Interview with Haochen Zhang, Van Cliburn Gold Medalist

Photo: Stephen Eastwood/Lynx

Photo: Stephen Eastwood/Lynx

Portland Piano International will feature Haochen Zhang in its first recital for this season on Sunday (October 4) at the Newmark Theatre.

In June, I heard Zhang at the Van Cliburn competition, and he shared top honors with Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii. Zhang, age 19, moved to Philadelphia from Shanghai, China five years ago in order to study at the Curtis Institute of Music. He has also won the 2007 China International Piano Competition and has performed with the China National Symphony Orchestra, the Shanghai and Shenzhen Symphony Orchestras, the Krakow State Philharmonic, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

For his recital in Portland, Zhang has chosen the following program:

Beethoven:  Sonata in A-flat Major, Op. 110
Mason Bates:  White Lies for Lomax
Ravel:  Gaspard de la Nuit
Brahms:  Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24
Liszt:  Spanish Rhapsody, S. 254

I talked to Zhang over the phone on Sunday and asked him a few questions.

Your appearance in Portland is part of a long tour. You’ve got 12 concerts in October.

Yes, I will be performing in concerts for the next month. Many of them will be in California.

What got you to start playing piano?

I started playing piano when I was almost four years old. My mom wanted me to take piano lessons because she had read in Reader’s Digest that piano was a short cut to improve a child’s IQ. Your two hands get trained equally and there are multi-voices, so both sides of your brain develop equally. Later on it was evident that I learned piano music much faster than other kids my age. That’s when I began to think about it more seriously.

Tell us about the program you are playing in Portland.

I picked this program to get lots of contrast. From Beethoven to Ravel there’s a huge contrast – also with the Mason piece in between them.

The Beethoven sonata is considered one of the most difficult in the solo piano repertoire. It’s difficult in terms of its musicality, spirit, and the artistic value. Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit is a very challenging, virtuosic piece in an impressionistic style. It gives you a different view of what the piano can do.

The Brahms piece on a theme by Handel is very structural. It has extended variations based on a single very simple motif by Handel. It is a romantic piece in the classical style, and I found that very interesting. You can see how Brahms developed and stretched the range of tonal music.

The Liszt Rhapsody is simply a technical showpiece.

Do you have a favorite period of music?

I love it all. I love everything. If you want me to compare, I love everything from late Baroque to late Romantic. I like a lot of contemporary music, but not all of it.

Are there any Chinese pieces that you play?

Yes, I have a couple of Chinese piece that I have used for encores. The composers are not famous. The pieces are for fun. I don’t seriously study them. Some are just Chinese folk songs arranged by Chinese pianists, and they are pretty popular in China. It’s interesting to play them for Westerners, since the pieces sound exotic and fresh.

Do you have time for any hobbies?

My favorite hobby is learning about history, especially war history and Chinese history. I also love literature and science a lot. All of this helps to inform your personality and spirit and how you look at the world. And music is related in that way.

Good luck to you for your upcoming concert in Portland.

Thanks! I’m looking forward to playing there.

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