Cellists Zhang, Wu form quartet, qualify for international competition

Swasti Singhai, Staff Writer

As an eighth-grader, Justin Wu (11) gripped his cello as he stepped into the small music studio. The room that used to be enveloped with the sounds of his instrument alone was now filled with the sounds of three others. 

“I was nervous [for my first rehearsal] because I didn’t know if I was enough or as good as everyone else in the quartet,” Wu said. “Playing with a cello quartet was the first time I’d ever done something like that. In those arrangements, it’s really cool because cellos have a big range and you have people playing together all over different ranges of the cello.” 

Ethan Zhang (12) was one of the founding members of the quartet, the San Diego Youth Cello Quartet+ (SDYCQ+), while he was in eighth grade. 

“When [the quartet] first formed, we didn’t really know what we were doing so it was really an experimental thing,” Zhang said. “The ensemble we’re playing in, with four cellos, is really rare so we were just enjoying what we could do with it and see how far we could go.”

In 2017, after one of the senior members graduated, Zhang invited Wu, who was  studying under the same teacher, to join the group. 

“Once Justin joined, we did more competitions and we really started pushing the coverage for commercial concerts while marketing ourselves as a pretty unique brand,” Zhang said. “We set up a series of concerts where we would be featured as an ensemble and could try to raise money for our music education.”

As the years went on, the group underwent many changes: older members began graduating, new members joined, they switched to a trio and at one point even a quintet. 

“We’ve definitely been through a bunch of different phases in the roster, but something that’s remained common is just how Justin and I have always been playing together through these years,” Zhang said. 

Along with their four years together in SDYCQ+, the two musicians have been pursuing their individual goals as well, resulting in their qualification to the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians, the largest competition for pre-collegiate musicians.  

“When I first started learning with Ethan’s teacher, he was like ‘it’s time to start preparing for the International Tchaikovsky Competition,’” Wu said. “Back then, I thought it was a really far, out-of-reach goal. So I was like ‘sure, I’ll prepare pieces and practice.’”

The Russia-based competition was postponed once because of COVID-19, and a second time because of the Russia-Ukraine war; the final date is currently unknown. 

“Throughout that time, we’ve been practicing for a really long time, and as time went on, I realized that qualifying may be a realistic possibility,” Wu said. “The summer before the auditions I practiced a lot, so by the time auditions came around, I think we both were pretty much as prepared as we could be.”

Zhang said he began preparing for the competition months before Wu, two years after he started playing cello. 

“You can consider it being hailed as sort of the Olympics of the classical music world,” Zhang said. “For me personally, I’ve been studying with my teacher for three years longer than Justin. So ever since sixth grade, he sort of posted it as the ultimate goal for me. So getting into the competition was really personal to me because it was a dream for so long.”

Now, both Wu and Zhang have lessons twice a week—once individually, and the other in their quartet. The group makes three recordings and plays at approximately four to five large concerts a year in numerous San Diego locations, such as the J11 Concert Hall and the Grace Prebysterian Church in Temecula. They’ve also performed overseas at the Teatro Alfieri in Italy. 

“Every concert we did has been really memorable,” Wu said. “It’s really fun to just be able to meet with each other every week and have fun and play music together. Ethan is graduating, so I’ll definitely miss him a lot. It’ll be really different without him, but I’m really glad that we’ve had a lot of really fun experiences and memories together.”