A Prodigy Returns
Writer Joseph J. Airdo
Photography Courtesy of Arizona Musicfest and Samuel Xu
Pianist Samuel Xu believes that music is more than just a combination of sounds that have rhythm, melody or harmony.
“Music is a language that is meant to be shared with others,” he says. “It is a very powerful force. Just look at how many important ways that music has been incorporated into our world.”
Xu is an alum of Arizona Musicfest’s Young Musicians program. For the past 30 years, the program has identified, supported and promoted aspiring young musicians in the Valley.
Now a freshman studying piano performance at the Eastman School of Music in New York, he has been invited back to the Valley to play a solo alongside the prestigious Festival Orchestra, which features musicians from some of the nation’s finest ensembles.
Xu will perform Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 20 at La Casa de Cristo Church in Scottsdale. In addition to Xu’s solo, the evening will also include performances of Alexander Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances” and Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
The concert is part of Arizona Musicfest’s Festival Orchestra Week, which takes place Feb. 16–23 at various venues throughout the Valley. Other programs that are part of the five-concert series include a celebration of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday, a night of music inspired by Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes’s novel “Don Quixote” and a salute to film composer John Williams.
Xu admits that he is feeling quite a bit of pressure—especially given the high-caliber of musicians with whom he will be sharing the stage. Represented ensembles include the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Boston Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony, National Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
“It is almost overwhelming,” he says. “But the piece that I am going to play is going to be very fun. It takes a lot of practice but I think it will be very enjoyable.”
Arizona Musicfest Executive and Producing Director Allan Naplan says that the organization is exceptionally proud to feature Xu—someone in which the organization has strongly invested—as part of this year’s program to perform alongside the ensemble’s world-class musicians.
“Players from the nation’s top orchestras come here for just one week,” Naplan says. “This will be the first time that we are including a young musician with the Festival Orchestra—which is an unbelievable credit for Mr. Xu that he gets to solo with players of major orchestras. He is an amazing prodigy pianist who has gone through our whole system of competitions and masterclasses.”
Through its Young Musicians program, Arizona Musicfest recognizes the outstanding talents of young musicians and provides a space where young competitors can perform for and receive evaluations from some of the community’s finest musicians.
Through the program, the organization also distributes monetary awards to winners, with standout participants earning performance opportunities. Students are also invited to attend masterclasses and private lessons with some of Arizona Musicfest’s featured performers.
The organization then sponsors two first-year and four continuing students pursuing undergraduate studies through the Arizona Musicfest Scholarship Program. Since 2011, the Arizona Musicfest Scholarship Program has awarded more than $90,000 to Arizona students pursuing college degrees in music.
Xu, who first entered Arizona Musicfest’s Young Musicians competitions when he was 12 years old, says that the organization has served as one of his primary sources of encouragement and inspiration over the years.
“I established connections with the organizers and they gave me a lot of performance opportunities,” Xu explains. “They have been gracious enough to offer me concert opportunities so that I could perform with other professionals. I think that it is really cool how they extend all of these opportunities to young musicians in the Valley. That is something that you rarely see—especially up to this magnitude.”
Xu was also encouraged and inspired by attending many of the concerts that Arizona Musicfest has brought to the Valley. In fact, simply listening to music has had a tremendous impact on the musician—including getting him through an extremely difficult time during his early childhood.
When he was 4 years old, Xu was diagnosed with aplastic anemia—a serious disorder that stops the body from producing enough new blood cells. Had it not been for a transplant he received from his sister, he may not be here today. And had it not been for the music that he listened to, those challenging early years may have broken him.
Recognizing the incredible power of music—particularly classical music—a 5-year-old Xu started taking piano lessons from his parents Fei Xu and Hong Zhu, both of whom are piano teachers. It was an enjoyable and cathartic hobby. But when he turned 11 years old, Xu started getting much more serious about it.
“One morning, my dad just looked at my hands and said, ‘You have a lot of potential,’” Xu explains. “The piano is a versatile instrument. I feel like I can do a lot of things with it. It is an instrument that I can explore and enjoy.”
In addition to several first- and second-place wins at Arizona Musicfest’s Young Musicians competitions, Xu won the International Institute for Young Musicians International Piano Competition, the Arizona State Music Teachers National Association Junior Piano Competition, the Arizona Young Artist Piano Competition and the Steinway Avanti Star Piano Competition.
Xu’s accomplishments propelled him to where he is now, studying piano performance at the Eastman School of Music in New York and preparing for a prestigious solo with the world-class Festival Orchestra at the invitation of the organization that played an integral part of his success.
Today, Xu draws inspiration from all of the exciting things that he sees other artists doing with music. As he continues to advance along on his own journey as an artist, he is more motivated than ever to share his language with others and to use the powerful force of music for good.
“I want to have a formal performance career,” Xu says. “I could also teach, which I think would be a very enriching experience for me. I would also like to incorporate classical music with digital or visual art. That is a project that I have been interested in since applying for college.
“It is my mission to communicate music, to gain a deeper understanding of it and to be more artistically mature.”
Pictures at an Exhibition and Rachmaninoff
Thursday, Feb. 20 | 7:30 p.m. | La Casa de Cristo Church | 6300 E. Bell Road, Scottsdale | $25+ | 480-422-8449 | azmusicfest.org