iolinist Shanshan Zeng is a rising star in her first season with the Oregon Symphony. Originally from Chengdu, China, she came to the United States as a full scholarship recipient to study at both San Domenico School and the San Francisco Conservatory. At San Domenico, she played as soloist and concertmaster with the Orchestra da Camera, which won the asta National Orchestra Festival Grand Champion in 2008 and 2010. Zeng earned her bachelor’s degree at San Francisco Conservatory and served as concertmaster of their Preparatory Chamber Orchestra. While earning her master’s degree at New England Conservatory of Music, she played as a member of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, and the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra. Among her other incredibly impressive accomplishments, Zeng played with Yo-Yo Ma at the 38th Kennedy Center Honors honoring Maestro Seiji Ozawa in 2015.


Shanshan Zeng at Powell’s City of Books, her favorite destination for a night out.
Photo by Jennifer Alyse.

When and why did you start playing?

I started learning the violin at the age of four with my great aunt, who is a violin professor at Sichuan Conservatory of Music. My dad is a classical music lover. He has a vast collection of classical music cds – not just violin but symphonies, operas, chamber music, and other instrumental music as well. He was quite enthusiastic about me taking violin lessons – much more than I was at the time. He would videotape my lessons and study them so he would know what to say when I was practicing at home.

When did you first know you wanted to be a professional musician?

When I was in my ninth grade, I was suddenly very drawn to music. I did not think about playing the violin as my career, but I kept taking lessons every week with my great aunt up until then. She was very strict with me during lessons, but after lessons, we would have such good meals that it would make up for all the tears I shed moments before. There was one time during my study break that I watched video of the Berlin Philharmonic playing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 conducted by Claudio Abbado. I was in an ecstasy that I had never felt before. I thought, this is it! I wanted to share this unexplainable, moving, magical, and emotional content with more people. I wanted to study music, and I wanted to make more people happy from the inside.


What constitutes an extraordinary live performance, in your opinion?

I think it is when the performer becomes the music and takes the audience with him or her on the musical journey.

Do you get nervous before a performance? Do you have any pre-show rituals?

I think I get more anxious than nervous because performing is presenting something that I have been working on meticulously. By performing it and sharing it with the public, I am also witnessing the product of my labor. The moment I step onstage, I have to remind myself to let go of any fear and embrace the uncertainty – sometimes this is more successful than others. I prefer to have a relatively empty stomach before going onstage, so I stop eating at least two hours before a performance. Dark chocolate is fine, but too much food gives me a “food coma” that puts me to sleep.

If you had not become a professional musician, what do you imagine would you be?

Maybe an interior or fashion designer? Or something creative, like a chef
or a painter. I would also like to be a professional food taster!

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given about anything?

Hope for the best but prepare for the worst. Don’t forget to breathe.

How do you handle mistakes during a performance?

I keep going and do not let it affect the rest of the performance. Afterward, I analyze to see if it was because of lack of practice or purely mental blocks and if it has happened repeatedly or just that once. Different mistakes need to be treated differently.

Is the symphony orchestra still relevant, or is it a museum?

Going to a live symphony concert is exciting. Listening to music at home or on an electronic device is convenient, but it will not give you the same feeling as going to a live performance. The audience around you and the musicians onstage all share the same physical space and time. It is an exchange of humanity and energy. And as classical performers, we are trying to reverse some of the stereotypes that people have when they think about classical music – uptight, super formal, serious, hard to understand, and inaccessible. But classical music is like the classic literature; it is timeless and enriches the human souls in so many ways that one does not have to be a professional to appreciate it.

What do you find to be the most challenging part of being a musician?

Musicians can be very hard on themselves. I think of striking the balance between being incredibly critical of my playing and accepting the fact that this was the best I could have done in the given situation. Then, I keep striving for the perfection that is in my mind again and again. It is hard because I know I will never get to it, but I have to keep trying.

Artslandia’s theme for the 2019–20 season is A Night Out. Describe for our readers your perfect night out.

I think it depends on my mood and energy tank. If I am running low on
juice, I would like to cuddle up in my apartment by myself, either watching something on my computer or reading a book. Depending on the weather, I might brew some tea or have some wine. If I have a date night with friends and am going out, I think anywhere that is not too loud is the most enjoyable. Making 
a conversation over loud “background” music hurts my throat, and after a while, I feel that I need oxygen. Or, we could all hang out at one of our places, make our own drinks, and play board games or charades. Or we could watch Our Planet and marvel at the beauty of our habitat. I can be quite boring in this regard.