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SCRUTINY | Van Cliburn Gold Medalist Haochen Zhang Makes Stupendous Toronto Recital Debut

By Joseph So on May 9, 2016

Haochen Zhang (Photo: Benjamin Ealovega)
Haochen Zhang (Photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

Haochen Zhang at George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto Centre for the Arts, Sunday, May 8.

It’s been an amazing 72 hours for Toronto piano fans. On Thursday afternoon, Honens Laureate Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov gave a most memorable Walter Hall recital under the auspices of Women’s Musical Club of Toronto. This afternoon at George Weston Recital Hall, 2009 Van Cliburn Gold Medalist Haochen Zhang made his Toronto recital debut. Writing reviews for these two extremely talented young pianists so close together, I find myself in danger of running out of superlatives — but what a nice problem to have!

While today’s concert was Haochen Zhang’s Toronto debut, his Canadian debut took place two years ago, playing Rachmaninoff with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony. Even earlier, he was in Canada as a student on a cultural exchange, performing with an orchestra. Born in Shanghai on June 3, 1990, Zhang was only three when his mother bought him a piano after she read about the benefits of piano lessons on children’s brain development. Zhang took to the piano like fish to water, learning to play on his own. After three weeks, his mother took him to a teacher. At five, he played a 70-minute program of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven in front of 1,300 people in Shanghai.

He attended the Shanghai Conservatory of Music at the tender age of nine, two years later he went to the Shenzhen Arts School across the border from Hong Kong, studying with a teacher who also taught Yundi Li. At 15, he entered the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and studied with Gary Graffman, who also taught Yuja Wang. In 2009, he won the Gold Medal at the Van Cliburn Competition, the youngest competitor ever.  The win came with three years of career management, touring nationally and internationally, even though he didn’t finish his studies at Curtis. Given his accomplishment on the concert stage, he was awarded a diploma in lieu of the normal degree.

His TO debut today was under the auspices of the Li DeLun Foundation. There wasn’t a huge amount of advertising in the mainstream media. I included this show in my Critic’s Picks, and I’m happy to say a couple of people told me that’s how they found out about this concert.  Even up to a few minutes before the start of the recital, the 1036 seat George Weston Recital Hall looked alarmingly empty. The audience was primarily ethnic Chinese, and I am sorry to say they do have a tendency to be unfashionably late. Okay, I can say it because I’m Chinese, but I’m never late!  They slowly streamed in, even after the start of the recital. By the second half, it was quite a respectable-sized crowd.

Zhang played a demanding program that began with Four Mazurkas by Chopin, almost as a sort of warm-up. His tone was gorgeous and luminous, helped no doubt by the Hamburg Steinway. I was told that it was getting a bit out of tune by intermission, although I have to say I didn’t notice anything.  To my ears, this piano is much better than the instrument Kolesnikov played in Walter Hall, which has a much drier, thinner sound.  Zhang’s playing of the Mazurkas was lovely if a bit introverted, with the properly lilting, dance-like rhythm in some but not all of the four pieces. An early highlight was the Four Impromptus, D.935 by Schubert, with every note well-judged and perfectly executed. It was an unalloyed pleasure.

After a short intermission — announced as ten minutes but stretched into fifteen, given the tardy audience — he played the Chopin Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35. He really was in his element here, playing flawlessly. The slow movement was particularly lovely, although I can’t say the same about the very noisy audience. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, many in the audience picked the quietest moment in the Funeral March to cough (mouth not covered, of course), to drop programs, to talk, and the children to squirm. It was painful.

The final piece on the program was the finger-breaking Prokofiev Sonata No. 7. His virtuosity was nothing short of jaw-dropping. I admit to being easily seduced by a big technique, but Zhang is more than that. His playing has a musical depth and maturity unusual in someone so young. His stage persona is on the cool side, but I would rather have that than the fake theatricality one encounters from a couple of other pianists today. He played two encores, the Mozart Turkish March piano transcription by Arcadi Volodos. I’ve heard this described as “insane” for its technical difficulty, but Zhang did it full justice. He finished with Debussy’s Girl with the Flaxen Hair, a nice, soft, quiet end to an afternoon of pianistic fireworks. Let’s hope he returns to Toronto, maybe at Koerner Hall? I am willing to bet with more publicity it’ll be a full house.


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Joseph So

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