KITCHENER — Haochen Zhang's introduction to piano as a tot was more about developing his brain than his musical skills.
"My mom was reading a little article in Reader's Digest about how piano was one of the best ways to raise a baby's intellect," said the Shanghai-born Zhang, winner of the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano competition in 2009.
The 23-year-old Chinese pianist will perform Zhang Plays Rachmaninoff this weekend with the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony in his Canadian solo debut.
"China had the one child policy and until now, this generation was the parents' only hope so intelligence was a big issue," said Zhang in a phone interview from his home in Philadelphia. The piano, he said, trains the brain as well as both hands equally.
"When I first saw it, I thought the piano was a big toy," he said. "I enjoyed piano from the start and I learned so much faster than the other kids."
His mother, a computer engineer with a steel company, found a small piano for her then three-year-old son and gave him music books for guidance.
"After three weeks, my mom took me to a music teacher," he said. "She was young and quite daring."
The teacher was convinced she had a prodigy on her hands because when Zhang was only four, she suggested setting up his first professional piano recital.
His mother's employer happened to offer arts sponsorships and little Zhang was booked to perform at "the biggest hall in Shanghai. It sits 1,300 people. It was quite unbelievable for a five-year-old to do a 70-minute program," he said.
Perhaps being only five helped because to Zhang it was just fun and he seemed to lack the stage fright an older child might experience.
"I brought my toys to play with back stage," he said. "I didn't think it was a big deal. That was the event that got me more serious about piano."
Zhang said his parents, especially his mother, supported him in his choice but never pushed.
From age nine to 10, he attended the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, then spent four years at the Shenzen Arts School starting at 11 years old. By the time he was 15, Zhang was ready for more advanced training and after a lot of research on various American music schools, he decided on a school favoured by many Asian students, the highly selective Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
Zhang found it difficult to begin his studies in a language he was only familiar with in conversation, so he used a yellow marker to highlight words he didn't understand. When he looked at the page, he realized it was mostly yellow.
"It was overwhelming," he said. "But I appreciated that experience."
The young pianist's mother was able to stay with him for the first semester, but problems with her visa meant she couldn't return. Her 15-year-old son was on his own, living in a small Philadelphia apartment where rats were nightly visitors.
"I had to learn to cook. I had to take care of myself," he recalled. And he had to attend a high school to finish his credits while studying music at Curtis.
After a few months, Zhang found a rhythm in his life and everything came much easier until the next big hiccup, this one more positive.
In 2009 he became the youngest and the first Chinese pianist to receive the prestigious gold medal at the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, when he was barely old enough to enter the competition.
"I tried not to have an attitude, just not think about any results," he said. "That helped me psychologically. Less pressure." And when his name was called as the winner, he felt rather numb. "I didn't know what to think," he said. "I remember walking off stage. My mom was there. She was cheering."
After winning the competition, Zhang was launched on a three-year national and international tour, even though he was not yet finished his studies at Curtis. The school offered an option: given the work he'd done, he could graduate with a piano performance diploma instead of a degree.
He chose instead to continue his education through independent studies while launching a busy touring career and now admits he's "glad that part is over."
Since then, the young pianist performed with symphonies in the U.S. as well as Europe, Israel, Japan and China where he spent a year as artist-in-residence with the Shanghai Symphony. In June, he will tour China with the Sydney Symphony.
Though he was in Canada several years ago as a student, performing in an orchestra as part of a cultural exchange, this weekend will mark his Canadian debut as a soloist.
"Performing has always been my greatest inspiration," he said. "Out of performing, teaching or conducting, performing is the best."
What do we expect when a first-prize winner of the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition plays a recital? Displays of amazing virtuosity? A perceptive sense of musical style? Sophisticated programming with probing insights into familiar scores and rewarding discoveries of lesser-known works?
In his Saturday (Dec. 7) program for the La Jolla Music Society, Haochen Zhang, gold medalist of the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition, not only dazzled his audience with the bravura technical arsenal expected from a medalist, but invited his listeners into the interior emotional landscapes of works that others rush through solely to indulge their spectacle.
The 23-year-old Shanghai native opened and closed with serious doses of keyboard spectacle —Franz Liszt’s “Ballade No. 2” in B Minor and Mily Balakirev’s “Islamey”—which he dispatched with breath-taking aplomb at what would be considered foolhardy tempos in less accomplished hands. But in between these showpieces Zhang offered a vivid, cinematically realized traversal of Robert Schumann’s “Carnaval,” a precocious analysis of Beethoven’s Sonata in E Major, Op. 109, and four translucent realizations from Claude Debussy’s First Book of “Preludes.”
