Aged just 14, pianist Peng Peng is already filling international concert halls. Nancy Pellegrini meets a modest musician who's utterly devoted to his art
Zhang Suying recalls how her grandson, Peng Peng, would bribe her to listen to him practise on the piano when he was five years old. 'When I would eventually get up to do something else, he would offer me money to stay and listen,' she says. Now, at the age of 14, Peng Peng is filling international concert halls.
Gong Tianpeng, the Nanjing-born prodigy better known as Peng Peng, went from playing for his grandmother to winning national music prizes and, at the age of nine, a full scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music in New York.
Last week, he returned for a series of concerts in four cities - Nanjing, Shijiazhuang. Zhengzhou and Qingdao - as a warm-up for an Asian tour next year. The reception has been overwhelming, with Peng mobbed for autographs after each performance.
Peng was especially gratified by the response in his home town. 'The last time I was in Nanjing, I was only 10 and had no idea about my career,' he says. 'This is the first time back in my home town when I've had a really clear idea of what my career is going to be - that I would have a secure position performing and later present my own compositions. It made me really proud to show everyone what I had done in four years, and it was one of the best concerts I'd ever played.'
His former piano teacher, Ye Huifang, is just as proud. One of China's best-known teachers, Ye wasn't keen to add another student to her busy schedule when Peng auditioned for her at the Nanjing Institute of Art as a five-year-old. 'His playing wasn't actually that good,' she says.
But he showed enormous potential. 'When I played any five notes together, he could identify each pitch,' she says. 'He also has a great memory for songs and rhythm. He could repeat anything I played.'
Later, she found he could do the same with an entire symphony after hearing it once. 'He can even play backwards,' says Ye. 'He's a genius.' By seven, she says, he was writing his first sonata, although Peng dismisses the effort as an improvisation. His mother, Wang Lijuan, an electrical engineer, was initially nervous about raising her son as a music prodigy. 'She didn't want me to become famous,' says Peng. 'She wanted me to have a normal life.'
But there was no denying his talent. At the age of eight, he was studying at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and, after a year, Peng was invited to audition at Juilliard.
Peng flew to New York alone and was so jetlagged he slept through his audition. 'They were punching me, shouting at me, but no one could wake me,' he says. Fortunately, Juilliard rescheduled - and accepted him immediately. Even so, taking his place at the school was a challenge. His visa application was rejected three times and it took letters of support from Yo-Yo Ma and Senator Hillary Clinton to get Peng and his mother on the plane.
'At the time, I didn't understand,' says Peng. 'All I knew was that I was going to play for people in America, this great, romantic country I'd always dreamed about. I never knew it could be so hard.'
There were a lot of adjustments to be made in New York. Neither Peng nor his mother spoke English and they missed his piano teacher father, Gong Guoyu, who had to stay behind. And although the scholarship covered classes and music lessons, money for living expenses was a constant worry.
'We had no friends there and not enough financial means,' he says. 'I was still a baby. I didn't want to practise, I only wanted toys. My mother was always losing her temper with me and I didn't know why.'
His parents sold their two flats in China to support his studies, but that was barely enough to cover 18 months in Manhattan.
'We lived in a bad neighbourhood where people throw bottles out the windows,' Peng says. 'I didn't know it then, but my mother cried every night.' And after two months, she'd had enough. 'She said, 'We can't continue like this. This isn't what a human deserves'.'
But Peng wasn't ready to leave Juilliard, and it didn't want to let him go. The school helped arrange financial assistance and for his father to join them a year later. In 2004, Peng began playing regular concerts and life got easier.
He still seems bewildered by the school's helpfulness. 'When they think you're some kind of talent, they'll support you in any way they can,' he says. 'In China, if you want to go, you go.'
Being a wunderkind at Juilliard is no cakewalk and he felt lonely at first, particularly while learning English. 'I just felt left out,' he says. But everything else at the school was a revelation. 'The library has everything you want, and it's always the best edition,' he says. 'And the staff are amazing. They have the highest level of care. There's no distance between teachers and students.'
The competition is fierce and can lead to some spitefulness, although Peng insists that it's less cut-throat than in other conservatories. 'I don't want to compete with anyone, I just do what's right for me,' he says. 'But some people think I get more attention, or I'm more talented. They don't ask to be jealous, it just happens. It's no one's fault.'
Peng says he has learned to develop an 'organised mind' that he feels will guide him through an increasingly tough concert schedule.
'My teacher used to say that the only thing standing in the way of being absolutely fantastic is concentration,' he says. 'Nervousness is a feeling. Panic is a reaction. You can't control the feeling, but you can control the reaction.'
Concentration came in handy when he faced a noisy Nanjing audience filled with parents and their wannabe piano prodigies. 'Blocking external noise is a huge step forward,' he says. 'But you always have to respect three things: the composers, yourself and the audience. As long as you stay constant, you won't get nervous.'
Meanwhile, his social life has improved. 'Now I have some close friends - and when I say friends, I mean friends,' he says gravely.
But he has little use for teenage pursuits such as films, computer games or parties. In his spare time he reads science fiction and history and hangs out with friends. But music comes first. 'If you really want a career, you have to miss something. You can have a normal life, but it doesn't have to be now.'
That's not to say Peng is a music geek. 'We can talk about politics, economics, physics, just about anything,' says US-based physicist James Pan, a family friend.
Although there are many distractions, music holds a stronger attraction, Peng says. Even dating is on indefinite hold. 'Teenage dating isn't secure,' he says. 'If you turn someone you like into a friend, that's much more important.'
His singleminded drive paid off when he graduated to the big time with a closing performance at Juilliard's Centennial Gala last year. Conducted by John Williams, his Rachmaninoff's Concerto No2 in C Minor for Piano and Orchestra brought the house down. But Peng says he's been lucky. 'How many centennials are there? And I was here at the time.'
This June, Peng performs with conductor Leonard Slatkin at the American Symphony Orchestra League's national conference, and in September, he will join Slatkin and Renee Fleming for the opening performance of the National Symphony Orchestra's season. Summer promises to be even busier next year, when he goes on an Asian tour with Britain's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Thrilled as he is with these developments, Peng is remarkably level-headed about it all.
'I'm lucky to have my talent, but a lot of talented kids have been ruined by distractions. I won't say I'm successful yet - I'm too young,' he says. 'But I'm definitely on the right track.'