At 8:10 pm Friday evening, the 8:00 concert was underway with a surprise: an unannounced performance by violinist Nicholas Kitchen of Bach’s Chaconne, its score projected on a screen. At 8:25, we were lectured to by one of the founding members of the fledgling Artemisia Foundation, dedicated to promoting the careers of young pianists. A video completed the introduction. The advertised event, “Niu Niu in Recital,” didn’t actually begin until 8:35. The 15-year old boy played nonstop Scarlatti, Beethoven, Wagner, and Liszt, followed by three encores. There was no doubt that the audience, filling upwards of a third of Jordan Hall, was enraptured. I was not.
Last night’s recital marked Niu Niu’s North American debut. Niu Niu, whose real name is Zhang Shengliang, got his nickname “little ox” because he was born in the year of the ox. He first sat at a piano at age three, studying with his father. At age 10, he studied under the guidance of the Taiwanese pianist Hung-Kuan Chen in Shanghai, and now he and his family are in Boston, where he is a scholarship student at the Walnut Hill School. The youngest pianist ever contracted to EMI Music in China, he has performed with Lang Lang. In addition, internationally renowned pianist Paul Badura-Skoda is quoted in the evening’s program as saying, “Here is a great talent in the making, perhaps one of the great interpreters of the future.”
Here, it might be useful to make a connection between student and teacher. “He could play with poetic insight — he could also erupt into an almost terrifying overdrive. Now there is the repose and the forces that have been brought into complimentary [sic] harmony.” This is what Richard Dyer wrote in The Boston Globe of a performance by Hung-Kuan Chen. To me, his student Niu Niu mirrors in ways his teacher’s early playing as described by Dyer.
Poetic insight seldom appeared and when it did, it did so only fleetingly. Scorching the Steinway, the young technical whiz kid showed little interest or understanding of repose. Nor did the opening movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in F Minor, “Appassionata,” contain any suspense, any anticipation. Much of the same things happened in the Andante con moto, expressivity giving way to abstractness. The Allegro ma non troppo — Presto zipped by prestissimo-plus in “terrifying overdrive,” accenting turned to jabbing. Prodigies do usually wow us with virtuosity. Niu Niu is no exception. The “little ox” can play as big and fast as anyone.
But what would Ludwig van Beethoven say of it all? Liszt? Aspiring pianists would envy such technical command as this wunderkind displayed. Perspicacity is to be expected as Niu Niu matures. Some of us attending the concert would query, is this long tie with the same teacher a healthy one?
Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in E Major, K. 380 and Sonata in A Minor, K. 54 opened the disconcerting concert, as Niu Niu’s searched the Steinway for the composer. As with the “Appassionata,” Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3 in A-flat Major, Mephisto Waltz No.1, and that composer’s piano transcription of “Liebestod” from the closing scene of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde all melded together. Harmony, so key to these giant compositions, also appeared to be of little to no interest. The opening of Mephisto with its piling of fifths like a devil’s violin made me think immediately of the high-rate intensity we know from today’s American master composer, John Adams.
No surprises, though, that the first encore to be played was Liszt’s etude La Campanella, and the second, Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp Minor (posthumous). Can anyone identify the third encore? I had to leave moments into the piece.
The event was a presentation of another youngster, the Artemisia Foundation which has taken a rather high-minded approach to its mission.