Chinese culture puts a lot of stock in prizes and competitions; whatever the circumstances, the title matters a lot. So it was no great surprise that the youngest and first-ever Chinese winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano competition had a full-evening program at the Beijing Music Festival on Monday night. Rather, it was the audience that provided the surprise; in a country where raucous Peking Opera performances usually beget loud, running commentary from the floor, I have never seen a Beijing audience so completely rapt. Perhaps it was national pride, or maybe audiences here have finally internalized the solemn rituals of Western classical music. Or maybe they were just in awe. Whatever the reason, they remained fixated on a single figure hunched over his piano as if ready to pounce. Even the children were silent and wide-eyed. Only once did I see a woman pull out a cell phone, and she just placed it quietly on her armrest as the gadget’s voice recorder clicked away the seconds of Haochen Zhang’s performance.
Among the ranks of China’s celebrity piano prodigies, Zhang’s homecoming puts him firmly alongside Yundi Li and a whole roster of Van Cliburn finalists. If their experience is anything to go by, November 2 won't be the last New York sees of Zhang.
Posted by Nick Frisch, 2009–2010 Fulbright Fellow researching classical music developments in China