Although the piece isn’t fast, there’s a high level of intensity Elizabeth Zhang brings to it as she leans into the shiny, black Steinway and delicately moves her fingers across its keys.
And in that moment of expression, the reasons she fell in love with the piano come to life.
First, there’s the beauty of the instrument. Thirteen-year-old Zhang looks small against the untarnished grand piano that stands elegantly at Daynes Music in Midvale.
Then there’s the music. The sound of the notes vibrating and forming into melodies that seem to hang suspended in the air. And as Zhang continues playing, the intricacies of her performance make her introduction to the piano even more humorous.
“Whenever my (older) sister would play piano, I would always run over, pound on the keys and then run away,” she said. “I loved the sound of the piano. It’s just really amazing to try the different combinations of the keys and experience the sound.”
Zhang, who is a student at West High School, is preparing for this year’s Gina Bachauer International Piano Festival taking place June 22-24 in Salt Lake City. She will be the youngest of six participants who range in age from 13-19 and are from China, Canada and the U.S.
A staple of Utah arts
The Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation has been a staple of classical piano in Utah for four decades. From its start at Brigham Young University in 1976, the foundation has grown to represent 12 to 20 countries at each competition, according to Kary Billings, executive director of the foundation.
“We sponsor international competitions, concert series, festivals, school programs, everything we can just to bring piano to prominence and to promote excellence in piano performance,” he said. "(Gina Bachauer) was a famous Greek pianist that was beloved in Utah. She played (with) the symphony many times, and she worked with Maurice Abravanel to give Utah Symphony their first European tour. She was just loved in Utah. And when she died, we thought (it would be) a great opportunity to honor her, to (bring her) name to our competition.”
The international competition takes place every other year and rotates between featuring young artists ages 11-18 and older musicians who are 19-32 years old. And while Zhang dreams of one day participating in the Bachauer competition, the young pianist keeps plenty busy with lessons, practices and other prestigious competitions. She first competed at the age of 7 — only half a year after she began playing — placing second. But when complimented on her talent, Zhang humbly shrugs it off.
“I just kind of listened to what my teacher said,” she responds.
Since day one, Zhang has been under the instruction of Ning Lu, professor and acting chair of the University of Utah’s School of Music piano department.
“I started out with Dr. Ning Lu, and then I started taking lessons from his wife, Jie Lu,” she said. “They’re really good teachers. I take one lesson from each of them a week. Jie works on the technique part, and Ning works on the dynamics part. They go really well together.”
The piano festival
During the three-day festival, Zhang and the other participants will take part in master classes that are free and open to the public. The classes will be hosted by guest artists Dmitry Rachmanov and Douglas Humpherys. Rachmanov is a former juror for the competition, and Humpherys, who is the artistic director of the foundation, was the winner of the first Bachauer competition in 1976.
“You see a finished product on stage,” said Ruby Chou, public relations coordinator for the foundation. “It’s dazzling, but at least from my perspective, I want to know how (the pianists) got to that point. I want to know what musicians think about, what they have to consider and what kind of stuff they’re practicing. So the master classes, I think that gives the audience a backstage view of what actually goes on for musicians.”
After receiving personal instruction, the six young musicians will showcase their progress and talent in a concert at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center on Saturday, June 24.
Despite gearing up for the festival, Zhang manages to find time to play tennis, go skiing and even complete a computer programming camp at the U.
“Actually, I don’t practice a lot,” she said. “It always surprises me when I win competitions because I really don’t practice a lot. At the most I practice three hours a day.”
And to calm her nerves and get in some extra practice, Zhang likes to take her music to senior living homes.
“They really love it, and it warms my heart whenever I hear them say ‘Wow, that’s really amazing! I’ve never heard anything like that. Nobody ever comes around here and does that,’” she said.
Because above all, it’s the reactions of her audience that make all the practicing so worthwhile.
“I love looking at people’s expressions after I finish playing,” Zhang said. “Sometimes their faces are shocked, (and) sometimes they’re bored. But it’s really amazing to see people when they’re happy, especially after I play for them. That’s my favorite part of performing.”
“(Zhang) is a wonderful talent," Billings said. “We’ve watched her for years, and we just know she’s going to do great things.”
If you go ...
What: Bachauer International Piano Festival
When: June 22-24, 7:30 p.m. Master classes: Thursday, June 22, 10 a.m.-noon and 2-4 p.m.; Friday, June 23, 10 a.m.-noon and 2-4 p.m.
Where: Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 Broadway, Salt Lake City. Master classes: Daynes Music, 6935 State St., Midvale
How much: $20/$12 general, $12/$7 seniors and $8/$5 students; Master classes are free