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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 25 April 2018

Abu Dhabi Festival 2017: Diligent work is the key to Chinese pianist Haochen Zhang’s success

Last month saw the release of Zhang's first recording in eight years. Titled simply Schumann, Liszt, Janáček & Brahms: Piano Works, the album brings together treasured solo works by the four composers.

Chinese pianist Haochen Zhang. Photo by Benjamin Ealovega
Chinese pianist Haochen Zhang. Photo by Benjamin Ealovega

For any young Chinese rising star of the keys, critical comparisons will inevitably be made with last year’s Abu Dhabi Festival headliner – Lang Lang.

The piano superstar has been credited with inspiring a whole generation of 40 million new pianists to take up the instrument in his own country, a cultural zeitgeist grandly dubbed as the “Lang Lang effect”.

Haochen Zhang would have been just 18 years old when Lang Lang reached a billion viewers performing at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but Zhang argues that this narrative of China’s classical music landslide is a painful oversimplification, describing the end result as “inevitable”.

“The real substance is something far more complex,” says the 26-year-old pianist, ahead of his UAE debut at this year’s festival on Friday, where he performs alongside China’s National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) orchestra.

“It’s a combination of many things – the post-effect of the cultural revolution in which people had become desperate for outside culture, the diligent work ethic, and absolute respect for higher education and intellectual training that always plays an important role in traditional Chinese mentality.”

Born in Shanghai, Zhang’s meteoric rise is the clear result of his own diligent work ethic. A former student of Gary Graffman, he was launched to the world stage after taking a joint first place at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, an influential contest held in Texas in the late pianist’s honour every four years.

“I think the greatest – or the most distinctive – aspect of [Graffman] as a teacher is the fact he does not impose his own musical personality on his students,” says Zhang of his former mentor.

“He discovers and encourages their individual and independent style. Through learning with him, I was able to reflect and think who I wanted to be as an artist, rather how could I be a ‘better student’.”

Last month saw the first official release from Zhang since the recordings of his performances at the Van Cliburn eight years ago. Titled Schumann, Liszt, Janácek & Brahms: Piano Works, the album brings together treasured solo works by the four composers. “Pieces which all share a quality of deep reflectiveness and introspection, which I am particularly drawn to,” says Zhang.

There may appear to be less reflection when the pianist appears on stage at Emirates Palace alongside China’s NCPA orchestra to perform Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2.

One of the most recognisable works in the romantic repertoire – familiar from dozens of Hollywood movies, and repackaged musically by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Muse – Zhang first performed the masterpiece when he was just 12.

“It wasn’t intimidating to tackle it on a technical basis, but musically it could be tricky, as this work has been performed by almost every single pianist,” he says.

“The challenge, therefore, is about finding one’s unique voice and interpretation in this iconic music.”

•Haochen Zhang is the featured soloist performing at the first of two nights alongside China’s National Centre for the Performing Arts orchestra at Emirates Palace on Friday at 8pm. Tickets, Dh125, from www.abudhabifestival.ae.

Check tomorrow’s Arts& Life for our interview with Lü Siqing, the featured soloist who is performing on Saturday

rgarratt@thenational.ae