Pianist Zhang Haochen debuted at five, won the Shanghai Piano Competition at seven and nine, and was touring China by 11. Later, he followed Chinese superstars Lang Lang and Yuja Wang to Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, where, like them, he studied with Gary Graffman. But it was becoming the youngest-ever gold medallist of the Van Cliburn Competition (2009) that catapulted the 18-year-old to global attention.
Even more unusual, however, is that he stayed there. The Van Cliburn is known for its gruelling repertoire requirements and winners’ concert schedule. Named for the 23-year old Texan who won the then-USSR’s first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, many Van Cliburn medallists burn out early. But Zhang played an astounding 200 concerts in three years, doing his coursework on long flights – even as teachers begged him to drop out. ‘It’s important for pianists to absorb other things besides practising,’ he says, adding he loves Beckett, Dostoevsky and modern Chinese poetry. ‘Reading helps elevate your [musical] taste. Literature classes taught me about good writing and interesting ideas.’
Now a concert hall regular, 25-year-old Zhang is known for his outstanding technique and phenomenal memory. But it is his musical depth that is refreshing, even the way he views the late Van Cliburn. ‘When two world powers with so much hatred for each other cheer for the same person at the same time, it’s not about politics; it’s about music.’ Still, he keeps his own career in perspective. ‘Never feel too good about yourself,’ he says. ‘You always have room to improve.’Zhang Haochen
is at the Beijing Concert Hall on Sunday 6. See more event details here.