Zhu Advances to Finals of International Piano Competition

Wednesday, May 18, 2022
Hongyu Jasmine Zhu ’23 performing during a school meeting in April

As a pianist, Hongyu Jasmine Zhu ’23 feels music deeply—both the joy and the sorrow of it—and later this month she will compete as a finalist in the Music International Grand Prix. Contestants from all over the world will gather at the Merkin Concert Hall in New York City to compete in voice, piano, strings, winds and brass, percussion, composition, and ensembles.

The piece Zhu has chosen for this final stage of the competition is Frédéric Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52, a piece that speaks to her on many levels. “As I listen to Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman’s rendition of this piece, I could almost see Chopin on his sickbed in the final years of his life, which was not a long one, entangled with illness—yet still his heart was pouring out music, and he was able to turn that anguish into something that elevates,” says Zhu. “I keep wondering what suffering it must have taken for him to bear music of such tragic significance; the apparent answer to my wondering alone hurts me.”

Chopin’s piece is 11 minutes long–too long for the competition’s length requirement, but when Zhu advanced to the final round, she sent a long email to the competition’s director expressing how she “loved the piece and couldn’t do otherwise,” and the director agreed.

To get to this phase in the competition, Zhu has been competing since October and had to advance through the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds. Due to COVID-19, each of these auditions was virtual, and each required a different piece of music. Zhu performed Johann Sebastian Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV 871 and the first and third movements of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata in D minor No.17 Op.31 in these early rounds. At this point, the final round is scheduled to be in person.  

“It will be a completely new experience for me to perform on stage while competing,” says Zhu. In preparation, she performed Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52 for Mercersburg’s student body during a school meeting in April.

Zhu chose to enter the Music International Grand Prix competition as a way to prepare for college auditions next year. She also hoped the experience would add an element of discipline to her own musical practice. “I thought it would be a good chance for me to hone my musical expressions and push myself forward in terms of the practice schedules,” she says. “And the competition itself, although it is competing, it is also an occasion for me to express and perform, which I don’t get to do a lot since I haven’t been playing that long yet.”

Zhu was first introduced to the piano at age 5, and proudly put “pianist” on a kindergarten survey that asked about her grown-up dreams. However, as time went on, she says, “the piano lessons started to feel more and more like a chore, and my grandma had to chase me onto the piano bench every day, just to keep me there for barely 15 minutes before I would slip away. Eventually, as I entered middle school, under heavy coursework, I stopped playing the piano without hesitation.”

Hongyu Jasmine Zhu ’23 practicing at her home

Two years later, however, music brought her back. “Happily, the music group The Piano Guys entered my life with their miraculous adaptations across genres,” Zhu says. “Particularly moved by the pianist Jon Schmidt’s beautiful rendition of one of my favorite tunes ‘Perfect,’ I was in awe of music’s power to inspire.” She returned to the piano “with serious eagerness to practice, play, and create with my full heart.” 

This was also two years before she came to Mercersburg as a 10th grader. “I think with [faculty emeritus] Mr. [Richard] Rotz was the first time after I quit the piano that I got to play classical music pieces again, and that just made me thoroughly happy,” she says. “I think I just found the joy in it, and I decided to seriously and really practice for myself.”

In addition to her personal devotion to the piano, Zhu is involved in many different activities at Mercersburg. She is a member of Magalia, Jazz Band, Chapel Choir, and Chorale, and played in the pit orchestra for Mercersburg’s spring performance of Matilda: The Musical. She runs cross country, participates in the dance program, and was a declaimer for the John Marshall Literary Society earlier this year.

As she looks toward the future, Zhu definitely sees music as a part of it. “I have this little ambition to pursue a double degree in literature and music,” she says. “I guess I haven’t made up my mind yet, worrying if I’d be qualified and ready enough to take up the discipline of a conservatory student. My dream is to become a writer, a translator, and a musician–a musician in the sense that I could perform as a concert pianist. That’s looking at the best of both worlds.”

Although she is not one to offer music advice to others, Zhu greatly appreciates a phrase that Director of Dance Denise Dalton shared with her last year. Zhu had mentioned to Dalton “about how often I was in the Burgin Center for the Arts, maybe trying to do work, and I often got distracted by the piano and would play and lose track of time and maybe be late to something or not get my work done,” Zhu says. Dalton encouraged her to replace the word “distracted” with “reminded.”

To be “reminded,” Zhu continues, is “really a summary of what playing piano means to me: playing for joy and playing for myself. It in some way encapsulates what I would say to myself: savor that joy in playing and in music.”

For more information on this story, please contact Lee Owen (owenl@mercersburg.edu) in Mercersburg’s Office of Strategic Marketing and Communications.