Thursday, 14 July 2011

Some Words with ZHANG HAOCHEN, 1st Prizewinner Van Cliburn International Piano Competition 2009

Some Words with ZHANG HAOCHEN, Chinese Pianist
Joint 1st Prize Winner, Van Cliburn International Piano Competition 2009

Past first prize winners of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition have performed in Singapore, including Vladimir Viardo (1973), André Michel Schub (1981), Jose Feghali (1985), Jon Nakamatsu (1997) and more recently, Alexander Kobrin (2005). Now meet the latest winner, the 21-year-old ZHANG HAOCHEN, who also happens to the youngest ever and first Chinese to clinch this much coveted accolade.

He will perform the Yellow River Concerto with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra on 22 and 23 July (8pm), and a solo recital on 24 July (5pm). In addition, he will also conduct a piano workshop on 20 July (2.30pm) with students from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. All events take place at the SCO Singapore Conference Hall.

His recital programme is as follows:

SCHUMANN Kinderszenen, Op.15
BEETHOVEN Sonata in F minor, Op.57 “Appassionata”
LISZT Ballade No.2 in B minor
DEBUSSY Three Préludes from Book 1
No.4 Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir
No.5 Les collines d’Anacapri
No.10 La cathedrale engloutie
PROKOFIEV Sonata No.7 in B flat major, Op.83

The busy pianist takes time to speak with PianoMania.

You were introduced to the piano at a very young age. Presumably you were a child prodigy on the keyboard. Were your parents musicians themselves? And what led you into a life of music?

My parents aren't musicians, I am the only one in the family. What led me into a life of music is, simply, music itself. Since the day I was introduced to piano, music has brought me closer and closer to the depth of its beauty, until I realized that my life was already inseparable from it.

You had won 1st prize in the China International Piano Competition at Xiamen. But did you expect winning the joint 1st prize at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2009?

I tried my best to not think of it. Winning and losing is not something you can decide, so there is no point to think about it. I just tried my best to focus on music, so I didn't have to be distracted by any outside complicated thoughts which could be very bad for one trying to express music naturally.

How does one prepare for such competitions?

Just like how you would prepare for each concert, how you would learn for every day.

You celebrated your 19th birthday during the course of the Cliburn. Some critics decry the pitfalls of winning a major piano competition at such a young age. Do you think 19 is too young for the responsibilities of a winner?

I entered the competition mainly for the sake of getting myself experienced and matured, and I think that the Van Cliburn Competition did help me achieve that through its course. At what age you becomes a competition winner is not the decisive factor, the decisive factor is how you choose to face yourself afterwards.

How were you able to cope with the many engagements that come with winning the big prize while juggling with studies at Curtis?

Studying and playing at the same time could be really tough. However, if you love to do both, then it will not be such a big deal anymore. Besides music, I have always been interested in various things in humanities, including arts, literature, history, etc, and having the opportunities to learn about them, even in the midst of concerts, still makes me feel very fortunate, and is extremely worthwhile.

You studied with Gary Graffman (left), who also taught Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. What was he like as a teacher and mentor? What advice did he impart to you with regards to a lifelong career in music and performing?

He was really an important figure in my life of music. He helped me in exploring my own identity and taught me to think about music for myself, rather than being a student who only knows to follow the teacher.

The life of a concert pianist revolves around giving solo recitals, playing concertos with orchestras and performing chamber music with fellow musicians. Which of these gives you the greatest pleasure?

As a performer, each experience of making music naturally involves a connection between your soul and other souls. It doesn't matter if it is with the composer, with other musicians, with the audience, or a mix of all mentioned above; it always involves this kind of "spiritual connection". Recitals, concertos, and chamber music all have this quality, just in different ways. Part of the beauty of music is that it not only can be expressed, but also can be experienced, in so many different ways. That's why they are all precious experiences for me.

Zhang Haochen was interviewed by PianoManiac.

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