Haochen Zhang

One of the two gold medallists in this year's Van Cliburn competition, at 19 Zhang was also the youngest contestant. He tells us what it's like to win one of the world's most prestigious piano competitions

Congratulations! How does it feel to have won a gold medal?
I feel very happy. I want to thank all my colleagues in this competition and the audience for inspiration. And also I want to congratulate Nobuyuki Tsujii, who tied with me. I think he’s the first blind pianist to win such a big international competition – it’s something truly historic. I’m really happy for both of us. For me I’m happy because I’m one of the youngest, and also the first Chinese winner ever to score a gold medal in the Van Cliburn. The first Chinese pianist to win an international competition was Yundi Li who won the Chopin first prize in Warsaw in 2000. And the top three winners are all from Asia – it shows a trend that people from Asia are getting more and more involved in Western classical music.

Did you see yourself in the final when you started?
That’s a complicated question. When I attended this competition I knew I’d be the youngest and I absolutely thought that the best way for me not to get too pressured or stressed would be to think this is not a competition but an opportunity to get more experience and to learn from other competitors. I wanted to enjoy performing on stage and not to think about being compared to somebody else. So the original purpose for me was to learn, to improve. When you get into the final you know that if you do well you’ve got a chance to win a medal, and possibly the gold medal, but I tried not to let myself spend time thinking about it. I didn't want to be distracted from the music or for it not to be useful to me.

And you played a recital of Brahms and Ravel as well as concertos by Mozart and Prokofiev for the final round…
I spent some time programming because although Van Cliburn gives you such a big amount of required repertoire you want to show your ability to play in varied styles. Mostly I played all different composers throughout the four and a half hours of repertoire in the competition. Because I did a lot of Romantic pieces in the second round, I wanted to show a different style in the final round. So I chose a Mozart concerto in the Classical style, and the Prokofiev as a complete contrast from the all-knowing Romantic style.  And even the Brahms piece has a Baroque style  [Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24] and Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit is very impressionistic.

What was the atmosphere of the competition like?
Van Cliburn is very stressful because of all the repertoire, but actually when you’re on stage the audience is so warm. You forget all the other things. You think of the competition as very prestigious and cruel, but actually it’s so warm. The concert hall is beautiful – the atmosphere was sort of soothing and comfortable. The acoustic was just beautiful, so that really helped me to concentrate on my music and help me get involved more easily. Every day was a highlight. There’s an old phrase saying that yesterday was history, today’s a gift and tomorrow’s a mystery. That’s at least what I felt while I was in the competition. Today’s a gift – that’s why it’s called the present. I took every day as a present to work hard at my music.

Did you have any tricks for dealing with the pressure?
I’ve played in quite a few junior competitions before. My first adult piano competition was when I was in China – the China International Competition. When I was 16 I won the gold medal. But Van Cliburn is the most stressful. It’s the hardest in terms of repertoire, then there’s the reputation and also there’s the huge media coverage. You have a camera following you almost all the time. These are all pressures. But I realised that nothing can calm you down as much throughout the competition as music. Only when you think of music do you forget about anything else. When I was getting very nervous before going on stage, I just thought about the music. That was how I controlled my nerves.

Interview by Rebecca Franks

Image: Altre Media

Related links:
Joint winners in Van Cliburn competition
French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet on Debussy
Violinist Janine Jansen on her 2009 RPS win