As we count down the days leading up to this year’s Eckhardt-Gramatté National Music Competition, our semi-finalists checked in to share their experiences and preparation with pianist Everett Hopfner, a two-time E-Gré participant.

Jialiang Zhu Headshot

Today’s interview features Jialiang Zhu, currently a doctoral student at the University of Toronto.

Everett Hopfner: Why did you decide to enter the E-Gré Competition?

Jialiang Zhu: I’ve heard a lot about the competition through my piano friends, string friends, and vocalist friends, and my teachers have also urged me to perform more Canadian music. I’ve been able to meet former winners in yourself and Claudia Chan. Through participating in the Tapestry New Opera Workshop in Toronto, I’ve also gotten more and more into new music. It’s really a matter of timing – this year, I had more time to prepare the program, so I decided to enter.

EH: Can you describe your experiences with contemporary music?

During my undergrad degree at the University of Toronto, I joined the New Music Ensemble. I got to play some solo piano and different kinds of chamber works. They weren’t all necessarily by Canadian composers, but I got exposed to the experimental sounds. It was very cool, but I didn’t quite understand the language until I joined Tapestry New Opera. The coaches there consisted of vocalists, pianists, conductors and stage directors, so the instruction was very multi-dimensional. I got a much better and deeper understanding of what I was playing. After that experience, I just looked for more opportunities like it – and when my friends were looking for somebody to play new music with, I was always happy to join them and to broaden my experience.

In terms of Canadian music, it was actually only last year that I learned my first Canadian piano solo work. It’s been really cool to discover what I like, and what fits, and to listen to a bunch of different composers.

EH: Have you been enjoying the preparation aspect of the competition?

[Laughing] It’s been joy and pain, mixed together. Different composers today have very different influences, different styles, trends, and all that. These are not all familiar to me! Sometimes it feels like I’m trying to understand a different language. But the cool thing is, I was able to get in touch with some of the composers, and I feel that I’m well supported. If I’ve had questions, they’ve been happy to answer and help. I’ve been listening to other works by the same composers to get more familiar with their musical language. It’s been really mind-opening.

EH: What pieces are you most excited to share with the audience in Brandon?

I would say all of them, because they’re all so different! They all stretch my limits in different ways. One of them is Douglas Finch’s piece “Yeibichai”. I got in touch with him, and he replied with a lot of details and also shared his program notes and his own experience performing the piece. This piece is entering a different kind of soundscape with a lot of acoustic effects, and influenced by Aboriginal culture.

The commissioned work by Jeffrey Ryan is very cool. The writing is very economical – in a way, it forces the performer to come up with their own imagination and be convinced by their own interpretation. These pieces are perhaps the most unfamiliar to me in terms of the musical language, so they’re adding an extra challenge.

EH: What are you most looking forward to as the competition approaches?

I’m excited to travel to a new city I’ve never been to, and to meet the other pianists and the organizers. I’ve heard from my friends who champion new music that this circle is pretty small. You run into the same group of people in different places. I’m looking forward to joining that group and to learning from them.

EH: Finally, Jialiang, what do you hope to take away from the weekend in Brandon? What are your goals?

I think just getting prepared towards the performance, and simply being there – to immerse myself in something different, and to hear something different. I think the experience itself will be the most rewarding thing.

EH: Thanks for taking the time for this interview, Jialiang. We’re really looking forward to welcoming you to Brandon in May.


The 39th Eckhardt-Gramatté National Music Competition will be held May 6-8 in the Lorne Watson Recital Hall, Brandon University.