Meet Star Pianist Haochen Zhang, Who Loves Rachmaninoff and Philadelphia

Nov 11, 2019

Born in Shanghai in 1990, pianist Haochen Zhang won the Van Cliburn Competition in 2009, which launched his career. He went on to win an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2017, and today he's an international star, receiving kudos from media outlets around the globe. “Such a combination of enchanting, sensitive lyricism and hypnotizing forcefulness is a phenomenon encountered very rarely," says The Jerusalem Post. Two of his favorite things: Rachmaninoff and Philadelphia.

Haochen plays Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto with The Philadelphia Orchestra on WRTI 90.1 on Sunday, November 17, 2019 at 1 PM.

He also visited WRTI's Performance Studio in October to play some of his favorite recital pieces and chat with WRTI's Susan Lewis. 

Rachmaninoff had a connection to Philadelphia, and Haochen also feels a fondness for the city, where he arrived in 2005 to study at the Curtis Institute of Music. In 2006 he played with The Philadelphia Orchestra as a winner in the Orchestra's Albert M. Greenfield Student Competition.   

He has his own home in Philadelphia and an old concert grand he acquired from Curtis.

Since then, he has performed almost all of Rachmaninoff's piano concertos with The Philadelphia Orchestra.  He played the 1st and 4th concertos with the  Orchestra in 2017, and toured China with the orchestra in 2019, playing Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. In his latest collaboration with the Orchestra, he performed Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto, both in Philadelphia and on tour in Japan.

The second concerto is a work he's played since he was 11. Then, it was a technical challenge. Today, he is fascinated by Rachmaninoff's own playing of the work, and the ways to interpret it. 

"There are so many different sections I love," he says, "but I think the most powerful one is actually the beginning, where he starts like a bell." He sings softly, "bom, bom."

"And then, when it finally arrives at this BOM, BOM, BOM, BOM, BADUM and the piano has this ocean- like kind of wave sound, which brings the orchestra in .." He smiles.  "That was such a powerful introduction. [In] the audience, you would immediately be drawn in." 

He also speaks with appreciation for his time at Curtis, a place he says introduced him to different people and ideas, in an environment that felt like home.  "You go to the old building of Curtis, and there's a very intimate, feeling and in charm, with environment there, so everybody knows each other very well."

"You have students coming from everywhere, and you listen to their playing [and think, that's] something I've never heard.  And not only music, but their opinions about life.  I really opened up my vision." 

Today, he has his own home in Philadelphia, and an old concert grand he acquired from Curtis. 

"It was picked originally by Rudolph Serkin ... So I've known the instrument, and I feel a certain kind of heritage because it used to be in the school and now it's in my home.  And so playing, it gives me a lot of inspiration."