Interview: Zhang Haochen

Young pianist talks about his own life and Van Cliburn

As 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.


On his start

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.


On 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.


On 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.


On 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.


On 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.


On his concerts

Some concerts are better than others, but my attitude is never to feel too good about yourself. You always have room to improve.


The 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 February 2013.


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.’


Zhang Haochen plays with Lorin Maazel and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra at Shanghai Oriental Art Center on Friday 26 April.