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Tonight: Yao Guang Zhai, one of Toronto Symphony's new star players, joins Toronto Summer Music Festival happy gang

By John Terauds on July 19, 2013

Toronto Symphony Orchestra associate principal clarinet Yao Guang Zhai makes his Toronto Summer Music Festival début in ensemble tonight at Walter Hall.
Toronto Symphony Orchestra associate principal clarinet Yao Guang Zhai makes his Toronto Summer Music Festival début in ensemble tonight at Walter Hall.

French music went off the rails of seriousness around the outbreak of World War I, careening madly and irreverently through Paris salons and bars. We get a deep swig of this silly juice tonight at Walter Hall in a programme the Toronto Summer Music Festival is rightly calling Riots and Rituals.

Part of the musical happy hang on stage tonight (as well as in another programme featuring pianist André Laplante next week) is Toronto Symphony Orchestra associate principal clarinet Yao Guang Zhai, one of the city’s notable young art music stars.

Zhai has been with the TSO for two seasons now, and because principal clarinet Joaquin Valdepeñas usually doesn’t play when the guest soloist is on stage, the 20-something native of Taiyuan — a city the size of Toronto slightly southwest of Beijing — has already had numerous opportunities to show off an uncommon musicality at Roy Thomson Hall.

(The clarinetist is not the only Toronto Symphony notable to join tonight’s concert; also playing are principal oboe Sarah Jeffrey, principal trumpet Andrew McCandless, principal bass Jeffrey Beecher and frequent bassoon fill-in, Nadina Mackie Jackson.)

Zhai, a compact bundle of energy with sparkling eyes, isn’t afraid to tell the story of how he came to make a living with the clarinet.

His father, a violinist stymied by Chairman Mao’s anti-arts Cultural Revolution, poured a lifetime of pent-up personal ambition into his son, handing Yao Guang a violin when he was 3.

“He made me practise six hours a day, and he would sit and play with me,” Zhai recalls. “I started playing in competitions when I was 5 — but I never had fun with it, because I didn’t choose it.”

At age 10 — “when I was big and strong enough,” says Zhang — he had a big fight with his father, insisting that there would be no more violin. “My Dad was depressed and very mad,” the only child relates. But the father’s pragmatism won the day. He knew a good clarinet player and thought Yao Guang should give it a try.

“He said it was easier, so I wouldn’t have to practise six hours a day,” Zhang relates, with just a hint of sarcasm.

Woodwind in hand, the boy was sent off to senior high school in California, then to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia before landing a job as principal clarinet of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.

I ask if he ever had any regrets about his choice of woodwind. Zhang smiles and says that, to the contrary, there was a moment at Curtis when he worried because there was absolutely nothing else in the world he wanted to do other than play the clarinet.

Because we were dazzled by the Toronto début of pianist Yuja Wang (a close friend of Zhang’s) when the Shanghai Symphony played at Roy Thomson Hall in the fall of 2009, we didn’t notice Zhang amongst the woodwinds. But he and his travel mates spent three days in Toronto, and fell in love with the city’s cultural diversity.

Fast forward a year, and Zhang found out that the TSO hadn’t been able to settle on a new associate principal clarinet from a Canada-wide search and had opened up the auditions to international applicants. The clarinettist, who knew and had worked with Peter Oundjian and Joaquin Valdepeñas, landed an audition slot.

“I played a concert with the Shangai Symphony, jumped on a plane and had my audition in the morning when I got to Toronto,” Zhang recalls. He was offered the job that night, and officially started with the orchestra in September, 2011.

I wonder what it is about his playing that stands out from all the hundreds of other talented clarinettists around the world.

Zhang gets all serious. “Afterwards, I asked my colleagues the same thing. Why did you pick me?,” he recalls. “They told me it was not because my playing was perfect, but I was trying to make music.”

The sparkle returns to Zhang’s eyes as he reveals his love of all things French, from his Parisian-made Buffet clarinet to that country’s composers’ love of woodwinds. He says he enjoys chamber music collaborations and is actively looking for ways in which to expand his professional relationships in this city.

Toronto Summer Music appears to be a fine starting point.

Oh, and there’s one more little thing to clear up: If you want to be a really good clarinet player, you still have to practise six hours a day, so it really helps if you love your instrument.


Tonight’s concert promises an embarrassment of riches, both from the list of performers on stage to the programme.

The evening kicks off the Jean Françaix’s L’Heure du Berger — not a pastorale, but a rollicking ode to anisette, the most quintessentially French of apéritifs — and continues with Bohuslav Martinu’s short ballet score La Revue de cuisine and Francis Poulenc’s Le Bal masqué before ending with Igor Stravinsky’s fierce piano-four-hand transcription of The Rite of Spring ballet score.

You’ll find all the details here.

In case you’d like to sample these rare (for Toronto) musical dishes before the concert, here they are:

L’Heure du Berger, with the Berliner Bläserquintett and the composer himself at the piano (tonight we hear Françaix’s original score, which was for strings only):

La Revue de cuisine (a tangled love story involving kitchen utensils that have come to life), in a full-orchestra version featuring the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Christopher Hogwood:

And, in case you missed Amici’s excellent presentation of Le Bal masqué at Koerner Hall with Isabel Bayrakdarian, here is a fun staging (shot in rehearsal) by Greek National Opera from 2009. The baritone is Michael Psyrras:

John Terauds

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