidated. She just wants to share some great music. 

“I’m doing something I really love,” she said. “It’s not work. I just feel very lucky to be able to do what I do.” 

She also does uncannily accurate bird calls, a talent she’ll readily share, along with her enthusiasm for birding and nature. 

But don’t let her charm you out of your awe. Every two years, the Lansing Symphony features a young pianist from the biennial Gilmore Piano Festival in Kalamazoo. They’ve all given spirited and skillful performances, but Zhu is in a class of her own. 

At 18 years old, she’s been devouring Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 for almost 14 years, from the profound depths of the slow movement to the brash brio of the finale. She first played it at age 5 — her first orchestral performance. She’ll happily tackle it again on Friday. 

“I go way back with this concerto,” she said. “It’s so beautiful, and I feel a special bond with it.”  

Zhu carved a legend into the classical music world in 2022 when she filled in as a soloist with the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra on one day’s notice, playing Sergei Prokofiev’s thundering third concerto. She was 16. 

She took the grand prize at the 2015 Chopin International Piano Competition in Connecticut, with the double distinction of earning the highest score in the history of the competition and being the youngest person ever to win. 

She’s also a chess prodigy. She started competing in tournaments with adults at age 6 and became a World Youth Chess champion at age 7. No wonder she was the subject of intense curiosity at California’s Simms/Mann Institute Think Tank, an annual convention of neuroscientists who study brain development in children. 

People often ask her if she came from a family of musicians, or if she was force-fed a musical life from an early age. 

The answers are an emphatic “no” and “no.” 

“Nobody in my family is a musician,” she said. Her name was intended to connote “peace and harmony” and has nothing to do with music. 

Zhu became fascinated by the piano at 2 years old, when her grandmother retired from teaching and bought an upright. 

“I was fascinated by how this big piece of wood could make beautiful sounds,” Zhu said. “It was like this huge toy for me.” 

She climbed onto the bench, “had fun with it and just kept on playing.”  

She taught herself to read music and started in on a nocturne by Frédéric Chopin at 4 years old. 

“I loved that nocturne,” she said. “I really connected to Chopin.” 

Among her teachers was the legendary Emanuel Ax, with whom she shares the rare combination of towering talent and disarming humility. 

She recreated a lesson, using her bird mimicry skills to do a note-perfect imitation of Ax’s lilting voice. “Why did you play such a polished piece for me?” she asked, à la Ax. “I don’t have much to say. It’s going to be a very short lesson.”  

“He’s very funny and humble,” Zhu said. 

Being named a 2024 Gilmore Young Artist has opened a new world to her. In an April 26 recital in South Haven, she rampaged through an ambitious slate of music by feverish mystic Alexander Scriabin, arch-romantic Robert Schumann, classical paragon Franz Joseph Haydn and, of course, her beloved Chopin. 

“The audience was so passionate, so kind, and I got to meet a lot of them,” she said.  

Some were Zhu fanatics. One couple told her they took a multi-hour flight to Michigan to catch her recital. 

She also played Sergei Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto with the Kalamazoo Junior Symphony Orchestra on April 21. 

“I really enjoy the process, getting to meet new people every time I go to a concert or festival,” she said. 

At Friday’s gig, she looks forward to having musical conversations with the orchestra as they toss Mozart’s colorful melodies back and forth. 

“The second movement is one of the most beautiful and profound things in Mozart’s work,” she said. “When you hear it, it’s something you’ll never forget. I love that he follows immediately with one of the most upbeat and energetic things he wrote, a perfect finish.” 

Friday’s concert also features Rachmaninoff’s third symphony, but the 20th-century Russian master has gotten more than his fair share of ink over the years. That’s not the case with “Luster,” a dynamic 2018 work by LSO composer-in-residence Jared Miller, his first orchestral commission. 

Longtime Detroit Symphony Orchestra music director Leonard Slatkin celebrated his final season by commissioning young composers to write new works for the orchestra. One of Miller’s composition teachers, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Corigliano, recommended him to Slatkin. 

Zhu called the piano a “huge toy,” but Miller got himself a much bigger one. Friday’s performance will include all the bells and whistles deployed in the 2018 Detroit premiere of “Luster,” including mallet percussion, harp and a water gong. 

“The percussionist repeatedly hits a gong and gradually lowers it into water while they’re hitting it, and it changes the acoustics, so it sounds a lot like an electronic filter,” Miller said. “I love that effect.” 

“Luster” swells from fragile glimmers and swirls to an overwhelming wave of sound that throbs with strange pulsations, reverberations and other effects. You’d swear the orchestra was being augmented electronically, but Miller asserted that every wow-wow, vleep and eee-beee-bee will be generated acoustically. 

He joked that it’s “a more expensive way of achieving electronic effects,” but there’s a serious purpose behind it. 

“It’s a live performance,” he said. “Having all these amazing musicians on the stage putting themselves into it, that’s so exciting to me — and, I hope, thrilling to the audience.” 



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