On January 6 and 7, TSO principal keyboard Dean Zhang will take center stage as the soloist performing Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Although Zhang has performed as soloist internationally, this will be his TSO solo debut. We recently sat down with him to chat about his process, the differences between being a principal member of the orchestra and being a soloist, and what this performance means to him.
This will also be Zhang’s first performance of the Mendelssohn concerto. “It has a lot of energy, it has a lot of drama, right from the beginning it’s a very showy piece,” said Zhang. The energy and technical differences between performing as principal keyboard and solo pianist are numerous, including stage position, a more prominent role, more ownership over musical interpretation. For Zhang the main difference is the dynamic between himself, the orchestra, and the conductor. “I don’t really see it as me just being a soloist. I see it as more of a chamber music collaboration and you can actually hear it in this piece too. So, it is a unique bonding opportunity for me between myself and the orchestra.”
While Zhang holds himself to the same standard regardless of the role he plays while performing, his approach to preparing for the concerto is intensified. “When I perform, whether in the back of the orchestra in the symphony, or in front of orchestra as a soloist, I set the same standard for myself. I still want to be 100% prepared.”
Knowing the instrument, the conductor and the venue makes the process easier for Zhang. “It’s definitely going to be easier than if I was traveling to a different orchestra, because I know the sound of the orchestra and I know everyone’s playing individually and as a group. I know Maestro Gomez and his approach and his taste, and I also know the acoustics of the hall we’re going to play in, which is very helpful for a collaboration like this.” The beautiful Catalina Foothills High School Auditorium is considered one of the best venues in Tucson both aesthetically and acoustically. In comparison to the Linda Ronstadt Music Hall which seats over 2,000, the auditorium provides a more intimate setting with just under 600 seats. “I am very excited about the auditorium, it’s one of my favorite venues in Tucson. Not just because of the beautiful acoustics and the beautiful aesthetic of the architecture, but because of the set up with the audience, we can really feel the energy from the audience as well.”
Stylistically the concerto is very unique. Mendelssohn—himself a brilliant pianist—took full advantage of the new technical advances in the piano. The three distinct movements seamlessly flow together. After the dark drama of the first movement, Zhang described the concerto as having “moments that are very tender, especially in the second movement. In the last movement you can really hear the joy, the pure joy that Mendelssohn always has in his symphonies or his other concertos or other chamber music. They have this ecstatic brilliance at the end.”