How do you get to Symphony Hall? Practice, as the old joke has it—plus luck, talent, poise, and passion. Those are the qualities that propelled Adalia Wen ’25 to earn one of four coveted grand prize spots in the 2022 Boston Pops Fidelity Investments Young Artists Competition. Hundreds of Massachusetts high school student musicians vie for the honor, which brings the opportunity to work with world-class musicians, receive one-on-one coaching from Boston Pops Maestro Keith Lockhart, and, most thrilling of all, perform with the Pops this spring on the storied Symphony Hall stage.
“Winning this competition is a big deal,” said Matt Heck, director of the Conservatory Program at Rivers, adding that, of this year’s four winners, two others—besides Wen—study at The Rivers School Conservatory. “Having one RSC student winner is amazing,” said Heck. “Having three is totally over the top.”
“I can’t say I was totally expecting it,” said Wen, describing the moment she learned she’d been selected. But perhaps it wasn’t totally unexpected, either: The ninth grader has long been a serious musician who has had a run of impressive accomplishments with her primary instrument, piano. Most recently, she was one of the three winners of the RSC’s prestigious Concerto Competition in February.
But this was a very different kind of competition—and a very different kind of instrument. Wen chose to compete playing the guzheng, a traditional Chinese instrument that resembles a large zither. She opted for the guzheng over the piano, she explained, both to highlight her heritage and to stand out from the competition. “I had more to say about the guzheng—not just what it means for me but what it means for the instrument and the culture. There’s a lot of historical significance to the piece I played, and in my essay, I tied it to my identity as an Asian American,” said Wen.
That identity has been forged since her arrival in this country from Hong Kong at the age of five. The family first moved to Washington State, then relocated to the Boston area for educational opportunities, said Wen. When they were unpacking after that final move, Wen came across a guzheng that was among their possessions; her mother had played the instrument in college. She was intrigued, and her mother asked if she’d like to take lessons.
She declined. “I didn’t think you could do much with it—it would just be a cool party trick,” she said. But a few years later, with time on her hands thanks to the pandemic, her interest in the instrument was once again piqued. Remarkably, in the relatively short time she’s been playing the guzheng, she has acquired the proficiency that won her a spot with the Boston Pops.
Dennis Alves, director of artistic planning for the Boston Pops, was among those in the hall when Wen had her audition, earlier this month. “I don’t know a lot about Chinese music, but it isn’t necessary,” he said. “She played so sensitively and so musically; she just nailed her final audition live in front of a panel of judges. She had so much confidence and aplomb. It was remarkable.”
Hundreds of students enter the competition, he explained, and those initial entries are winnowed down to about 20 who are invited to audition live. From those, up to four are chosen. “It was very difficult to choose four,” said Alves. “This year’s group of finalists was outstanding.” Now in its 13th year, the competition—made possible, says Alves, through Fidelity’s generous support—is back in person after a COVID hiatus.
Poised as she was during her audition, Wen says she’s nervous about her turn with the Pops, which will take place on June 7. “I haven’t performed on the guzheng in public before,” she said. Musicians, she noted, have to walk a fine line between insecurity and overconfidence, and she’s hoping that by the date of the performance, she will be in the sweet spot of feeling prepared but not overprepared.
Leaving nothing to chance, she has already selected the dress she will wear on the Symphony Hall stage. “It’s purple,” she said. To be comfortable while she plays her instrument, she said, “It can’t be too big, it can’t be flying out, it can’t be too shiny, it has to be long enough.” She says she intentionally steered clear of choosing traditional Chinese dress. “I think it’s too much; it would feel like a costume. I want to focus on the music and not the fact that I’m Asian. I’ve been living in America so long, I’m equally Chinese and American.”
But the guzheng has proven to be an indispensable link to her heritage, in a tangible way. “Even though Mandarin is my first language, I’m not good at it,” she explained. And her grandparents, with whom she lives, do not speak English. “For years I felt bad that I couldn’t talk to them about regular things,” she said. Now, though, they can communicate through the guzheng. “We share a love of music, and they really like Chinese music. The fact that I am able to do it makes them so proud.”