By Punch Shaw
For 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition gold medalist Haochen Zhang, the key to success as a musician is simple.
“Just open up your ears,” said Zhang, who will be performing with the Brentano String Quartet in concerts presented by the Cliburn on Thursday and Friday.
That seems pretty obvious. But it should be pointed out that the Chinese pianist has to keep his hearing in good shape for the performance hall, despite spending a staggering amount of time in airplanes, where ears can open and close during and after the flights.
The pianist makes his home in Philadelphia, where he graduated from the Curtis Institute in 2012. He chatted via Skype last week from a city near his native Shanghai, where he was performing. He had played in Tokyo the night before.
“I have used some tricks in the past, like taking jet lag pills or adjusting sleeping on the plane to the time zone I was flying into,” he said. “But I have learned that time is the best cure [for jet lag].”
Zhang, 26, has logged plenty of air miles since the 2009 competition where, at age 19, he was the youngest pianist to ever earn a gold medal in the Cliburn.
And he credits that competition, at which Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii also received a gold medal, as being a major springboard to his active career. He cited an international tour with the Munich Philharmonic and maestro Lorin Maazel as one of his career highlights since the Cliburn.
“It not just about getting a prize, but about getting all these opportunities that train you to be a professional soloist,” said Zhang, citing the three years of engagements that come with the Cliburn’s top prize. “Through the competition, I have matured so much, both as a musician and as a human being.
“Touring all these places, performing all the time and meeting people of different cultures has really opened up my vision of the world and of music.”
Zhang also credits the competition experience and resulting tours with making him more comfortable at the piano bench.
“I think I was somewhat shy in the beginning. So my attitude toward playing was a little contained,” he said. “And I am still an introverted person. I don’t approach performing in a very outgoing, extremely romantic way, like a lot of young pianists would.
“But now it seems so natural that I don’t have to prepare myself to play, psychologically, as much as I once did. I would say that I have definitely opened up more as a result of performing all the time.”
And when Zhang talks about “open ears,” it really has more to do with performance practice than cabin pressure — and especially chamber music performances.
“Pianists are naturally soloists. So we don’t usually have to compromise in any way,” he said. “But when you are too comfortable in that zone, then you have your ears entirely closed.
“The important thing for chamber music, though, is to always open up your ears. That’s why I wish that all pianists could have more opportunities to play chamber music more often.”
Zhang performed with the Takacs Quartet when he competed in the 2009 Cliburn. The Brentano String Quartet performed with the semifinalists at the 2013 Cliburn and will return for the 2017 competition.
During this week’s concerts, Zhang and the quartet will be performing Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor. Zhang will play Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor , and the Brentano will perform Beethoven’s String Quartet in F major, Op. 135.
The chamber setting, Zhang said, requires a pianist who is used to performing alone or taking the lead in a concerto performance with an orchestra to be more of a team player.
“The key to chamber music is that there is no ego involved,” he said. “I think everyone puts their ego down to serve the music. If there is solo voice, that’s the voice everyone should be responding to. In other situations, you may need to be an accompanist or a collaborator. The only role you really have is to open your ears and listen to what the other people are doing, and react.”
The 2017 Cliburn competition will be webcast throughout China next summer, foundation officials have said — the first time a Cliburn competition will be webcast in the country.
Since Zhang was speaking from his native China, it seemed appropriate to seek his take on the state of classical music there.
“[Classical music] is still evolving and improving at a very fast pace,” he said. “Five years ago we were all still complaining about Chinese audiences not being mannerly enough. They made noise. They chatted. They would applaud between movements. There was no cultural understanding of how to behave at a classical concert.
“But every time I go back to play in China now, the audiences are behaving better, especially when I go back to big cities. So I think the outlook is optimistic for classical music in China.”
And it is, particularly, for the younger generations, he said.
“I would say that ages 20 to 40 are the central demographic,” he said. “A lot of college students and young professionals come to the concerts.”