Vivian Zhao photo

By Kenneth LaFave

Like thousands of young piano students, Vivian Zhao enjoyed playing her instrument, but did not give serious thought to the possibility of making music her life.

“When I was a kid, my parents didn’t know if I would have much of a focus on music,” she recalled.

The family piano was purchased for her older brother, and when he didn’t take to it….

“The piano was there, and my mother encouraged me, so I tried it and liked it.”

No big deal, just another aspect of a youthful education.

That has changed radically. On March 25, Vivian, 15 and a freshman at Hamilton High School, will make her public debut in a recital sponsored by the Young Artists arm of the MusicaNova Orchestra. She and flutist Barrett Yueh will perform at 4 p.m. that day at Arizona Piano, 4134 E. Wood St., Phoenix.

Why the transformation from student pianist to young professional?

Credit the family’s move to Chandler from California’s Bay Area.

“My father had lived in Chandler before and wanted to return,” Vivian explained. She was 13 when the family returned to Arizona. Relocation meant getting a new piano teacher. And it was the teacher who made the difference: Beijing-born Fei Xu. Xu, a former assistant professor at the fabled Beijing Conservatory, moved to Chandler in 1996 and, with wife, Hong Zhu, established the New Century Conservatory, a place for nurturing young piano talent.

“I had played the piano for six years, but it was the last year and a half with Fei that pushed me over the edge,” she said.

With Xu as teacher, an hour a day of languid practice became multiple hours a day of intense mastery, and Vivian quickly moved forward.

On March 25, Vivian will play an ambitious program for her half of the event, including two pieces by Chopin: The “Ocean” etude, with its cascades of arpeggios, and the structurally rigorous G-minor Ballade; Rachmaninoff’s Prelude No. 4; the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major; and the thunderous “Basso Ostinato,” a virtuoso showpiece by Soviet composer Rodion Shchedrin.

The latter piece, sharply contemporary in its angular rhythms and thick harmonies, appealed to Vivian when she heard a fellow Xu student play it.

MusicaNova’s Young Artist series showcases outstanding local musicians under the age of 18. Founded in 2013, it was already presented more than three dozen young musicians. Already, some of the youth presented on the series have gone on to study at The Juilliard School, Harvard and other major schools. (For more information on the program, go to

Does the change in Vivian’s focus mean she has a future in piano performance?

“I’m still thinking about it,” she said. “It’s not my only passion, but it’s one of the bigger ones. I also enjoy medical subjects, so I may look into that as well.”

Tickets to Vivian’s recital are $15 general admission or $10 for seniors and students, available online at or at the door. Youth under 18 are admitted free with a paid admission.

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