A Journey Home

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Jessica Zhou

Jessica Zhou is the principal harpist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Zhou began her harp studies with Yin Zuo in Beijing, China. She later studied at the Interlochen Arts Academy with Joan Holland and at the Juilliard School with Nancy Allen.

One harpist’s musical odyssey comes full circle.

—by Jessica Zhou

I was born in Beijing into a musical family. My mother played the harp and my father played the flute. I lived and studied in Beijing until I left China when I was 13 years old. I had been playing the harp for four years by then, studying at the Central Conservatory of Music with the dream of becoming a professional harpist. I came to America to continue my musical journey and pursue my dream. In 2009 I was fortunate enough to win the best job I could imagine: principal harpist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). When BSO announced their 2014 Asian tour would include a visit to my hometown of Beijing, I couldn’t wait to go. I knew this would be a nostalgic tour for me. After all these years, my musical journey would be coming full circle—I was going to be performing with my orchestra in my native country.

The two-week tour included concerts in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Tokyo. The most recent BSO visit to China was in 1979, exactly 35 years ago. That visit made a huge impact on China both culturally and politically. Back in 1979, China was trying to rebuild relations with the West after the Cultural Revolution, which had lasted for 10 years. During those 10 years, the Chinese were banned from performing any Western music. The country went a decade without hearing a symphony.

I remember my parents telling me stories of seeing the BSO in 1979. They were both really star-struck. The BSO was the second Western orchestra to visit China after the Philadelphia Orchestra’s landmark visit in 1973. For most Chinese musicians in 1979, the opportunity to hear one of the best orchestras in the world was extremely rare, and the experience was life-changing for many.

After Philadelphia and Boston opened the door, most of the world’s leading orchestras followed, performing in China at one time or another since 1979. The BSO, however, did not return to China until this past spring. How much China has changed since that visit is almost beyond comprehension. When BSO performed in Beijing in 1979, there were no proper concert halls, so the concert was held at the Great Peoples’ Hall, which usually served as a meeting and gathering place for government officials. This time, the BSO performed at some of China’s best newly constructed concert spaces, including the China National Performing Arts Center in Beijing, the Oriental Arts Center in Shanghai, and the Grand Opera House in Guangzhou. The construction of so many performance spaces in China make it clear that classical music in China is rising vast and fast.

For me personally, there were two highlights of the tour that I will always remember. First, I had the opportunity to give a masterclass at my old school, the Central Conservatory of Music. I was excited to hear the harpists there, but I was most excited to see my first teacher, Ms. Yin Zuo. It was because of Ms. Zuo’s encouragement that I became a harpist. Ms. Zuo was really the pioneer of the harp school in China. None of the major conservatories in China had a harp department prior to the 1950s. Ms. Zuo was sent to Russia to study with the late legendary Russian harpist Vera Dulova. Upon completion of her studies, she started the harp department at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.

I was amazed to see how the school had flourished since I was a student there. In my day, there was only one Salvi harp, which we occasionally had the opportunity to play on, but most of the time we were practicing and playing on harps that were Chinese-made. Now the school is able to provide its harp students with numerous instruments from Lyon & Healy, Salvi, and Camac. I was impressed with the level of playing at the masterclass. The harpists I heard were extremely enthusiastic and humble, and many of them have competed at the international level. It is a great feeling to know there are so many aspiring young harpists in China today.

The other personal highlight of the tour was performing Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in Beijing. I purchased 15 tickets for my closest relatives to attend that concert, including my 92-year-old grandmother. There is nothing like performing for your family, knowing how proud they are. Needless to say, that concert will remain among the most memorable performances in my life. I looked for my family in the audience when I was warming up on stage before the concert. I will forever remember each wave and smile. It was as proud a moment for them as for me.

Two weeks came and went with so many beautiful memories I will treasure forever. I have never been so honored to be a representative of my native country to my beloved colleagues throughout the tour. I hope it will not be another 35 years before the BSO returns to China. •

Jessica Zhou is the principal harpist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Zhou began her harp studies with Yin Zuo in Beijing, China. She later studied at the Interlochen Arts Academy with Joan Holland and at the Juilliard School with Nancy Allen.

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