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December 11, 2023

Lan and Wolf win 2009 JHU Concerto Competition

By NATALIE BERKMAN | April 8, 2009

Two full-time Hopkins students have found a way to balance the music they love with their other academic passions. Pianist Mengyu Lan and cellist Philip Wolf were recently named the winners of the Hopkins Concerto Competition.

Mengyu Lan is a graduate student in the Department of Civil Engineering of the Whiting School. He began his piano training at the age of five with professors from the Sichuan Conservatory of Music in China. For Lan, piano was a natural choice.

"Unlike most other young piano students in my country, who are forced to study the piano by their parents, I asked my parents to let me study the piano myself when I was five," Lan told the News-Letter. "Intuitively, the sound of piano attracted me the first time I heard it." As Lan himself can attest, one need not attend a music conservatory to possess extraordinary musicianship.

Additionally, Lan has studied with world-renowned teachers such as Zhaoyi Dan and Daxin Zheng and is the youngest pianist to ever achieve the second-highest Chinese level of piano performance.

In 2000, he was awarded first prize in a provincial piano competition and declared the national winner at Tsinghua University Art Camp. For the Mengyu family, growing as a pianist was not always easy.

"Seeing my unstoppable eagerness for piano study, my family bought me one by selling some of their equities, like TV." Lan said. "Even when I was young, I understood my family's economic situation and I knew I had to study very hard to become a world-class pianist. Since then I practiced the piano four hours a day, 365 days a year without any exception."

Lan has performed solo recitals at Zhongshan Park Hall, Beijing Jinfan Hall and Tsinghua University and has also performed here at Hopkins with the Chamber Orchestra. He studies at Peabody with Corey McVicar.

Although Lan's talents are exceptional, he has held off on his goal of becoming a professional pianist. "I have to say it is the family economy that has led me to give up being a professional pianist later on," Lan said. "It is hard to make that choice, since I am one of my world-class teacher's favorite students, but there is no other option."

He enrolled in Tsinghua University, a top-ranked school in China, and began his academic studies while still studying the piano. But when he heard that his friend had won the 14th Chopin Competition, he felt conflicted.

"As once an equally promising student, I felt deeply frustrated by reading the news and regretted giving up becoming a professional pianist," Lan lamented. "For a long time, I lost my will to [excel] in my major."

However, Lan continued to pursue both engineering and musicianship. "Gradually," he said, "I began to realize that it is not the reward or certain title that makes the piano attractive, but the melody and emotion that simply make me love it."

Philip Wolf is a sophomore majoring in mathematics and economics. Growing up in Belmont, Mass., he began playing cello in first grade. "My parents have no musical background, but my dad thought it would be a good idea for me to learn music at the Longy school," Wolf said. "My dad gave me a list of four string instruments, and I chose cello, although I am not sure of the reason."

He performed in the Boston Youth Symphony for seven years, during which time he was one of 10 student musicians chosen to take part in a cultural exchange in Laikipia, Kenya. A documentary film made about this project won an honorable mention at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Wolf considered applying to conservatories and double-degree programs but decided to focus on an academic degree instead, which is why Hopkins, given its affiliation with Peabody, appealed to him. "Through my work at Peabody, I have been able to keep my cello playing at a decent level," Wolf said, "so I have not completely ruled out a career in music."

He aims to complete two hours of practice a day, although he realizes that with a Hopkins workload that's not always possible. "Although there are occasional weeks when I have a large workload, on average I never seem to have a hard time finding time to practice," Wolf said.

Last summer, Wolf worked at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute. "This was a great opportunity for me to be [as] immersed in classical music as I was in high school," he said. "For the most part, my cello playing at Hopkins is my own pursuit."

Wolf is currently a member of the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra and has taught cello to children at Margaret Brent Elementary School. Additionally, he has organized and played in chamber music ensembles in collaboration with Michael Kannen, director of chamber music at the Peabody Conservatory. He studies at Peabody with Daniel Levitov.

As for his future plans, Wolf is still uncertain. He works diligently on classes for his majors and practices regularly. "Although there is a lot of talk about the interactions between math and music, I treat the two as completely independent things," Wolf admitted.

"I have never found that knowing one has affected my endeavors in the other." Whichever he chooses, it is evident that he is a dedicated student and musician. "I aim to keep my academics and cello playing at a high level so that I have options to work with."

The next Hopkins Symphony Orchestra concert will be on April 26 and will feature music by Brahms and Sanchez-Gutierrez. Students and faculty will have the chance to experience both the fantastic musicianship of Lan, Wolf and others and the surprises the University boasts.

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