'In the zone' with violinist Alex Zhou

 Alex Zhou, violin

Alex Zhou, violin

Teen soloist to play Mendelssohn concerto at Jan. 17 concert

Violinist Alex Zhou can’t wait to be “in the zone” while playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E Minor with Symphony Parnassus at the January 17 concert. 

He likes the Mendelssohn concerto for its “simplicity and beauty,” and is thrilled to perform it again—his third outing with one of the world’s most popular showpieces for violin and orchestra. He has been soloing with orchestras for the past five years, and loves the feeling of being swept away by the music, or “in the zone,” as he says, even if it is occasionally nerve-wracking.

“Every time I play with an orchestra, I get really nervous,” he said, “but after it’s over, I always like what just happened and think ‘when can I do this again?’”

Alex, 14, is from San Jose and has won many first-place prizes, including the Mondavi Center Young Artists Competition, and the Andrea Postacchini International Violin Competition in Italy, both in 2012. His performance with Symphony Parnassus is a result of his winning the 2015 Parnassus-San Francisco Conservatory of Music Competition. 

Alex started piano lessons at age 5, and began playing the violin a year later after seeing a home video of his older sister Kathy, now 25, performing in her elementary school orchestra. Intrigued, he found her old violin and tried to play it. “I just really wanted to learn how to play,” he said.

He was instantly hooked and began taking violin lessons, too.

Neither of his parents are musicians; his father, James Zhou (rhymes with vow), is a chemist, and his mom, June Hu, is an accountant. They didn’t, at first, realize their son was a prodigy. “They thought I was just ‘sawing away,’ on the violin,” Alex said, until his teacher told them of his special gift.

Alex is still surprised and humbled by the attention his playing has brought him. “I guess I’m a normal person,” he says, “but I forget that I have this talent. It’s really weird.” When not practicing his violin—three hours a day when his school schedule allows—he likes to read, play badminton and take photographs.

He is involved in the Pre-College program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (where he studies with violin teacher Zhao Wei), and has also studied with acclaimed violinist Itzhak Perlman for two summers at the Perlman Music Program in New York. Alex said that working with Perlman was a life-changing experience.

“He’s really down to earth and doesn’t look down on you if you’re not as good as him. He tries to encourage you,” Alex said. “When you get treated so well, it changes you, and you want to be that kind of person…to work hard to be a better musician and also a better person.”