Behind every successful piano prodigy you’ll find…a mom with good intentions.
“My family’s non-musical,” said Haochen Zhang, 28, who won the gold medal for the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition at age 19. “My parents never really thought about introducing me to a musical instrument, actually. But when I was almost hitting 4 years old, my mom was reading a United States magazine called ‘Reader’s Digest’ in Shanghai.”
One article, he said, caught his mother’s eye. “It was, basically, ‘How Piano is the Best Way to Improve Baby Intelligence,’ and she was really fascinated by it,” he said. “At that time in China, we had, still, a very strict one-child policy, so the only child is the future of the family — and intelligence is something really important.” Determined to give her young son a bit of a brain boost, Zhang’s mother bought him a small opera piano and started him on lessons.
“Pretty soon after I started the piano, my parents and my teacher discovered that I learned new pieces much faster than kids at the same age,” he remembered. “When I was 5 years old, I had my first piano recital.” He played a 70-minute program by himself at the Shanghai Music Hall — Haydn, Mozart and Bach — and realized that piano would play a major role in his life. Soon after, Zhang won prizes in Shanghai, toured the major cities of China, and became the youngest winner ever at the 4th International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians, all before becoming a teenager.
And now, 13 years after he first came to the United States (to attend Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, studying under Gary Graffman on a full scholarship) Zhang will perform with the National Philharmonic at the Music Center at Strathmore as part of the Leonard Bernstein Centennial Celebration.
“It’s a nice way to pay tribute to Leonard Bernstein, a good opportunity to tell some of his stories,” said Piotr Gajewski, himself a former piano prodigy who studied with Bernstein in the summer of 1983. “We’re very much enjoying it.”
This weekend’s concerts will feature Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64. “Two of Bernstein’s favorite composers — and also my favorite composers,” Gajewski said. “The reason I programmed the Brahms first Piano Concerto is because it was a work that figured in a very unusual and important concert in Bernstein’s life, where he collaborated with pianist Glen Gould and the New York Philharmonic.”
What made that 1962 concert unusual, Gajewski noted, was that at rehearsal the two musicians discovered that their concepts for the piece were “very drastically different. “Obviously, it’s to be expected that different musicians have different concepts of musical works,” he explained. “But usually they’re slightly similar, and if you collaborate, you come to a compromise pretty quickly.”
Bernstein and Gould, however, “couldn’t bridge the gap. What ensued was a performance that was given over to Gould’s ideas about the piece.”
Bernstein went along with it, but before the performance he came out on stage and gave what Gajewski called a disclaimer about what the audience was about to hear. “It was broadcast live on the radio,” he noted. “That kind of a thing was very unusual, and it made headlines. We’re not going to do anything like that. We’re just going to play the piece as Haochen and I choose to.”
That’s because, despite its “infamy,” Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 — the German composer and pianist’s first performed orchestral work — has become a favorite with musicians and audiences around the world. “I would say that he is a composer that focused on quality rather than quantity,” said Zhang. “Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 is a monumental work; even for someone as young as Brahms was, you hardly hear the youth in it.
“That’s what was really special about him as a personality, not only as a composer: his maturity at such a youthful age. He was my age or even younger when he wrote this, but it feels like a person of 60 composed this. It shows a lot of vigor and energy, but in many moments, you have a very introspective soul that is so moving, with such incredible warmth.”
Zhang has similar admiration for Bernstein. “All of us musicians are inspired by his musicality and watching him conduct, but also watching him talk about music,” said the pianist, who said he grew up listening to Bernstein’s lectures on the academic, analytical side of music as well as its humanity and spirituality. “That juxtaposition is what fascinates all musicians.”
For Gajewski, Bernstein’s taste in music is key. The Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 is a favorite of both conductors. “It was a favorite piece of a favorite great-aunt of mine; I’ve been listening to it and talking about it since I was a little boy — and it was also a very important piece for Bernstein.
“I just turned 60 myself, and I’m in a place where I’m looking at my life and trying to figure out what are the important things I can still accomplish. Tchaikovsky is always high on the list.”
One of the things he has already accomplished — in addition to founding what would become the National Philharmonic back in 1984 — is creating the All Kids, All Free, All the Time program more than two decades ago.
“I’m actually very gratified that since we started it this idea has spread to other organizations,” he said. “So literally tens of thousands of kids are being affected by something that we started at the National Philharmonic.” And young people like Zhang are finding a place with the National Philharmonic.
“We’re always looking to engage and find soloists who are making a splash in the world,” said Gajewski. “He’s obviously tremendously talented and I enjoy working with him. I’m happy it’s working out.”
So is Zhang. He says he’s in airports more often than he’s at home, but that traveling the world has broadened his vision — and performing is his raison d’être.
“Being onstage is the most rewarding feeling,” he said. “You see that what inspires you can inspire people you’ve never met, and that is an incredible thing.”
The National Philharmonic will perform “Infamous Brahms” at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26 and 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 27 at The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets range from $34 to $88; young people, ages 7 to 17, are admitted free through the All Kids, All Free, All the Time program for which tickets must be purchased in advance or by phone. Call 301-581-5100 or visit www.nationalphilharmonic.org.