A resounding piano forte

Special to The Times

NO one paying attention to recent musical trends in Asia can have failed to notice it: The Chinese are crazy about piano playing. Among city dwellers, there’s been nothing like this enthusiasm since the ‘80s, when an embrace of the Japanese-originated Suzuki teaching method created a national army of child violinists. According to some estimates, as many as 15 million hopefuls in China -- most of them young -- are toiling to gain proficiency in this highly competitive skill, and the number is growing. Those unable to make it through the tough entrance exams of the country’s nine overflowing conservatories opt for one of hundreds of private piano schools sprouting all over.

The sheer availability of pianos -- one company alone, Pearl River, claims to turn out 280 every day -- seems also to have focused many middle-class parents’ aspirations, especially in a country that still enforces a single-child policy. For these people, the incentive to see their kids seated at a keyboard is less about artistry or copying the West than about producing offspring of demonstrable excellence.

Parents make huge sacrifices to ensure that their children emerge from their education suitably polished. Moving lock, stock and barrel to be close to the best teachers, fathers give up careers in banks while mothers sit by the piano for eight to 10 hours a day, monitoring their children’s progress. And in many cases, the investment pays off.

Passing through London last year, I was lucky enough to meet one of China’s leading piano pedagogues, Dan Zhaoyi, who runs the piano department of southern China’s Shenzhen Arts School and has nurtured a number of the country’s top piano professionals, including the young international star Yundi Li. According to Dan, talented Chinese children typically start playing the piano at age 3 and can master Chopin’s etudes by 8 and a Mozart concerto by 12. “By the time of graduation at 18, students can tackle big concertos by Liszt or Rachmaninoff,” he said.

Then in October, I had the opportunity to test this assertion firsthand after being invited to China’s first Piano Concerto Competition, to be held in the city of Shenzhen. “You will be surprised,” Dan said.


A newfound source of civic pride

SHENZHEN is the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s onetime experimental economic zone, a sprawl of high-rises and factories that boasts -- at 8% -- the largest number of Chinese “dollar millionaires” per capita. It cannot claim much in the way of culture, but according to Dan, that is changing. Under Mayor Xu Zongheng, it has rapidly obtained such state-of-the-art cultural implants as a new museum and a Japanese-built concert hall.

It was Dan’s idea to christen Shenzhen “piano city.” The municipal government trumpets that, within its boundaries, there are 93,760 versions of the instrument and 13,077 professors teaching 150,766 pupils. Three years ago, during commemorations of what would have been Deng’s 100th birthday, the local authorities assembled 200 pianists aged 8 to 80 to play “Happy Birthday” to their patron saint.

It seemed only natural that Dan was inaugurating a piano competition in this ambitious metropolis. In the West, such events are often considered necessary evils, but Asians viewed this forum as the best means of advancement, with its opportunities for ambitious players to perform and pick up cash, media coverage and -- if they were lucky -- an agent with global clout. Shenzhen’s event featured a top prize of $30,000 along with engagements with the city’s fledgling symphony.

The pre-competition gala was not auspicious. It consisted of a series of song-and-dance routines of breathtaking synchronicity, including a group of 5-year-old pianists playing “Edelweiss,” and ended with a hundred or so chorines in tails tap-dancing to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

The competition was launched the next day with dignitaries lending a more solemn air to the proceedings. However, it didn’t take long before one of my suspicions was confirmed, namely that Chinese pianists take an Olympic, as opposed to Olympian, view of piano playing. The young competitors approached the big concertos rather as an athlete would a triathlon, i.e., as one hurdle after another -- and at speeds verging on the fanatical.

The stage etiquette demonstrated another, touching idea of professionalism. A 16-year-old from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music with streaked hair adjusted his seat five times. Mopping his brow affectedly each time, he then lapsed into a long moment’s meditation before thrusting his head back and arms forward. A performance before a performance.

Between rounds, I consulted members of the jury on some crucial history. According to Zhou Guangren, before Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution there were two complementary schools of Chinese piano pedagogy: in Beijing, Russian-influenced; in Shanghai, looking to Europe. For about 10 years after 1966, though, the only piece pianists were allowed to play was the Yellow River Concerto, a pastiche commissioned by Madame Mao largely to eclipse the popularity of the pre-revolutionary Yellow River Cantata.

It was Zhou who gave a groundbreaking 1978 concert at the Beijing Conservatory at which Schubert and Beethoven were finally heard again. “It opened floodgates,” she said. “But with Russia no longer an ally, the next generation of eager Chinese instrumentalists flooded American and European conservatories like Eastman, Berlin and Juilliard.”