Played literally from the page, Schumann’s piano music can appear square, even simplistic. But Zhang pointedly insinuated the composer’s edgy, impetuous—even unstable—qualities at every turn in “Carnaval,” threatening to drop the reveler’s smiling party mask to reveal the troubled countenace behind it. Yet for his immaculate attention to detail in each miniature, he did not sacrifice the urgency that propels Schumann’s kaleidoscopic crowd scene to its brilliant conclusion.
From the first time I heard the La Jolla Music Society’s Steinway, I was put off by its big, brassy, aggressive timbre, but Zhang reined in these characteristics with apparent ease and painted his Debussy Preludes with a wide palette of subtle shades and iridescent hues. He stressed the pointillism of the familiar “Footsteps in the Snow” and was not afraid to turn on a bit of drama in the climatic moments of the otherwise misty washes of “The Sunken Cathedral.”
The unorthodox qualities Beethoven’s three final Piano Sonatas offer extensive possibilities for indulgent excess, but I found Zhang’s deconstruction of the E Major Sonata, Op. 109, to be both spare, structurally clarifying, and emotionally rich. But I was sorry to have missed hearing his take on the A-flat Major Sonata, Op. 110, with its massive fugue, the Sonata he had originally programmed for La Jolla.
Although Saturday’s audience was light for a serious piano recital, those present responded ardently to this young artist. Lang Lang and Yuja Wang beware—this youngster is breathing down your neck.
This summer the young Chinese pianist Haochen Zhang played a concert at Simms Auditorium that took everyone by surprise. This 13th winner of the Van Cliburn Piano Competition appeared Saturday with the New Mexico Philharmonic and once again astounded his audience, this time with the Piano Concerto of Maurice Ravel.
If there was a theme to this concert at Popejoy Auditorium it was orchestral color with four works that showcase the rich, even exotic timbres of the symphony orchestra. The music was replete with excellent solos too many (alas) to mention individually. Suffice it to say each section, and virtually each first chair player had at least an impressive moment in the spotlight.
It was also a program of foreigners using other people’s music. An American playing with Mexican melodies (Aaron Copland), a Frenchman taking a jazzy turn (Ravel), and a Russian and Frenchman reveling in Spanish folk tunes (Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Ravel).
Apocryphally, Copland’s El Salón México was said to have been written after a night at a cathouse in Nogales. The Philharmonic under the direction of guest conductor Oriol Sans projected an unmistakable sense of locale (notably a dance hall called Salón México) in what the composer called a “musical souvenir.”
Zhang’s performance in Simms this summer demonstrated his full-out, light-up-the-piano style in Igor Stravinsky’s Petrouchka. Here we saw his more subdued playing despite the bravura nature of the Ravel Concerto, the final movement especially. The long solo section that begins the middle Adagio assai movement seemed much in the mood of that composer’s elegant yet disconsolate Pavane pour une infante défunte. Overall the work was less bombastic than it often is in performance.
Even at his young age, Zhang has the confidence of a seasoned professional to the point of choosing as encore, not a piece of piano flash, but rather Claude Debussy’s “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair,” a work that I daresay hundreds in the audience have themselves played. This was virtuosity of the introspective nature reflecting an emotive sophistication.
For the second half, Sans led a highly animated Capriccio espagnol by Rimsky-Korsakov, beginning almost before he had leaped to the podium with unbridled enthusiasm. Even the generally darker harmonies of the Russian style couldn’t diminish the excitement of the five continuous movements fashioned out of Spanish and Gypsy tunes.
Ravel modestly described his own Bolero as “orchestral tissue without music.” But with the accustomed repetition inherent in rock music (and its ever newly arriving offspring), not to mention the utter brain- numbing inanity of what is called “minimalism,” Bolero seems in perspective almost abundant in musical material – certainly in its ingenious use of color. With percussionist Jeff Cornelius (snare drum) placed up front in between the sections of the strings, Sans took the work from the barest pianissimo to a blazing climax of sound that rocked the entire auditorium
As the gold medalist in the most recent Van Cliburn International Piano Competition,Haochen Zhang could be forgiven if he wanted to mount an entire concert of showy crowd-pleasers.
