San Francisco Symphony - Violinist
San Francisco Conservatory of Music - Violin Professor
SF Symphony Youth Orchestra - Violin Coach
A native of Shanghai, Chen Zhao showed an early interest in music, playing a makeshift violin (a chopstick and pencil box) until his parents gave him a 1/8-size violin on his fourth birthday. He studied with his uncle Ronghao Nie and gave his first public performance at the Shanghai Children’s Palace at age six. He went on to study at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Crossroads School for Art and Sciences, Curtis Institute of Music, SF Conservatory of Music, and joined the San Francisco Symphony at age 25. His teachers include Jiaxiang Zhou, Jiyang Zhao, Heiichiro Ohyama, Felix Galimir, Camilla Wicks, and members of the Amadeus, Guarneri, Vermeer, Juilliard and Borodin Quartets.
Chen has toured throughout the US, Europeand Asia, including performances at the Ravinia, La Jolla, Sun Valley, Round Top, Santa Fe, PMF, Evian, BBC Proms and Lucerne festivals. A seasoned performer in the world's most prestigious concert halls, he has performed as a soloist with the San Francisco Symphony, Curtis Symphony Orchestra, Oslo Chamber Orchestra and the Stanford Symphony Orchestra. An avid chamber musician, he has performed with Martin Lovett, Miriam Fried, Denise Djokic, Paul Neubauer, Robert Chen, Gilbert Kalish, Jorja Fleezanis, Geraldine Walther, Scott Lee, Sheryl Staples, Colin Jocobsen, as well as his SFS colleagues.
During his tenure with the SF Symphony, Chen has performedand recorded with Michael Tilson Thomas in all Mahler Symphonies, MTT’s From the Diary of Anne Frank, Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6, Schumann Symphonies and Mason Bates Works for Orchestra on the SFS Media label. He appeared in all the Keeping Score documentary films as well as the S&M2 live concert film with Metallica. During the pandemic, Chen recorded music with his wife, Carri Abrahms, and daughter, Mila; mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke; American pop-rock band Train; violinists Nikki Chooi and Shlomo Mintz; and musicians from SF Symphony for social media platforms. He also worked to set up masterclasses for SFCM students with celebrity violinists such as Hilary Hahn, James Ehnes and Ray Chen.
Since 2000, Chen has mentored and coached hundreds of young violinists in the San Francisco Bay Area, many of whom are now active soloists, chamber music and orchestral players performing with prestigious orchestras including SF Symphony, LA Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Pittsburgh Symphony, Atlanta Symphony and New World Symphony. Some of the most notable violinists are Boxianzi Vivian Ling, Alina Kobialka, Alexi Kenney, Hannah Tarley, Jeong Celine Kim, Nigel Armstrong and Rachel Ostler.
In addition to playing 150+ orchestra concerts each season with the SF Symphony, Chen continues to play solo and chamber music performances, holds a violin professorship at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and serves as an orchestral excerpt and training coach for both the SFCM Orchestra and the SF Symphony Youth Orchestra. During the summer months, he serves as an artist-in-residence at the Round Top and Pacific Crest Music Festivals, as well as playing Principal 2nd with the Lake Area Music Festival Orchestra under the direction of Christian Reif.
- Private Lessons
- Orchestral Training for Violins
- MA, San Francisco Conservatory of Music
- BA, Curtis Institute of Music
- San Francisco Symphony, 2000–Present
What is your hometown?
What is your favorite recording?
Too many! I enjoy listening to stylistic players such as Alfredo Campoli, Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, Leonid Kogan, David Oistrakh, Vasa Prihoda, Oscar Shumsky, Henri Temianka, Jacque Thibaud, Sandor Vegh, Michael Rapin, Lisa Batiashvili, and Vadim Repin.
What are you passionate about outside of music?
Family, nature, hikes, travels, food, gardens, photography, fine arts, and fine cars.
Who were your major teachers?
Camilla Wicks, Felix Galimir, and Heiichiro Ohyama.
What question do you wish students would ask sooner rather than later?
“How do I play with more refinement, style, and character?”
What was the defining moment when you decided to pursue music as a career?
When I was accepted at the Curtis Institute of Music to study with the legendary Felix Galimir.
What was a turning point in your career?
When I joined the San Francisco Symphony.
If you weren't a musician or teacher, what do you think you would be doing now?
Never actually thought about it...
What is your daily practice routine?
I start with scales, bow exercises, and vibrato exercises, play some Bach or Paganini, then move on to pieces that I am working on.
If you could play only three composers for the rest of your life, who would they be?
Beethoven, Mozart, and Stravinsky.
What are your most important collaborations?
Michael Tilson Thomas, Jorja Fleezanis, and Martin Lovett.