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Pundits and prognosticators who see classical music sinking into a slough of irrelevance, obsolescence, or extinction may wish to train their critical antennae at the opposite end of the Pacific Rim. New performers, composers, and mass audience are rising in the Far East – and the new Asian wave is impacting both Europe and America. After reorganizing and relocating from Belk Theater to Halton Theater, a venue half its size, the reborn Charlotte Concerts (formerly Carolinas Concert Association) rode that wave to fill the hall in just the second event of their meagerly publicized new regime.
Word of mouth certainly accounted for some of the dramatic increase in ticket sales for the solo concert by Haochen Zhang. Nor should we ignore the power of the Van Cliburn brand in capturing the attention of concertgoers and motivating them. Watching the upper rows of the balcony fill with walk-up ticket buyers and glancing over the faces down in the orchestra section, it was easy to conclude that Zhang’s nationality counted at least as much as his gold medal last June at the 13th Cliburn International Piano Competition. I hadn’t seen such a high proportion of Asians at any performing arts event since the days when the Metropolitan Opera was premiering The First Emperor during their 2006-07 season.
Seating the walk-ups, along with a loquacious Charlotte Concerts president, helped delay the start of the concert for more than 20 minutes. That may be why the 19-year-old Zhang seemed to have lost a bit of his technical edge as he launched into the Allegro Moderato of Mozart’s Sonata in C, KV 330. But if all the notes weren’t clearly there, Mozart’s cheering spirit was there in abundance, though a comparison with the charm and effective dynamic shadings of Mitsuko Uchida’s benchmark recording wouldn’t be in Zhang’s favor. Zhang proved to have insights of his own as he played the ensuing Andante cantabile at a perilously slow tempo, keeping the overall structure cohesive, and bringing out a serenity – tinged with regret – that I did not find when I revisited Uchida’s reference recording. Nor was Uchida’s left hand overpowering at the outset of the Allegretto, a blemish in Zhang’s performance that vanished as he moved on to the pellucid main argument where his right hand reigned. But here it was Zhang who made more effective use of dynamics, ending the piece with higher drama.
Zhang’s phrasing and dynamics were nicely sculpted at the outset of Brahms’s Klavierstücke, but on too modest a scale. While the diminutive pianist produced soft passages with a shimmering chromaticism that was pleasantly modernistic in the first of these four intermezzi, the dramatic crests that followed lacked sufficient force and contrast to fully satisfy; and while the swifter passages bore admirable precision, the subtle dynamic shadings of Zhang’s softer work abandoned him, producing a mechanized impression. The repeat of the swift section was more rhythmically expressive, a quality that served Zhang well as he proceeded to the waltzing and marching sections of the suite. Holding back when the waltz crested did accentuate the zest of the march and bring it into starker relief, but Zhang never quite achieved a sense of release and purgation. The reprise of the marching section began with jubilation and verged on mania without fully arriving at that destination.
Temperamentally, Zhang seemed to return to his comfort zone when he played Chopin’s Ballade No. 4. Or to be more precise, Zhang tugged the early moments of the Chopin more toward the clear lucidity of Mozart than we are accustomed to hearing, easing off on the pedal and freshly illuminating the music. Pacing was more at the slower Ashkenazy pulse rate than the Perahia recording of this F minor masterwork, but here the onset of fireworks delivered fully satisfying thunder – the passion, presence, technical assurance, and artistry of a Cliburn gold medalist were all here.
After intermission, Zhang returned with all the command he had built to at the end of the Chopin, infusing the opening of Schumann’s Fantasia in C with force and gravitas. He grew poetic and poised when he reached the placid passages, and when Schumann’s restlessness took over, Zhang’s strong left hand added a deeply neurotic underpinning that was very persuasive. Zhang’s fire and conviction seemed to leave him in the middle section, but in the closing “Langsam und getragen” movement, the Chinese pianist artfully pitted the tranquil passages against the majestic ones, convincing us when tranquility prevailed.
Stravinsky may have considered himself European or even American in his musical leanings, but Zhang managed to steer Trois Mouvements de Petrouchka toward Asia in its slower episodes. Even the raucous pounding of the keyboard had a penumbra of Mandarin grace. Earlier on, Zhang again lavished a lightness on the piece that recalled Mozart, layering on virtuosic elements of Romanticism and Impressionism. Best of all, he played the jazzy syncopations with the zest of a vibrant 19-year-old rather than with the reverence or stiffness of an academic.
Zhang played a little to his Asian constituency in his encore, offering a “Chinese Folk Song” that reminded me of the traditional “Dialogue in Song” I first heard on Lang Lang’s Dragon Songs CD. Fast and slow tempos were even more starkly contrasted in Zhang’s performance – with exquisite pedaling in the calm sections. Zhang had already communicated well enough to bring his audience to their feet after a solid 90 minutes of music, yet it was still heartening to see him acknowledging the people he had connected with. Perhaps that little extra will help bring them back to the Charlotte Concerts series when he isn’t there.