Haochen Zhang’s mother remembers the day she decided that her young son would study piano. He was 3 years old.
Nancy Liping Liu was reading Reader’s Digest to improve her English when she took to heart an article saying piano lessons boost childrens’ IQs. So she acted on it to try to ensure that her only child was better prepared for life in China, a highly competitive and rapidly changing country.
What his mother hadn’t counted on was that Zhang would quickly absorb everything his piano teachers threw his way.
And when a visiting United Nations delegation toured his preschool, his Bach recital so impressed the group and accompanying reporters that Zhang landed a debut at Shanghai’s leading music hall at age 5. His first orchestral performance followed at 6 when he played Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 21” with the Shanghai Symphony.
That was followed by numerous wins at junior competitions across China, acceptance at the state-run conservatory in Shenzhen, and then a scholarship at age 15 to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he attended high school in the morning and the Institute in the afternoon. Four years later, in 2009 Zhang became the youngest competitor ever at the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Zhang won the gold medal in that competition, besting 27 other contestants.
It sounds like a smooth path, with doors opening for him at every turn. But it was not always easy. Settling in at Curtis and a whole new culture at 15 was made all the harder because the U.S. immigration authorities wouldn’t extend his mother’s visa after five months, while families of other foreign classmates got permission to stay on.
Her and his requests for a new visa for her were turned down five times, the American consulate relenting only after Zhang wrote that he’d like his mother to attend his December 2008 Carnegie Hall debut.
“I told them I am only 15, but they said, ‘You are you, and your mother is your mother,’” Zhang said.
“Handling the loneliness was the most challenging of what I went through,” he continued. “I had never been alone before, without family,” he said. “I could have just hung out with friends and done nothing, or done drugs at that age. But I see it let me grow. What helped was reading the Chinese translation of (Henry David) Thoreau, who wrote, ‘I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.’”
Zhang, 22, opens the Hawaii Concert Society’s 2012-13 season at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 9, at the University of Hawaii at Hilo Performing Arts Center.
He will open the Concert Society season in dramatic fashion, with Beethoven’s immortal “Moonlight” sonata. Later, he will perform Franz Liszt’s flamboyant “Ballade” in B minor, four of Claude Debussy’s “Preludes from Book 1,” and Robert Schumann’s introspective early masterpiece, “Carnaval.”
Tickets for the performance are $15 general, $12 for seniors (60+), and $7 for students. They are available at the Most Irresistible Shop, Book Gallery, Music Exchange, the UH-Hilo Box Office, and the East Hawaii Cultural Center. Remaining tickets will be available at the door starting at 6:45 p.m.
Noted concert pianist Gary Graffman, who served as president of Curtis for 11 years, was a juror when he first spotted Zhang at an international competition that Zhang won at age 12. Graffman is now his teacher.
Asked his reaction to Zhang’s gold medal performances in the Van Cliburn Competition, Graffman said, “I wasn’t especially surprised. He’s very talented and serious. Very serious.”
“I try my best just to be myself,” Zhang said. “Of course, you can learn from other pianists, but all you can do is offer your own unique perspective on music. And that’s what I’m doing.”