SPOTTING TALENT My father came from Tianjin and my mother from Beijing, and I was born in Ithaca, New York. I have been visiting China every few years since the late 1980s and have been following the country’s growing interest in classical music. I have played concertos with the China National Symphony Orchestra and given solo recitals arranged by the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music. I was in Shanghai in 2007 as a judge for the international selection round of the Franz Liszt Piano Competition. So I have had considerable opportunity to observe the upcoming generation of Chinese pianists. Statistically speaking, there must be many Chinese children with the potential to become great musicians. Over the years I have heard many unbelievably good young Chinese pianists, but I feel there should be more than there are.
TURNING TECHNICIANS ON I’d like to play a part in steering some of these young musicians in the right direction. Playing the piano requires a lot of disciplined work early in life and Chinese students are suited to that. But the point comes where you have developed the technique and must decide what to do with it. At the age of about 16 or 17, most people who have gone through regular practice and proper teaching since the age of about five are technically ready. But they need to flip a switch. They should stop practising and go out and live, get exposure to great art and human experience. And that is very hard. Otherwise they will be technicians all their lives. I’d like to help turn them around. I did it on my own, but I was lucky. Yundi Li and Lang Lang have found their own way. But those who dropped out are the ones who needed guidance as to what to do with their skill and talent.
BAR NONE The piano is the best way for non-connoisseurs to come into music. The repertoire is huge. The instrument is not intimidating, it’s pretty ubiquitous and people know what it is and how it works. It has popularised music and made it accessible to everybody. It doesn’t move; there’s nothing to do except communicate and share. I feel my mission is to give solo recitals, although I do play concertos with orchestras and some chamber music [with the likes of violinist Joshua Bell]. Still, I’m always eager to try something new. I enjoy the concept of the “house concert” – an intimate gathering comparable to the salon setting in which many professional and amateur performers used to play in the past. If I could, I’d play only house concerts for about 30 people at a time but economic reality means that most concerts are held in more conventional venues. In September last year, my wife, a visual artist and innovation consultant, and I saw a long-held dream come true with the completion of Beechwood Arts, at our home in Connecticut, where all the arts can flourish. We are working on a series of events involving music and the visual arts, plus food and wine. The place seats 70 people, the acoustics are ideal for music and it is a very versatile space.
GETTING IN TUNE Beechwood Arts is perfect for the Deeper Piano Studies Workshops I have been running for the past 12 years. For three days at a time, I bring together six or seven pianists of a certain level. They are all aged at least 18, they have practised daily for many years and have had some experience of playing alone on stage. Some are already professional performers, others are college-level or graduate students, amateurs or maybe teachers, and there are even some non-classical pianists or other instrumentalists. The aim is to create diversity within each group, so that people can share their experiences. I try to remind people that music needs more than technique, to provide a coming-of-age ritual, and to stimulate some reflection on what comes next. The mindless practising phase is important but there has to be a time, a place or a person to help students become mature artists. Some conservatories, but not all, have such teachers.
AN EAR FOR CHANGE I’m always happy to explore new ideas – new music and new kinds of programmes. I play a lot of the 19th century virtuosic repertoire, but I’m always on the lookout for new music. Unfortunately, while much of what is being written today can be played on the piano, it’s not pianistic – it doesn’t exploit what’s unique about the piano. I recently met Chinese composer Gao Ping in Cincinnati and heard him play some of his own compositions. I was dumbfounded. As well as being a composer, he’s an incredible pianist and writes so well for the piano, with fascinating colours and rhythms. I have included some of his compositions in recent recitals. I was [also] exposed to computers while very young, and am very comfortable with technology. I recently collaborated with Yamaha, using its Disklaviers [digital pianos which can be played independent of a pianist] in different locations. Everything was streamed over the internet. When I played, I controlled all these instruments so audiences could follow the concert live.