But what made this remarkable 21-year-old Chinese-born pianist’s recital Thursday night at the Rinker Playhouse so exciting was its intellectuality and range. There was something about Zhang’s love of programming contrast and his willingness to take interpretive risks that reminded me of Vladimir Horowitz, and perhaps it’s along that path that he will mark out his own.
That remains to be seen, but what already can be said is that he is a pianist with tremendous technical equipment and an unusually mature outlook. Zhang opened his recital before a very large house at the Rinker with a quartet of Chopin mazurkas, including the well-known mazurka in A minor (Op. 17, No. 4). He played it with wistful freedom, and perfectly executed ornamentation, the first clear sign of Zhang’s exceptional control of his hands and fingers.
Zhang made much of the back-and-forth setup of the C major mazurka (Op. 24, No. 2) that came next, and made its ending beautifully humorous, while the following mazurka in A-flat (Op. 59, No. 2) had a serene touch of the nocturne about it. The F-sharp minor mazurka (Op. 59, No. 3) that closed the set had fire and a charmingly playful middle section.
Beethoven’s final piano sonata (No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111), which like most of his late works (except the Ninth Symphony) takes listeners into recondite realms, came next. This is a tough piece to get across, but Zhang did it well. He ripped into the appoggiaturas of the huge opening theme, and gave its fitful follow-ups crisp rhythm; to the fugal passages he offered an air of thoughtful austerity.
The second movement was also quite severe, though Zhang moderated this with a judicious use of dynamic contrasts. Still, in the first big syncopated variation he was less explosive than he might have been, which made the music less bizarre and kept its single line of dramatic argument more apparent.
The second half opened with the Ballade No. 2 in B minor of Liszt, which has the same kind of violence-and-contemplation mix of the Beethoven second movement, though here the audience got a taste of Zhang as a Lisztian, helped along by his having discarded the jacket and cufflinks he wore in the first half. The bravura passages of the Liszt were played superbly, with all the abandon and athleticism the music requires.
Following that came some of Zhang’s finest playing in four pieces from the first book of Claude Debussy’s two books of Preludes. Des pas sur la niege (Footprints in the Snow) was played with a heartbreakingly sad intimacy, its harmonies and melodies barely rising above a whisper. Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (Sounds and Perfumes Mingle in the Night Air) was much the same, with a delicately judged ending.
In Les collines d’Anacapri (The Anacapri Hills), Zhang brought out its sparkling color with digital precision and suddenness, as though he were pulling a bright paisley scarf from the bottom of a table stacked with whites and grays. And La cathedrale engloutie (The Engulfed Cathedral) was magical; the way he brought the theme back at the very end, over the deep rumbling bass (pedaled to perfection), put another layer of glass over the church under the sea, making it even harder to make out. This was a superb Debussy set, in which Zhang masterfully helped his audience enter the composer’s special sound world.
The recital closed with Islamey, a potboiler by the Russian Mili Balakirev, and a piece beloved by older generations of pianists. It’s a tour de force of Lisztian flash, and it brought the crowd roaring to its feet as Zhang himself leaped off the bench as he played the last chord.
As an encore, Zhang provided another reminder of Horowitz by playing the Traumerei of Schumann, a miniature from Kinderszenen (Op. 15). He immediately restored the hall to rapt attention for his sensitive, tender, and quite free reading of this classic miniature.
Haochen Zhang was the soloist in the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3, and exhibited all of the power, technical dazzle and musical gifts that he showed on his visit last year. The pianist, who is 22 but looks about 12, is simply a master, and he tamed the notoriously challenging concerto with consummate ease.
This was not a mere technical display, but Zhang brought out by turns all of the kaleidoscopic piece’s humor, poetry and passion as well. Music director Enrique Arturo Diemecke and the LBSO weren’t always in perfect sync with the soloist, but Zhang went single-mindedly on his merry way and Diemecke worked hard to keep up.
There was a cloth cover over the piano, evidently to prevent Zhang’s powerful pianism from overpowering the orchestra, and the piano did meld beautifully into the ensemble, which is definitely appropriate for this piece. Still, I would have preferred the balance tilted a little more toward the piano.
And then, to show that he is more than a mere knuckle-buster, Zhang favored the large and enthusiastic audience with a Debussy encore, a quietly perfect “Girl With the Flaxen Hair.”