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Pianist Haochen Zhang. Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega
Pianist Haochen Zhang. Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega

Exclusive Interview: Pianist Haochen Zhang on NYC Lunar New Year Concert and ‘Rhapsody in Blue’

The New York Philharmonic will present a Lunar New Year concert at Lincoln Center on January 28, 2020. Conducted by Long Yu, the program will include pieces by Chinese and Chinese-American composers, but also music by South Korean composer Texu Kim – and by George Gershwin. In his debut with the New York Philharmonic, Chinese-American pianist Haochen Zhang will be the featured soloist on Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Cliburn gold medalist in 2009, recipient of a prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2017, and winner of a number of other awards along the way, the Shanghai-born pianist has earned acclaim for his recent recordings as well as his concertizing. Most recently, in 2019 Haochen recorded Prokofiev’s second piano concerto and Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra for BIS Records.

In 2017 he released his debut solo album, with music by Schumann, Liszt, Janáček and Brahms. Gramophone chose itas an Editor’s Pick, writing that “Zhang’s articulation and phrasing, precision and power…merit the highest praise.”

Haochen’s appearance at the upcoming Lunar New Year concert reflects his background. Having studied first in his native China at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and the Shenzhen Arts School, he moved to the U.S. in 2005 at just 15 years old to study with the legendary Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Today he is sought-after soloist with a blossoming international career.

Haochen spoke with us in advance of the Lunar New Year concert.

There’s no mention of Gershwin on your website or, for that matter, your Wikipedia page. Have you performed Gershwin before? You’ve described your style as somewhat introverted, but Rhapsody is splashy music. Does this piece, with its jazziness, speak to you differently than that of other composers?

I have performed the Rhapsody only once before. It’s true that this piece is not in any way “introverted”; however, I don’t believe “splashiness” is the only way to interpret it, either. The organicity and spontaneity in its jazziness is, to me, the core of its beauty and charm, and therefore, as someone who is always fascinated by intricate nuances, this piece always speaks to me in a very instinctive way.

Do you find that you learn something new about yourself as a musician when you learn new pieces? And when you perform with an orchestra or conductor for the first time?

The answer is an absolute yes. I believe that to grow is to be on the path of finding oneself. And this is an ever-continuing course, as the truth about yourself is never an outcome but a journey. To me, the core of music is “listening,” and one can always enrich oneself or discover oneself further by encountering it with others.

You were recently part of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s China tour. What was it like performing in China, and especially in Shanghai where you were raised?

I have always felt the most anxious when I’m performing in China. Not only because it is where I was born and raised, to which I always have a sense of inexplicable (and inevitable) “duty,” but also because – facing such a huge and ever-expanding concert demographic that is still in the course of shaping – you can never be certain of the responses your performances would evoke. For me, this sort of “unpredictability” is what makes it so exciting as a performer.

You’ve described music as “our universal home, so it doesn’t really matter where you come from.” But a person’s heritage is always part of them. What does it mean to you to be performing at a Chinese-themed Lunar New Year concert under the baton of a Chinese conductor in New York?

I do believe in the importance of heritage, and it’s exactly because of that I say music is our universal home, because music stands as bridges between different heritages. That is what it means to me as a Chinese musician celebrating Chinese heritage in New York; and more specifically, what it means to me being part of such a program, with Gil Shaham playing Chen Gang and He Zhanhao’s The Butterfly Lovers violin concerto and me playing the Rhapsody in Blue.

Your concert programs are mostly music by Western classical composers. What are your thoughts on playing contemporary music? Or music by Chinese or Chinese-American composers?

Of course, I am always looking forward to performing great new works by Chinese composers. The understanding of Chinese music is still somewhat obscure or stagnant in the West, partly also due to the lack of active Chinese composers in the more recent generations (except for a very few). So I definitely look forward to more exciting works in China being produced over the upcoming decade.

What are you looking forward to in your upcoming concert schedule?

This year marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven, and my most exciting project this season is, without question, playing the complete Beethoven concerti in consecutive concerts in cities across China and Europe. I am so looking forward to this experience, which I know will be an incredibly challenging yet fulfilling journey.

Tickets for the Lunar New Year concert Jan. 28 are available online.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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