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A piano prodigy's key insights

Updated: 2024-05-06 06:51 ( China Daily )
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Pianist Niu Niu performs with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of conductor Jaap van Zweden at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall on Dec 16, 2022. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Classical musician Niu Niu is maturing beyond the talent of his youth as his mindset and skill set progress in tandem, Chen Nan reports.

He learned to play the piano at 3 years old. He gave his first recital at age 6. And by 9, he became the youngest pianist ever signed to the international label, EMI Classics. Since then, he has released nine albums. Zhang Shengliang, who's better known by his stage name, Niu Niu, is often described as a child prodigy. He was born into a musical family in Xiamen, Fujian province, 27 years ago.

"I can tell people that I have 20 years of experience of being a pianist," he says, laughing.

But he's still breaking new ground. On April 26, the pianist released his latest album, Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No 1 and Symphony No 6.

It was recorded in collaboration with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and its artistic director, conductor Jaap van Zweden. The recording was produced and engineered by Phil Rowlands and released by Decca Records under Universal Music Group.

It is Niu Niu's first live recording and features his performances with the Hong Kong orchestra on Dec 16 and 17, 2022.

"In my previous experience in making albums, I usually sat alone in the studio and recorded the pieces with the help of sound engineers and producers. For this live concert recording, I didn't know what to expect. I was nervous and excited," says Niu Niu, who trained at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and later on a full scholarship at the Juilliard School in New York, from which he graduated in 2018.

"There were about 2,000 audience members in the concert hall. Once I started playing the music piece, I forgot about the recording and fully immersed myself in the space," he says.

"After the first concert, I couldn't wait to listen to the recording. It was great because of the presence of the audience. I felt like I was talking with them through the musical interpretation rather than talking to the air when I did recordings alone in the studio."

Niu Niu played Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No 1 when he was a child. Over 10 years ago, he played the music piece with the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of conductor Tang Muhai. In 2015, he played the same piece during his first collaboration with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. This month, he will embark on a tour in Japan to promote this new album by performing in Osaka and Tokyo.

He loves the work and especially the sequence of pounding chords with which the pianist launches the piece's first movement. He also enjoys the charming flute solo that introduces a lush piano melody in the second movement, which allows the pianist to settle into deeper exchanges with the orchestra.

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