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Owning the Music: An Interview with Haochen Zhang Part I

The morning after his Carnegie Hall performance, where pianist Haochen Zhang stepped in for Lang Lang who had withdrawn for health reasons, Haochen and I met at Knave in NYC to talk about his career as a pianist, inspirations in music, and his debut studio recording featuring works by Schumann, Liszt, Janácek and Brahms.


You just performed at Carnegie Hall filling in for Lang Lang. How was the performance?

I played the Yellow River Piano Concerto with the China NCPA Orchestra. The concerto is a cornerstone of Chinese music. It was a refreshing night; the concerto is new in the West so it feels different to perform it in front of this audience. In China, eating Chinese food feels like air, where you are not aware of its existence, but in America it’s like eating your first ever Chinese meal, where you’re acutely aware of the experience and feeling how the audience responds makes any performance exciting.

This has been a fruitful year for you, having won the Avery Fisher Career Grant and your solo album (on BIS) was released this year. Tell me a bit about this positive string of events.

The Avery Fisher is a very encouraging thing for me. It’s a prestige award. Unlike other awards where they give you engagements or performances, it’s the prize by itself (and some cash), and it’s only given to young musicians. Studying at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, a lot of faculty members and renowned musicians started their careers winning the Avery Fisher award. I’m honored to be in this line of heritage and continuity. In a way it gives me more responsibility, knowing that the previous recipients are musicians such as Gil Shaham and Hilary Hahn.

You have won several really impressive competitions, such as the Thirteenth Van Cliburn Piano Competition back in 2009. This must have been a career-changing experience: following this you were propelled onto the world’s most prestigious concert stages. How has your career developed since that time?

I hope I’ve matured, since it was 8 years ago. I’ve been performing a lot of concerts which is a way of maturing yourself. It’s different from practicing yourself. A concert is a different way of learning. And with traveling the world you see different kinds of audiences, where you find cultural differences and most importantly, the solitude you have to overcome on the road by yourself, meeting new people every day. You’re not in a settled community so you have to overcome this to mature yourself. I feel I’ve overcome this. Not only has travel become part of a part of my job, it’s no longer my job. It’s the journey of a musician.

Going back to your album of solo piano works by Schumann, Liszt, Janácek and Brahms, released in February: what inspired you to record this particular repertoire? What was the highlight of creating this album?

At BIS (record label) it’s more about what artistic statement you can make, and in terms of audio quality, most labels choose the standard but BIS is particular because they keep the highest quality by using SACD (Super Audio CD), and they believe in good quality of sound. They also let me choose whatever repertoire I want to play, so I really appreciate BIS.

What do you feel your artistic statement was?

With Schumann, Liszt, Janácek and Brahms, they’re all introspective in different ways. They share this reflective quality which I thought is really precious. Young pianists in my generation are more inclined to play (and the audience is more familiar with hearing) virtuosic pieces. I want to show another side of a young pianist. It feels natural to me. I’ve always been a somewhat introverted person. Growing up in China, which is a culture of inward-looking perspectives, I have this personality and was always drawn to music that has an introspective and reflective quality. You feel like your soul is being cleaned. I wanted to make my first studio recording about who I am and what statement I want to make as an artist.

What repertoire do you hope to explore in your recordings and performances?

I’ve always been a curious person, so I’m looking to explore all kinds of different styles. It interests me more when there are pieces that have an insight into something deeper or are inward-looking, with incredible emotional and intellectual depth. I’m certainly interested in digging into Beethoven, Schumann, and Schubert; and I’m always a Brahms fan and hope to record more late Brahms.

Is there a piece you love to play or that you feel you ‘own’?

That always changes and that’s the beautiful thing about music. There are pieces that you didn’t like two years ago but now you’re falling in love with. There are pieces you regard as something holy or untouchable but now they are more tangible and you’ve pulled the piece from that status to somewhere where you can look at it. And there are pieces you always like and they stay the same for 20 years. In terms of composers, I never found myself having one favorite composer but it always switches through those four.

In terms of owning a piece, the more you play it, the more you feel like you own it. The process of owning it goes with the amount of performances. It’s the physical and spiritual combining together. You feel like your fingers are literally your spirit – what I think, and what I execute, and how people respond to it. That one moment you feel like you are the music and the music is you. That is the most rewarding feeling as a musician.

Listen to Haochen Zhang's latest release on Primephonic. 


Image credit: Benjamin Ealovega