winner of the piano world’s most gruelling competition, Zhang Haochen talks to Time Out Shanghai about the
late ‘people’s pianist’ Van Cliburn and his own life since taking the gold
Zhang Haochen knows that being the youngest
ever winner of the Van Cliburn Piano Competition carries risks. Gold medallists
have a touring schedule that could kill seasoned professionals, and 22-year-old
Zhang was playing nearly 70 concerts a year while emailing in his homework.
Burnout is a genuine risk – however, Zhang is something special. A veritable
sponge, he learns pieces rapidly; a voracious reader, he infuses his music with
inspiration from contemporary Chinese poetry, ancient history and modern art.
Furthermore, his intelligence and maturity reach far beyond most of our years.
This month he joins Lorin Maazel and the Munich Philharmonic for Beethoven’s
Piano Concerto No. 4.
When I was almost four, my mom read an
article that said piano was great for children’s mental development. Back then
it was rare to buy a grand piano – I thought it was a big toy. I learned that
pressing the different keys made different sounds, and I started teaching
myself to read music. When I was five I played Bach, Mozart and Beethoven in
front of 1400 people. I wasn’t nervous though, there’s an old Chinese saying: a
baby mouse isn’t afraid of a tiger. Children don’t have the pressures or fears
that adults have.
the Van Cliburn Competition
It’s one of the hardest and most stressful
competitions, it has a huge amount of repertoire, and huge media exposure
around the world – millions watch it online. I would be lying if I said I felt
no pressure at all, but I forced myself not to think about winning or losing;
the way to stay calm is to concentrate on the music. People talk about
competitions not being (truly) musical, but actually they teach you to focus on
music while you face all the other stuff.
his life today
Besides being busier, [I had to learn] to
deal with the loneliness; you go places so quickly, you meet new people, you
sleep in a different bed every night, you never get settled. At first you lose
your sense of belonging, but then you realise loneliness can be [your] best
friend; looking inward helps you to mature; it opens up your vision and
perspective towards art and towards life.
completing his degree at Curtis Institute of Music
Concerts are important, but education is
something that will benefit you for a lifetime. I [don’t like it when] people,
particularly pianists, only think about practising; it’s important to absorb
other things. Reading
and thinking elevate your taste, and taking courses in literature, art and
history gives me a clear direction of where to go. Education is long-term, but
you can best educate yourself when you’re young – it’s ironic. Movies, books
and culture ultimately shape your personality, which shapes your music.
Van Cliburn’s recent death
In spite of the fact he was burned out
after winning the Tchaikovsky, the inspiration he gave to pianists is huge. He
was over there during the height of the Cold War – two dominant world powers
with so much hatred for each other [were] cheering the same person at the same
time. It wasn’t about politics; it was about music.
Some concerts are better than others, but
my attitude is never to feel too good about yourself. You always have room to
legacy of Van Cliburn (1934-2013)
Moscow, 1958. Six months after the USSR launched the satellite
Sputnik, the Soviets established the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition,
aiming for Cold War superiority in both technology and culture. Into the
geopolitical brawl strolled Louisiana-born,
Texas-bred 23-year old Harvey
Lavan ‘Van’ Cliburn, and changed history. His passionate interpretation reduced
the Russian audience to tears and even swoons; terrified judges initially
tweaked the scoring, but no one could deny his eight-minute standing ovation.
When the jury asked Kruschev for permission to award an American the gold
medal, he answered: ‘Is he the best? Then give him the prize.’
As a conquering Cold War hero, Cliburn got
a ticker-tape parade, met the president and saw his recording go triple
platinum. But the popular hysteria and overexposure took its toll; his playing
suffered and he eventually took a decade-long sabbatical, giving only a handful
of performances in later life before finally succumbing to bone cancer in
He lent great support to the prestigious
competition that bears his name, but even that has courted controversy. For all
its immense wealth, famously gruelling repertoire and arduous winners’ tours,
few Van Cliburn gold medallists have reached household name status. In his book
The Ivory Trade, Joseph Horowitz
cites competition intrigue, but the popular view is that young pianists simply
have too much too soon.
However, 2009 winner Zhang Haochen welcomes
both the challenge and the opportunity. ‘It’s true, a lot of people burn out,
but if you [can’t] handle a lot of performances in a condensed time, you
[won’t] last too long,’ he continues. ‘It’s a wonderful platform they provide;
the rest is up to you.’
Haochen plays with Lorin Maazel and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra at Shanghai Oriental Art
Center on Friday 26 April.