Shuo Zhai loves music, and architecture. This year, he’s getting a chance to pursue both professionally.
Zhai, who grew up in Davis and attended local schools, performed as a pianist on April 20-21 with the Chamber Music Society of Sacramento.
He also recently completed a master’s degree in architecture at Yale, studying during his final year under noted architect Frank Gehry. In May, Zhai will be off to Japan, where he has a three-month internship with the Tokyo firm SANAA, which won the coveted Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2010.
Zhai was born in China, and came to the United States at age 6. His father was a graduate student at UC Davis (studying geology), and the family lived in Orchard Park. The young Zhai attended the former West Davis Elementary, West Davis Intermediate, Holmes Junior High and Davis High (where he sang with the Madrigals).
The piano has long been an important part of his life — he started lessons at age 8, and has played as an accompanist with many local musicians.
After graduating from DHS in 2001, Zhai went to Stanford, where he majored in economics and music. After completing his undergraduate studies, he went to Hong Kong for three years, working as an investment banker.
“It was very fast-paced and dynamic,” Zhai said. He did return to Davis to perform in the Madrigals 40th anniversary concert in 2007 at the Mondavi Center, as singer and piano accompanist. He even managed to squeeze back into the Madrigal costume he’d worn as a high school student, though he needed to let out a bit of fabric and use a few safety pins.
Then it was back to Hong Kong and investment banking. Zhai found he was enjoying living in and around Hong Kong’s modern buildings, and ultimately resolved to change his career direction.
“I decided to come back to the States to study architecture. It just felt so natural for me,” Zhai said.
While studying architecture at Yale, he joined the Yale Chorus, where he found himself sitting behind DHS graduate Lucy Fitz Gibbon.
“Lucy turned around and said ‘Oh my gosh, it’s you.’ Lucy and I did not overlap in Madrigals, but we had heard about each other from friends — and right away we felt ‘the Davis bond.’ ”
And Zhai and Fitz Gibbon both sang together in the Yale Schola Cantorum for two years under noted maestro Masaaki Suzuki.
Having completed his master’s at Yale, Zhai returned to the Davis area to spend time with family before traveling to Japan for his internship. When he got in touch with longtime El Macero resident William Barbini — who is artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Sacramento — Barbini told Zhai that the concert series needed a pianist on short notice to prepare and perform the Piano Quartet in G Minor (Op. 25) by Johannes Brahms.
“I hadn’t played the Brahms before,” Zhai said. And he wasn’t all that well acquainted with the other three musicians — violinist Kineko Okumura of El Macero, violist Elizabeth Prior of the Bay Area, and cellist Julie Hochman of Davis. But since Zhai was essentially taking a break between his studies at Yale and his internship in Tokyo, he was able to devote six hours a day to practicing the Brahms.
“It gave me motivation to do some very deliberate practice. And I was able to learn the piece. It felt good,” Zhai said. And the performances went well — the April 20 audience at Congregation Bet Haverim gave the piece a standing ovation.
Zhai also expressed his appreciation to Barbini for the opportunity to perform the Brahms by providing Barbini with some landscaping ideas for his El Macero home, drawing on Zhai’s architecture studies at Yale.
The 29-year-old Zhai said he’s enjoyed his current brief opportunity to visit the town he grew up in and see old acquaintances, as he gets ready to start his internship in Japan.
“I look at my friends who I went to school with here, and I realize I was lucky to have these great resources in this community as I was growing up. It’s a source of pride.”