Three Questions with Principal Viola Yi Zhou

Three Questions with Principal Viola Yi Zhou

Yi Zhou // © Chris Hardy

SF Ballet Orchestra Principal Viola Yi Zhou performs Giselle’s Act II viola solo accompanying Giselle and Albrecht’s iconic pas de deux. A hallmark piece of viola repertoire often excerpted for recitals and auditions, the solo by Adolphe Adam takes on new life within the stage production.

Zhou has been Principal Viola of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra since 2015. Prior to his appointment, he was named Principal Viola of the Los Angeles Opera by Music Director James Conlon and Placido Domingo. He is also an active chamber musician and has collaborated with renowned artists including Menahem Pressler, Arnold Steinhardt, Ronald Leonard, Quatuor Ebène, Fiato Quartet, and the New Hollywood String Quartet.

When did you first encounter this solo?

It’s funny, but I had never performed this before. I’d heard it many times—it’s one of the greatest excerpts violists have to play—but the first time I played it was in the audition here. Having the opportunity to perform Giselle was one of the reasons I wanted to take this job.

I performed the solo publicly for the first time at the Gala this year, in January, which felt like a warmup—and the performances this February will be my first time playing the complete ballet!

COULD You describe this solo from your perspective in the pit?

When you’re in a ballet performance—with the conductor, the stage, with your colleagues—it’s more like playing chamber music. You’re not playing alone; you have the harp entrance, and your wonderful colleagues accompanying you. There’s a lot of stretching, watching.

You also have to bring out your sound in this solo. It’s a generous and peaceful sound—it’s night music, but in a major key. The opening on a low and open C is a calm and vulnerable moment, and a contrast to the brass chord that precedes it. But it’s also very challenging physically, as the solo comes after you’ve already been playing for two hours, and emotionally you must play with both calm and excitement.


I enjoy playing in the Orchestra because there are many chances to play chamber music, especially with the new works. We play a lot of quintet and quartet music, and there are also chances to play these great, big solos—both [Adams’] Giselle and Coppélia have great moments for violists.


San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Tomasson's Giselle // © Reneff-Olson Productions