The turning point came in 2000, when the then 18-year-old Yundi Li took first prize at Warsaw’s International Frederick Chopin Piano Competition, followed in fourth place by his compatriot Chen Sa. This proved that Chinese trained at home could compete on an international level. Today, some students with financial backing still prefer to train abroad, but with teachers such as Dan and growing opportunities to perform and compete here, the future increasingly looks as if it belongs to their native land.

So has Chinese piano playing reached a point of maturity? What Dan and Zhou fear is that despite their efforts to nurture a deeper understanding of the classics, their work is increasingly undermined by the feverish competitiveness of China’s fast-moving society. A third Shenzhen juror, Chen Hung Kwan, who runs the piano department at the Shanghai Conservatory, suggested that in the absence of a deeper musicality, “personal bests” become ends in themselves.

This attitude means that even advanced pupils are often unable to tell the difference between a rondo and a fugue, let alone deconstruct a sonata movement. Instead, many young pianists, according to Chen, assimilate Western classical music aurally and follow the latest recordings slavishly. Pupils boast to their peers that they played a Chopin scherzo two seconds faster than Horowitz or Martha Argerich.

Still, although Chen may grumble about “those who think that imitating others is their passport to success,” he’s convinced that a time will come when “Chinese performers will rediscover the yin and yang that is traditionally part of Chinese thinking and sensibility. Besides, even if 1% turn out to be exceptionally gifted, China will dominate future generations of classical musicians.”

Among the competitors taking the stage in Shenzhen to play the same concertos and etudes with nauseating accuracy was a handful of remarkable and highly individual talents.

The local girl who wound up sharing the first prize was one. The daughter of a local pharmaceutical mogul, 19-year-old Zuo Zhang was given a Pearl River piano at 3 and entered Dan’s class at the Shenzhen Arts School at 7. Declared one of China’s outstanding musical talents at 10, she made her U.S. debut at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in 2005, at 16. Zuo divides her time between the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and her parents’ ornate, $3-million apartment in a leafy Shenzhen suburb.

America had certainly rubbed off on Zuo. Though Chinese in being careful not to appear too ambitious, she had acquired the sassy veneer of a Valley girl and, with her cherubic smile, worked hard to be cute. “I want people to look at me,” she declared the day before the competition.

And how they looked! The swishy pink dress she wore for the second and final round was perhaps a tad too much eye candy. But her playing stole the show. For the first round, she had produced a gossamer, ravishing “Feux Follets,” one of Liszt’s “Transcendental” Etudes, and in the final round she offered a dramatic and lyrical account of Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto that sealed her victory.

The anomaly that is Niu Niu

DAN was right: I was surprised by what I heard in Shenzhen. But afterward, I was determined to visit Shanghai, still the epicenter of Chinese pianism. One young man I especially wanted to seek out was a certain Niu Niu, a prodigy whom Dan had referred to as “special.” It emerged from our conversation that Niu Niu had charmed audiences at London’s Wigmore Hall in August and was planning more recitals, including at Carnegie Hall in New York.

I found Niu Niu, whose real name is Zhang Shengliang, living with his devoted parents in a small apartment a stone’s throw from the conservatory.

He was 9.

Like many boys his age, Niu Niu cuddles stuffed animals, kicks balls and drinks too much Coke. A little over 3 feet tall, he was eager to show what he could do.

“How about a Chopin etude?” I suggested. Without a second’s hesitation, he launched into Opus 10, No. 2, fingers scurrying likes spiders up and down the chromatic scales. For his next number, I wickedly proposed Balakirev’s “Islamey,” a monster piece that taxes even the most skilled professionals. He smiled knowingly and pounced. The fingers hit the repeated notes like pistons, all the strength in his shoulders struggling to weigh into the dense Russian chords.

On a purely technical level, Niu Niu’s talent is amazing. His mother said that it had taken him a few days to master Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” but that he could memorize a Mozart sonata after one reading. He loves performing, she said. After the concert at Wigmore Hall, where he played Shostakovich’s First Concerto, he made his American debut in April at the Asian Cultural Festival in Queens, N.Y., with some Chopin and Poulenc.

But what’s remarkable about Niu Niu is not so much the fearless mechanical efficiency as his musicality. When asked to play Liszt, he chose the composer’s arrangement of the Liebestod from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” an erotic rhapsody you’d think only an adult could understand. Yet he had discovered its mysteries.

Was this intuition or imitation? From his teacher, Australian virtuoso William Chen, who plays the same piece, I learned it was partly the latter, though that could not explain the sensitivity of his interpretation. Chen’s challenge is to harness the boy’s immense talent and ambition.

“In time, Niu Niu will gain a deeper understanding of music and not just want to play everything difficult fast,” he said. “You can’t teach a child about love, but you can educate him on the form and structure behind music’s great beauty and why we find it so moving.”

Turnbull, based in Cambodia, has reported on China for, among others, Opera Now, the Spectator, the Daily Telegraph and Conde Nast Traveler.