Promising prodigy tickles ivories and fancies

By Mu Qian (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-01-09 09:35
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Promising prodigy tickles ivories and fancies 

Pianist Zhang Haochen,19, is gaining rising acclaim as one of the country's key players. Photos courtesy of Zhang Haochen

Pianist Zhang Haochen is gaining great acclaim as one of China's key players.

But the 19-year-old doesn't like to compare himself to the country's prominent virtuosos, such as Lang Lang and Li Yundi.

"We all have different styles," Zhang says.

"But I have taken encouragement from their receptions on the world stage."

The young artist's most recent performance of Chopin's Grand Polonaise for Piano and Orchestra at the New Year Concert of the Worldwide Chinese Festival Orchestra at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing gave new oomph to his rising acclaim.

It was one of the 200 shows around the world he won the right to play over three years. His performances have been organized by the Van Cliburn Foundation since he won first prize at the foundation's International Piano Competition in the United States last June.

Zhang has taken the top spot in five of the six competitions in which he has participated, including the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition for Young Musicians, the International Chopin Piano Competition in Asia and the China International Piano Competition.

The Van Cliburn contest has been the most important for Zhang because of the performance opportunities it has afforded him. But the young maestro says that it will also be his last tournament.

"Competitions have provided me with many opportunities and a lot of practice, but I think I have had enough of them," he says.

"At the end of the day, music is about conveying emotions to people - not winning or losing contests."

The Shanghai native began playing piano when he was 3 years and 9 months old. His mother Liu Liping got him started after reading a Reader's Digest article suggesting studying the instrument could boost children's cognitive development.

Zhang had a natural knack for piano and performed his debut recital at age 5. He played the complete Two Part Inventions by Bach, as well as Haydn's and Mozart's sonatas, at the Shanghai Concert Hall. After the performance, a successful adult pianist told the boy's mother, "Real success doesn't come from playing a recital at age 5 but rather from still appearing onstage 10 years later".

Liu never forgot those words and devoted herself to creating the best environment for her son's piano studies. "I never forced him to practice but always believed he would become extraordinary," Liu says.

Zhang's childhood offered little time for fun and games, because he spent most of it on a piano stool. But he says he has no regrets.

"The beauty I experience while playing music makes all of the practice worthwhile," he says.

From 2001 to 2005, Zhang studied in Shenzhen under Dan Zhaoyi, a famous piano tutor with the Shenzhen Arts School, who also taught Li Yundi.

Liu sent her son to learn from Dan after Li won the International Chopin Piano Competition in 2000, because she believed Zhang could also flourish under the instructor.

Zhang was admitted to the Curtis Institute of Music in the United States in 2005, where he became a student of Lang Lang's former instructor, Gary Graffman. He was scheduled to finish this year but has postponed graduation to tour.

"Chinese people's enthusiasm for Western classical music is growing," Zhang says.

"Some people believe Chinese musicians will become leaders of the genre. But for me, music is a very, very personal thing."

Zhang's favorite repertoire includes works from the Baroque period to the late Romantic era. He enjoys more thoughtful pieces because of his introspective personality, he says.

"I'm still very young, and there's a lot to learn," he says.

"I don't think about too much aside from playing my own music well."