Dec 12th 2018

Brace yourself -- the Chinese are coming

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

 

 

The work ethic among young piano students in China shows no sign of abating as their tiny fingers fly up and down the keyboard ten or twelve hours a day. Competitions are welcoming the new Asian talent and European concert halls are filled with admiring fans. 

Some of us don’t quite know what to make of it. 

It’s not all about Lang Lang, Yuja Wang or Yundi Li. Potential new superstars are emerging every year. Brace yourself for more in the years ahead. Some 20 million young Chinese are said to be practicing madly as our European and American kids diddle mindlessly with their smart phones and iPads. 

Two contrasting Chinese women have caught my eye recently and promise to leave indelible marks. They both have worked hard to get noticed and – contrary to myth — they are capable of mastering the Western canon, and with feeling.

 

MJ_Ch_Ran
Ran Jia, a portrait by the author, Michael Johnson 

 

Ran Jia, the Shanghai-born daughter of an established composer, has become a recognized Schubert interpreter. And Zhu Xiao-Mei has adopted Bach’s Goldberg Variations as her own.

MJ_Ch_Zhu
Zhu Xiao-Mei​​​​​​, a portrait by the author, Michael Johnson

 

Music without borders is a reality. As I told a jealous pianist friend recently, “Live with it.”

Elegant, poised and deeply musical, Ran Jia has brought a new freshness to Schubert, a phenomenal achievement considering how often the piano sonatas have been performed by the greatest pianists of the past 75 years. The music press in Germany, where she played all eleven works in a four-day marathon last year, christened her “the challenger”.

And Xiao Mei, a battered survivor of five years in the labor camps of Mao’s China, recovered her piano training and managed to escape, first to Hong Kong, then Los Angeles, then Boston, and finally Paris.

It’s difficult to read her book “The Secret Piano” without welling up.

In one passage, she describes the beginning of her career at Beijing Conservatory :

“We worked at the piano like galley slaves, in little closed rooms whose doors were fitted with a small, round window (for monitors to check up on students)… The school’s leaders encouraged rivalry between students. The best pupils not only had the right to more classes but also to better food.”

Living conditions were Spartan. “At night, forty of us slept in the same dormitory hall. Bunk beds were placed next to each other so closely there was just enough space to move about the room. The atmosphere was suffocating.” 

And her first serious teacher, Pan Yiming, was “unrelenting”, she recalls. He ran her through the Hanon virtuoso book plus the main volumes of Czerny, Cramer, Moszkowski and Brahms, plus Bach’s “Inventions” and the Well-Tempered Clavier”. He told her, “I want you to play all this by heart. From now on, for each lesson, you must play a piece by Bach and two etudes from memory with no mistakes.” 

By a circuitous route she ended up at the New England Conservatory in Boston, studying under Gabriel Chodos who had trained under a student of Arthur Schnabel. “Professor Chodos was forbidding. With him, it was a life-or-death struggle. After every class, I wanted to quit the piano.”

When he assigned the Schumann “Davidsbündlertänze”, he warned her it would be the ultimate test … “Once again, he was right.” 

She saves her greatest enthusiasm for the Goldbergs, which she says “took over my existence – it contained all one needed to live.” The variations, she says, “are all about flow … this is what makes Bach’s music so soothing for its listeners.” 

Ms. Jia is comfortable with her achievements and rejects talk of competitive striving among the Chinese. “My dream is simple,” she told me in an interview, “to share my musical inspiration deep down in my heart with the audience …” To her, Schubert’s music “dances between our world and heaven”. 

Her modest persona comes as a welcome change in the face of the flamboyance of other young Asian players seeking to distinguish themselves through hair-styles or performance antics. She may well be the next Chinese superstar, a versatile player who thoroughly understands her music and performs it for us without excesses. 

One American critic noted that onstage she “looked as though she were thoroughly enjoying herself, frequently smiling at Schubert’s more engaging nuances”.

I asked her about the growing criticism of young pianists who place technique above musicality. Not wishing to join the polemic, she agreed however that “music is not only related to the physical action but also the knowledge, emotion and the depth of the spirit behind it”.

She brings all these crucial elements to her playing.

I have spent the past few days listening attentively to her latest CD (Ran Jia Schubert, Sony Music) a pairing of Sonata No. 19 in C Minor and Sonata No. 16 in A Minor. As a bonus, she includes “Three Preludes for Solo Piano” by her well-known composer-father (also an accomplished painter), Jia Daqun.

Ms. Jia has already built the foundations of a long-lasting career, with debuts at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York. As she explained in our interview she became a multicultural musician by growing up in a multicultural musical household. Her father is Senior Professor of Composition and Theory at Shanghai Conservatory. He is regarded as China’s leading composer and has worked in various musical styles, including traditional Chinese music and an East-West blend.

A bonus on the new CD is the world premiere recording of his Preludes. Most captivating is his variation around Schubert’s A Minor sonata and placing it very much in the 21st century. After absorbing his daughter’s pure Schubert, his contrast is chillingly beautiful.

Wherever this merging of East and West will lead us, it is surely in a healthy direction. We need to combine, nurture and cross-fertilize  music, whatever the origin. Learning from each other is the way forward. We have only one planet.

 

Another version of this article appeared recently in website The Cross-Eyed Pianist

 

END

 


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