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Success on the Audition Circuit

From China to London and from San Francisco to Atlanta, Zhenwei Shi’s dedication has helped him take the world by storm

November 14, 2019 by Tim Records

San Francisco Conservatory of Music graduates are no strangers to jobs in top orchestras around the country, but landing such a job right out of school? That’s the chance of a lifetime.

Last November, 24-year-old Zhenwei Shi ’19 won the position of principal violist in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, a position that hasn’t been open in 39 years. He hadn’t yet graduated.

Born in Changsha, China, he’s the only musician in his family, though “they all like music very much!,” he says. He studied for a decade in China at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music before following his passion to London to attend the Royal Academy of Music in London and then to SFCM, performing in venues such as Buckingham Palace, the Shanghai Concert Hall, Wigmore Hall and the Royal Festival Hall. He has also competed and won such prestigious international prizes like the International String Players Competition in Hong Kong, the Theodore Holland Viola Prize in the U.K. as well as others.

He credits his globetrotting education with helping him to grow into a well-rounded, flexible artist, as it helped him to experience and understand a variety of cultures and backgrounds. “It helped me to look at things in different ways, and also to quickly accept [change] and adjust myself to the corresponding circumstances,” he says.

Shi first met SFCM faculty member Jay Liu at a music festival. It was a pivotal meeting — later, when he received a number of scholarship offers from top conservatories in several countries including The Juilliard School, Shi says that he knew SFCM could provide him with the training he needed as well as the opportunity to study with two world-renowned teachers, Liu and Dimitri Murrath, simultaneously.

“Since Zhenwei arrived at SFCM almost two years ago, he knew exactly what he wanted, and he worked so hard to achieve his goals,” says Liu.

The rigorous training provided by the conservatory quickly paid off. He has performed frequently with the San Francisco Symphony and the Chicago Symphony, and he says he’s thrilled with his position in Atlanta, where he began performing with the orchestra three months ago.

“It’s a challenge to work in a major orchestra as a principal straight out of school,” Shi says. “All the repertoire is new to me, and I have the responsibility to prepare [everything] very well before every week’s rehearsal.”

Before the audition, Shi had never even visited Atlanta, much less performed there. But, as Atlanta is one of the top orchestras in the U.S., he leapt at the chance to audition, passing through the preliminary rounds before playing chamber music with the other principal strings as well as a trial with the full orchestra for the final round.

“Jay [Liu] has been working at the San Francisco Symphony for decades,” Shi says. “With him, I learned everything about how to play in an orchestra, and all the orchestral excerpts which you have to play for an audition.”

Understandably, Shi says that his responsibilities as principal are an adjustment, but ultimately it’s a dream come true. “Of course there is pressure,” he says. “But I feel grateful to work in this wonderful orchestra with lots of supportive and inspiring colleagues.”