Interview with Zhang Haochen: When Chinese pianists step out on a new path

On May 26th at the Hong Kong Cultural Center, Zhang Haochen was sweating profusely on stage. He was performing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (Rachmaninov III) with conductor Yu Long and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. Known as one of the most difficult piano pieces in the world, Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, which he himself described as “the elephant in the room”, requires intense physical and emotional commitment from the performer. In between piano performances, Zhang Hao Chen used his fingers, which were trembling slightly from pounding on the keys, to pick up the handkerchief on the piano stand and wipe off the sweat on his forehead and temples from his over-engaged performance.
Hong Kong is the second stop on his domestic concert tour this year. Starting in May, Zhang Hao-chen performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concertos No. 2 and No. 3 and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with different orchestras in Hohhot, Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Ningbo, and then, after a few European recitals in June, Zhang Hao-chen’s solo tour this year has just begun in July.
The theme of the recital was “Dialogue of the Late Period”, with a selection of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas. The idea came to him when he was writing “Beyond Playing”, and Zhang Haochen realized that Beethoven’s “ghosts” were all over the development of classical music history, so the repertoire of this year’s recital was designed to be like a conversation between him and Beethoven. It is the usual life of a piano player to travel, face audiences in different countries and regions, and quickly get used to the pianos in different concert halls. Ten years ago, a foreign agent asserted that China’s classical music market, with Lang Lang and Wang Yujia, was close to saturation and could not accommodate another “Lang Lang”. Ten years later, the domestic classical music market is stratified, and a performer no longer needs to be branded as a star to gain market recognition. Instead, Zhang Haochen’s pure, condensed, and intellectually stimulating playing has won him a more loyal fan base.
1. Talent or curiosity?
Piano playing is akin to a competitive sport, so it’s easy for children to be groomed with a certain utilitarianism. This has led to many children losing their love for music in the hands of strict parents when they practiced as children, wiping out their natural talent. Zhang Haochen, who has been called a musical prodigy since he was a child, experienced an atypical childhood for a Chinese piano player. He wasn’t so dedicated to the piano right from the start: as a child, Zhang Hao Chen was endlessly curious, and he often took advantage of his parents’ inattention to play the piano with one hand and read a book with the other while practicing. There was always something to think about when he was alone, “as if everything around me was something I could think about at any time”. This curiosity has remained to this day, “in a way it keeps me still being myself.” Compared to some other players who focus on the piano to the point of obsession, for Zhang Haochen, the piano has never seemed to be the entirety of his life.
Piano has never been about utilitarianism for Zhang Haochen. Because of a chance opportunity, Zhang Haochen’s fledgling piano talent was discovered, and at the age of 5, he gave a “Five-Year-Old Boys’ Recital” at the Shanghai Concert Hall, where he played a full set of 15 Bach 2-part compositions, as well as Mozart and Haydn sonatas. After the recital, first Oriental Satellite TV, then CCTV called his mother Liu Liping, hoping to interview him. Liu Liping saw that little Hao Chen was a bit of a tailspin, not practicing the piano properly, “all day like a grandpa”, so he decisively helped him to put off the interviews, and every day to tell him the story of the wounded Zhongyong.
When Hao Chen participated in his first piano competition at the age of 6, he asked his mother what reward he would get, and she said that she would treat him to his favorite KFC whether he won first or fifth place. As a result, Zhang Hao Chen, who came in sixth place, happily ran up to the stage to receive his award. At the age of 19, Zhang Hao Chen, as the youngest competitor, won the Gold Medal at the Van Cliburn Competition, and at the end of the competition, he was happy to be “finally free from competitions”.
Talent is often reduced to a fascination with an existing achievement, but for every child, a childhood interest becomes a true passion only after timely cultivation and stimulation. In Zhang Haochen’s opinion, all piano masters have one thing in common, that is, no matter how early or late they learnt to play the piano, they all fell into some kind of extreme love for the piano at some time and practiced the piano intensively for a period of time.
At the age of 11, Zhang Haochen studied with the famous piano teacher Dan Zhaoyi, whose precise grasp of tone and intonation enabled him to find a love for the piano, and during that time he practiced up to 6-7 hours a day. His self-awareness as a musician was not formed until he arrived at the Curtis Institute in the United States at the age of 15: after leaving the domestic environment, where the standard of practice was relatively homogeneous, Zhang Hao Chen was surprised to see that every student around him played the piano differently from himself, and he began to look for his own niche in the differences between himself and his peers. Beyond his reputation as a “genius”, the piano allowed Zhang Haochen to become himself. After becoming a professional performer, the things that seemed useless in the development of “piano boy Zhang Haochen” return to him in his performance.
2. Talking about music in words
When he’s not performing, the 30-something young virtuoso enjoys his quiet life in Philadelphia, USA. Between concerts all over the world, Zhang Hao Chen is always alone in his hotel, reading a book. These solitary moments of inner self-talk, accumulated over the course of many moments, begin to form something more solid in his book Beyond Playing.
Few musicians speak about music in words – music, as an art that transcends language and is intuitively perceptual, has its own self-contained system that cannot be verbalized. Often, it is scholars and critics who appear in public to talk about music, but for the performer, “there is no work – when you talk about it – that expresses itself more accurately than this work, these notes,” he said. expresses itself more accurately.”
Thinking back to his time at Curtis College, Zhang Hao Chen remembers that even Bernstein, a master musician and fellow Curtis alumnus, was once scoffed at by his condescending classmates when he talked about classical music – after all, it’s the performance of a performer that proves his true level of excellence more than the “flowery language” of his words. But Zhang Haochen does it anyway, not only by talking about music, but also by revealing himself in writing about his mutual companionship with the piano over nearly 30 years. Classical music is like air to him, usually unnoticeable, “too much of the experience has long since crossed over into your consciousness and become part of your body.” And language is like a foreign object that stabs you in the back, stirring up feelings that have settled in the depths of your memory.
He needed to shut down the sensory organ in his body that he was accustomed to using in relation to playing the piano, and open up another organ that was permeated by thought. The unexamined emotions between him and the piano suddenly became clear under the visualization of language, and on several occasions, Zhang Haochen ran to the kitchen in the middle of writing and “cried uncontrollably” by himself. Writing also stimulates reflection, allowing Zhang Hao Chen to take a distance to re-understand his own feelings towards music. Those detailed thoughts about the classical music industry, music history and composers, as well as Zhang Haochen’s personal experience of playing, are wrapped in his personal experience and emotions, and condensed into solid, sincere words. He writes about a time when he was listening to a free jazz performance in a bar, and how the realism of the improvised jazz piano immediately made him think of “new life”, and he began to ask himself whether his classical music performance was heading towards a certain kind of death. These extremely personal questions, posed by a young virtuoso who is well versed in music theory and history, seem to be sincere and heartfelt.
He also brought his own playing experience close to the lives of several composers: Schubert, who died at the age of 31, and whose seemingly dull repetitions and meanderings constituted the composer’s introspection and self-talk, Zhang Haochen immediately saw himself in this young man’s life; Brahms, in the Romantic era, still attempted to inherit Beethoven’s obsession with a strong structure in the Classical era, which made his scores deeply formalistic and lacking in the pursuit of structure; Brahms, in his romantic era, still attempted to inherit Beethoven’s obsession with strong structure, which made his scores deeply formalistic and lacking in the pursuit of structure, which made his scores lack of structure. During the Romantic era, Brahms still tried to inherit Beethoven’s obsession with strong structure from the Classical era, so that his compositions were deeply formalized and lacked “fullness of will”, but Zhang Haochen heard another kind of power in his works in his later years, and he wrote: “All complex and hidden pains, after a long time of entanglement and struggles, will settle down and gradually radiate a great power. ” …… From these fine brooding self-narratives, we are able to see classical music and a young performer’s individual life feelings oscillating with each other, intertwining and becoming a kind of polyphony.

