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Grace Xia Zhao’s faculty recital captivates viewers

Artist in Residence Grace Xia Zhao was greeted with a packed house on Friday for her piano recital in the Steinway Studio. The recital included a selection of works by composer Franz Liszt, such as Piano Sonata in B Minor and Mephisto Waltz. Zhao received her doctorate in music at the University of Southern California; she is an award-winning, international solo and chamber music artist. / photo by Jakeh Landrum

Christopher Barnes-Baxter
Staff Writer

International award-winning pianist Grace Xia Zhao entertained a small group of students and faculty Friday, as she played one of the most difficult pieces known to musicians in the Steinway studio.

The two pieces she played were by titled Piano Sonata in B minor, and Mephisto Waltz No. 1, The Dance in the Village Inn, both written by the composer Franz Liszt.

University of La Verne students and faculty marveled as Zhao poured her heart and soul into the 30 minute piece she played from memory.

“It’s interesting seeing her addressing the audience at one point, and then going into a full on trance as she plays her pieces,” senior criminology major Bradley Ramirez said.

Zhao managed to captivate her audience with her skill and performance, despite the buzz of construction noise in the background of Founders Hall that went on throughout her performance.

The audience nonetheless, like Zhao, did not seem to notice the sound at all.

“The way she played the piano was amazing. She played the piece so well it was as though her hands were just floating over the keys. Her whole performance was intense,” freshman Christopher Pulu said.

Before performing, Zhao described Piano Sonata in B minor as a continuous single movement form, even though the piece does have three extremely distinctive sections, with five different motives.

“This piece is not a girly one,” Zhao said. “It is not something that Maroon 5 or Coldplay would play, if you want to compare this song to something more modern, think of a song that Led Zeppelin would play,”

Zhao described the song as having a recurring theme of good versus evil. Liszt based many of his songs on religious themes, especially ones concerning sin and redemption.

Zhao executed each note of the sonata beautifully, painting a vivid and epic love story for her audience.

The transitions from a soft, elegant and airy sound to a more dramatic and daunting one gave the piece a larger-than-life poetic feel.

Each transition felt as though it was a fall from grace into something dark and mysterious, which created a sense of panic and a feeling of rush and uncertainty.

Zhao’s second piece sounded very similar to the first, and though it did not have as many dramatic transitions, dance-like sounds were incorporated to keep listeners excited and in-tune with the show.

“The performance played out just as she described it in the beginning, she gave you the meat and potatoes with the first song, and followed up with a dessert for the second song, which ended with a bang,” Pulu said.

Zhao chose to play these two pieces not simply because they were well written by a quintessential artist, but because the manuscripts will be celebrating their bicentennial next year.

“As pianists we love performing. It is what we live for,” Zhao said.

Zhao’s next performance will be March 8 at the Chamber of Music for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Christopher Barnes-Baxter can be reached at

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