Cellist Sophie Shao Captivates



Sophie Shao and Nikki Chooi (along with Carmit Zori, Orion Weiss and Paul Neubauer) play in “Sophie Shao and Friends.”


In the Robison Hall at the Kevin P. Mahaney ’84 Center for the Arts on Wednesday Feb. 28, a burgeoning audience waited impatiently for cellist Sophie Shao and her extraordinarily talented friends. Shao’s group, comprised of violinists Nikki Chooi and Carmit Zori, violist Paul Neubauer and pianist Orion Weiss, took the stage with their respective instruments as the hall applauded. Sans introduction, the group took their place and harmoniously began with the soft tones of Joseph Haydn, “Trio in E-flat Major, Hob XV:29” and the audience slowly fell into a musical trance.

Shao and her friends Chooi and Weiss, delivered a powerful rendition of Haydn’s trio with rhythmic yet sharp and intense notes to exude a work full of character and humor. Violinist Chooi was most expressive, his controlled poise enchanting the audience as he moved to the strings of his violin. The audience smiled in delight, most of them closed-eyed throughout the performance, as the increasingly elaborate piece moved further and further from the mock-simplicity of the original. As the music shifted down from major third to B major, the audience relaxed from the calm energy of the music.

As the song drew to a close and the next began, Zori and Neubauer took the stage for the “Piano Quintet, H.49” by Frank Bridge. The piece was a muscular, four-movement work, with a huge piano part, brim full of musical ideas, but rather unwieldy and certainly lacking the refinement and elegance of Bridge’s mature chamber works. This performance was a four-part series with musical ingenuity, brisk tempo and staccato tunes that included a cello-piano duet which Shao and Weiss carried out gracefully. According to audience feedback, it was the sort of music that could “heal a broken soul.” The flowing piece was contrasted with a quick ending that earned resounding applause from the audience for its zest and marvelous execution.

Unlike other artists who describe the songs, impact and meaning to the audience, Shao and her friends did not make any interpretations at the start of any piece. Although unusual, I enjoyed the technique as it let the music mean whatever the listener thought.

This mysterious allure was perhaps most reflected in the group’s final performance: Piano Quintet No.2, Op.81 by Czech composer Antonín Dvořák. The piano was the main instrument in the theme and Weiss’ fingers slid and glided across the Steinway with fantastic precision. Accompaniment by the strings was minimal and transparent through the second movement and as the pieces drew to a close, the tempo picked up once more, rushing to an exuberant close. he audience resounded in a much deserved standing ovation.

Having played at the college for the 13th time, it is without doubt that Shao is a favorite among the Middlebury community. Series Director Allison Coyne Carroll described her as “always being a pleasure to work with, a consummate musician, and a special friend to the series.”

Through the multiple reverberating standing ovations Shao and her friends receive annually, it is without question that we will see her grace Robison Hall again in the future.