IN: Reviews

Young Haochen Zhang’s Boston Debut


At age seventeen, Haochen Zhang was the youngest winner of the 2007 China International Piano Competition. At nineteen, he took one of three Gold Medals at the thirteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. He then launched his career, giving more than sixty performances during the year. Now twenty, the Chinese-born pianist took the stage at Jordan Hall on Friday evening December 3, his Boston debut recital presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston.

Early indicators of Zhang’s artistry could be observed in his opening bow. His every move was practiced. He created distance between his audience and himself. Once seated, he wiped the keys with a white handkerchief, then, pausing, assessed and adjusted the height of the bench. (Did anybody notice all the fingerprints left on the Steinway’s ebony?) After remaining completely still for several moments, he began playing, placing nearly all of the action in his hands. Throughout his recital, the Van Cliburn Gold Medalist showed little body movement or facial expression. He has, in his hands, a commanding technique that is not only high-speed and of near perfect accuracy but extraordinary powerful and seemingly unlimited even for the most treacherously difficult passages. His is an immense control, the envy of anyone who has ever played the piano. The softest of touches he could also produce at will. Zhang is as disciplined a soloist as you will encounter. Is it youth? Could it be a contemporary concept of performance? Could mentoring have helped? The program notes tell of his ongoing studies with Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find the other side of Zhang, his personality; and, except for flashes of brilliance, nearly all of his playing of Chopin, Brahms and Ginastera was, for me, cold. One wonders if it might just have been an off night for this emerging artist. One of the key reasons for there being these questions centers on dynamics, or more simply, volume. In a manner of speaking, Zhang raised the volume by a notch or two. The written dynamic marking of f, forte, in the first measure of Piano Sonata No. 1, Opus 22 by the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera was turned up to ff, fortissimo. Similarly, Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Opus 52, which should have begun softly — p is written in the opening bar — in Zhang’s performance was something closer to forte.

It wasn’t as though this made his performances in any way raucous. As loudly as Zhang played in the Ginastera sonata, clarity of sound was never lost. The biggest loss resulting from the ramped-up output came with the shaping of a whole piece or movement. Climaxes did not materialize. Drives to cadences buckled under the enormous volume. For instance, toward the close of Chopin’s Ballade No. 2 in F Major, Opus 38, a driving Agitato culminates with surprising harmony. Instead of a resolving harmony that you would expect to bring closure, this “deceptive cadence,” as it is often called, and that leaves the listener hanging up in the air, also did not materialize. The ensuing final cadence to be executed at a very soft level as if to take the feet right out from underneath you suffered from a lack of real contrast. Thus, the intended effect was lost.

Following the four Ballades came Brahms’ Klavierstücke, Opus 118, six pieces in all. The more “classical” Brahms seemed to be a better match for Zhang’s prodigious hands.

It was a fairly good turnout at Jordan for a newcomer on the scene. All in the audience had to be amazed by Zhang’s unbelievable virtuosity throughout the Ginastera. For an encore, young Zhang chose Robert Schumann’s evergreen, Träumerai. His choice was as perfect as the entire programming.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Hmmm…I must have attended a different recital. In the one I heard, there were no fortes in the opening measures of Chopin’s 4th Ballade, and Zhang’s way of bringing the entire arc of each episode to such a sublime repose illuminated something about Chopin’s intent that has evaded not only my ears and fingers over the decades but those of countless masters who’ve performed and recorded this work, including Rubinstein, Arrau, Pollini, and Zimerman.

    Nor was there anything lacking in the coda of Op 38 save one incomplete chord, the effect of whose missing member was dwarfed by the titanic passions and incandescent clarity of the Agitato. Many have played it nearly that fast – though none faster that I have heard – but no one has rendered it with such phenomenal transparency at that tempo. Zhang’s performance was deeply in service to the composer’s vision, I felt, and not in any way meant to call attention to itself…but how could it not?

    Still, the most unique, personal and satisfying performances that reached my ears on Friday were the Brahms Op 118. By the F minor Intermezzo Zhang had left the baggage of convention and received opinion about Brahms far behind, gliding so effortlessly and knowingly in and out of the grooves of the old man’s emotional field that one might, with eyes closed, imagine the composer himself tossing these Klavierstücke off with just the tiniest bit of self-deprecation. To my ears and heart it was nothing short of astonishing, and I am looking forward to more Brahms from this young/old artist. I’ll also be eager to hear him play more Schumann, to judge from his Träumerei, as well as Ravel (check out his Scarbo from the Cliburn at youtube!), Debussy, Bartók, and Stravinsky.

    So many of the great pianists in my lifetime have passed on, but recitals like Zhang’s are a thrilling reminder of the power of youthful genius, and a call to keep one’s ears and heart open.

    Comment by Nimitta — December 5, 2010 at 1:05 pm

  2. I enjoyed both Dr. Patterson’s comments and Nimitta’s – and admit to being a bit bemused by Dr. Patterson’s assertion that Mr. Zhang showed “little facial expression.” I was sitting stage left, second row, initially disappointed that my seats (which were a gift both literally and figuratively) were not in view of the keys. But I was completely consoled by the exquisite views I had of Mr. Zhang’s face, which often echoed the intensity and drama of the pieces he was playing. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the emotion rise and recede from him in time to the music. I will say that I kept hoping he would say something at the encores or at least break momentarily from the formal, Chinese bow but perhaps that will come in time with maturity.

    And yes, I was completely horrified by the paw prints all over that gorgeous instrument – surely there is someone at the Jordan responsible for polishing the Steinway before an event? If not, that assignment needs to be given out ASAP!

    But I will be looking for the next time Mr. Zhang is playing as it was a treat to hear him.

    Comment by Rebecca — December 5, 2010 at 8:05 pm

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