3. The stage: a joy greater than oneself
The performer’s moments belong to the stage. A great performance implies great precision and control on stage, as well as the personality and emotions of the performer. This makes classical music performance inherently competitive. After Franz Liszt’s first piano recital in the 19th century, memorization of the score became mandatory.
A performer has to cross a demanding technical threshold to gain a modicum of freedom on stage. This process is accompanied by billions of repetitions, turning the movements into a kind of physical memory. Only then can the playing approach a gifted intuition. The famous Argentinian-born pianist Martha Argerich, in her documentary Night Talk, says: “You have to be 150% ready to play at about 60% of your level, and then you can get inspired by the moment. And always have the ability to learn something new, to learn from any idea, or feeling, or emotion that pops into your head, and to be able to give …… lessons from your weaknesses.”
The ever-changing structures and weaves of classical music have given Zhang Haochen plenty of room to sew into his playing the long hours of self-talk and contemplation he spends in solitude, and at the age of 27, Zhang Haochen was awarded the prestigious Avery Fisher Career in Music Prize, which is given annually to a performer recognized for his or her great talent and promise. Underneath his outstanding playing is a great deal of seriousness about each performance. His manager remembers that Zhang Haochen always specifies the amount of practice time he must guarantee before each concert, often practicing alone in the concert hall from morning until evening. For the past ten years, Zhang Hao Chen has personally written the introduction for his recital every year. Different pieces of music are arranged by him, forming a narrative in the collision. His playing has gradually changed from the “pursuit of profundity” to a “simplicity”. This is related to a shift in his understanding of music: “When it’s not intentional, when it’s natural, it actually has a certain power of depth.”
The work is resurrected with each performance, and the performer weaves his own understanding and emotions into the work, committing himself to the stage and releasing his vulnerability in a kind of immediate exposure. In Beyond Playing, Zhang Haochen recounts his first experience of playing on stage: at the age of four, Zhang Haochen performed in public for the first time in his piano teacher’s big class. He escaped many times, was carried to the piano bench, was beaten by his mother, and went on stage with a sobbing voice. When it was over and the applause was loud, he tried to play again and was laughed at by the crowd. “That was the first lesson the stage taught me.” In this lesson about the stage, the future virtuoso experiences a joy greater than himself.

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