Zhouhui Shen1

Inspired by Beethoven, driven by ambition

Dueling tones: A day in the competitive life of Zhouhui Shen

Zhouhui Shen1

Thursday morning, the clock shows eight o'clock. The piano lid opens gently and a hint of Beethoven unfolds in the air. Zhouhui's fingers glide gently over the keyboard and awaken the room to life for the next two hours. „When she sits at the piano, she forgets everything,“ reveals the host father in conversation. He is by no means alone in his enthusiasm. It is not without reason that the young pianist is entering the chamber music final, the last half of the International Telekom Beethoven Competition Bonn 2023, as a finalist together with Lovre Marušić and Caleb Borick. She didn't get much sleep after the jury's decision in the semi-final. The 22-year-old admits: „Four hours of sleep, no more and no less. After this news, I simply couldn't sleep a wink. I didn't expect that!“ Her mother had already given her Beethoven in her cradle at birth. She had just been born and already had Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in her ears. Since then, the composer has accompanied the pianist throughout her life and inspires her in a unique way: „His compositions speak directly to my soul.“

Zhouhui Shen2

But as inspiring as Beethoven is to Zhouhui Shen, it quickly becomes clear in conversation with the young pianist that this competition demands a lot. The upcoming pianist's schedule is filled to the brim. There is not much time for leisure. First and foremost is the tireless playing on the keys. Shen has been playing her repertoire up and down since March. According to Shen, the demanding pieces easily add up to over eight hours a day. Within five days, the participants shake a two-and-a-half-hour repertoire out of their sleeves. The participants went through the second round and the semi-final alone within two days. Shen admits: "By now, the nervousness before the first round is mixed with a hint of exhaustion. Away from the piano sounds, the pianists also have a few interviews to attend. The right tone must also be struck on this stage, as each interview offers the artists a new opportunity to present not only their music, but also their story and personality. And so Zhouhui Shen sits at the Steinway grand piano in the Beethoven House at 2 pm and gives a little taster before getting changed for a portrait photo. After the photo shoot, it's off into the limelight. This time, however, not in front of the piano, but in front of the video camera. Shen talks about stage fright, her love of Beethoven and her ritual before performing on stage. Her secret to the perfect performance? The 22-year-old swears by a short nap and a banana and chocolate snack for energy. And she needs it, because Beethoven requires a lot of strength, says the petite pianist: „I'm actually very thin, which is why it's twice as hard for me to play Beethoven's music. But I always have his music in my head and in my heart“, she explains.

Zhouhui Shen3

Before the aspiring artist continues on to the general rehearsal of the Chamber Music Concert, she spares me a few minutes of her attention. Together we chat about her time in Bonn, her future plans after the competition and her life away from the competition. During the conversation, I learn that, as a big Beethoven fan, Zhouhui Shen couldn't pass up a visit to the Beethoven House even before the first round. She adds with a smile: „If it were possible to meet Beethoven in person again, I would probably accompany him on a walk in a beautiful garden. From what I've heard, he loved going for walks.“ She is certain that she will definitely miss the atmosphere of Bonn, after all Bonn is the city where Beethoven was born. After her departure, however, she will not be travelling to China, but back to New York, in the United States. There, the 22-year-old is studying at the renowned Julliard School under Professor Hung-Kuan Chen. Shen only goes home to China in the summer to give piano concerts, travel and occasionally meet up with old friends for a hot pot, a kind of scalded fondue. What will change for Zhouhui Shen after the competition? A lot. Before the competition, her biggest dream was to become a piano teacher. But now the talented artist realises that she won't be leaving the spotlight and the stage any time soon. Before the curtain finally falls on this day, Shen gives us an insight into her relationship with stage fright. Just like her two fellow performers, she also struggles with the well-known palpitations before the performance: „Although I always seem calm on the outside, a storm is raging on the inside.“ Shen not only seems to have mastered the piano like no other, but also the art of self-control.

On the evening of the Chamber Music Final, there is no sign of stage fright. First alone and later together with Mikhail Ovrutsky (violin) and Grigory Alumyan (violoncello) as a trio, she stuns the hall into mesmerised silence. Under the radiant light of the spotlights, her fingers sometimes glide delicately over the keyboard, sometimes they dance back and forth between the various keys. Her body sways sensitively with the beat of the music, first to the composition „Jasmine Flower Fantasia“ by Wang Hua Chu, later to the Piano Trio in D major op.70/1 by Ludwig van Beethoven. Under her motto "Time for me to shine and play my music", Shen enchanted the audience for the next 40 minutes and filled the room with a whole repertoire of sounds and melodies. As the last notes fade away, thunderous applause breaks out. Zhouhui Shen takes a bow together with Ovrutsky and Alumyan. The pianist has played her last melody for this evening. Saturday will be all the more serious: the three finalists will hit the keys one last time in the grand Orchestra Final.

Text written by: Lisa Brinker