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The Early Life of a Pianist: An Interview with Haochen Zhang Part 2

Haochen talks to Primephonic about growing up in China, the contrast in approach between the Chinese and American music conservatoires, and his strongest influences.

Part 2 of a two-part interview series. Read Part 1 here. 


How did you begin to play piano?

Where I grew up, my mom was one of the few people who listened to classical music and played it basically for me in her womb, this kind of “pre-birth education.” She never had an idea of introducing me to an instrument until she was taking English classes and as a part of her homework she had to read the American magazine, Reader’s Digest, every week. One week, when I was 4, there was one article that said piano was one of the best ways to raise a baby’s intelligence, and that really caught her imagination. It talked about how piano trains both your hands equally and both sides of your fingers move in the same kind of frequency.

Back in China then we were under the one-child policy. Intelligence was very important – it’s the future of your family. Since we were playing classical music all the time she thought ‘why not let him study piano’. I was always running around by myself so my mom thought it could be a way of communicating with an abstract thing and maybe piano can do that. So that’s how I started.

What was it like growing up in Shanghai? Are the music education and musical career expectations much different there than in the USA?

I was 14 when I auditioned for the Curtis Institute and moved [to the U.S.] when I was 15. In China it’s more systematic – the teachers I studied with are wonderful teachers but they are into details. They give you a very specific direction: what is right and not right. This Chinese way gives me a certain work ethic and discipline which is absolutely crucial because you need to be self-critical. It’s often mentioned in music you need two ears; one ear is enjoying the other is criticizing. Otherwise you can’t improve. In the States it’s an opening-up process. I still criticize myself in my own way but not in the teachers’ expectation. I am fortunate to have benefited from both.

Who inspired you from your time studying at the Curtis Institute?

My teacher Gary Graffman is a world-renowned pianist. He became a pedagogue and the director of Curtis. I’ve always looked up to him. The way he taught me and other students was very unique in that he didn’t force his own opinions on his students. There’s always this systematic approach in every successful teacher. How to make sound, technique, style and somehow Mr. Graffman avoided doing that. If you see other teachers and their students, you find that you can guess whose student it is. All students of the same teacher somehow have the same system, the way they produce sound or techniques or phrase, but in Mr. Graffman’s case, all his students are vastly different. This way really allows students to open themselves up and dig into their own personalities rather than copying the teacher or emulating them. The way I was able to develop a sense of self-awareness – who am I as an artist – I think that is very fortunate.

Are there artists that you look up to?

My favorite living pianists are Radu Lupu, who also won the Van Cliburn award, and Murray Perahia. Among the dead pianists would be Rachmaninov and the French pianist Alfred Cortot. They were part of the recording era when it started to become popular in the market. They played in a much different way that is lost in this generation, but I find something precious in that era that is very romantic and almost indulgent but not cliché.

Do you have any memorable performances?

I vividly remember playing with the Munich Philharmonic, one of my favorite orchestras, and I played with them Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, a cornerstone piece of the late classical, early romantic eras. Munich Philharmonic is one of the most authentic German orchestras, and playing Beethoven’s 4th concerto is a really memorable experience for me. The conductor was Lorin Maazel. I played with him shortly before he died. His easy technique was so precise and the sound of the orchestra was so unique, so round, and so full. They played in a way that is seldom found in this authenticity.

Oh, and with the London Symphony Orchestra, playing the same Yellow River Piano Concerto one of the few times they performed it. British orchestras are playing so many concerts with not much time to prepare and are working like crazy. The end result was really beyond my expectations. The dedication they put into the performance was really inspiring.

Can you describe that difference, playing the Yellow River Concerto with the LSO and then NCPA?

Being a Western orchestra, you view the piece as you first learn it, which offers me an objective vision if we sort of block the original cultural heritage in China. With Chinese orchestras they know the piece inside out. Many of the older players lived through that period so there is a lot of feeling to it and of course, in terms of authenticity, playing with a Chinese orchestra provides that. However a foreign orchestra offers a fresh perspective.

Is there anyone who you hope to play with in the future?

In the future, I think it’s everyone’s dream to play with the Berlin Philharmonic. But there are also many amazing orchestras I look forward to playing with.

So, I’m sure you’ve got a full and exciting schedule ahead. What performance projects do you have in the upcoming year?

I’m certainly looking forward to the New York recital debut in Zankel at Carnegie Hall. I’ve never played my recital in New York City. It’s the arts center of America. I’ve always wanted to come here and play and it’s really exciting for me that I can play my recital here for the first time.

Listen to Haochen Zhang's premiere recording on Primephonic.