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Cultural Evolution 

Don't look now, but the Chinese have become major players on the classical music scene, as Dizhou Zhao is about to show at the New Orleans International Piano Competition.

Last May, Musical Arts Society of New Orleans (MASNO) Executive Director Daniel Weinebacher attended the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Ft. Worth, Texas, as he has every four years since the late 1970s. But surprisingly, the buzz at the competition wasn't over music as much as it was over geography. Eight of the 35 finalists were from China, an emerging supplier of world-quality classical musicians.

"I was amazed," says Weinebacher. "In the past, they've had maybe one or two Chinese contestants out of the 30 or so that they accept, and this year there were eight of the 35, so it was an extraordinary showing."

The rapid rise of Chinese musicians is extraordinary given the country's history: during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s, the Communist Party under Mao Zedong banned anything Western -- including classical music -- and exiled China's musicians and teachers to work on farms. Thirty years later, a new generation of young Chinese pianists is flooding piano competitions, concert circuits and American music schools.

Back home in New Orleans, Weinebacher has been preparing for MASNO's International Piano Competition, held July 24-31 at Loyola University. This year the competition has a Chinese contingent of its own: Dizhou Zhao, only the third semi-finalist from China in the competition's 17-year history. At 25, Zhao was born after the Cultural Revolution, and grew up learning piano in the reemerging conservatory system.

"I grew up in Shanghai," Zhao says by phone from the New England Conservatory in Boston, where he has been a student since 1999. Though his English is peppered with all the "likes" and "you-knows" of any American college student, Zhao's disciplined upbringing creeps through: he's anxious that the interview not go on too long, as he needs to get back to his practicing. It was his mother, a stage actress, who started him with piano lessons at the age of 4. By middle school, Zhao began attending the Shanghai Conservatory, which modeled itself after the Russian conservatory system. "So in that ... school, it's like very concentrated," Zhao says, "because you only have like half-day academic classes, and then like half-day of practice. I basically spent six years in the middle school."

Zhao says intense early instruction is common for most Chinese musicians. "Most Chinese kids, they learn instruments very early, like 4 or 5 years old. And the parents really kind of put a lot of energy and devote themselves a lot to the kids. You have kind of intensive training taking lessons from a very early age, and then by the time you're getting to school, if you are, well, let's just say very plainly, if you're good enough, then the school will send you to these sort of special schools."

Since Zhao attended the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1980s, the system has experienced explosive growth. Where there once was just one conservatory, today there are nine spread throughout the country, and a multitude of private music schools. A child's proficiency in music is seen as a sort of status symbol among today's Chinese parents, and they focus a great deal of attention on their child's lessons. Though exact figures aren't available, Weinebacher has read estimates that as many as 38 million Chinese children are currently studying piano.

This sudden emergence of Chinese pianists shouldn't be too surprising, according to those who have followed the development. Nelita True, a professor of piano at the prestigious Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester and a jurist in the New Orleans International Piano Competition, has been to China a dozen times since 1989. It's all been a part of China playing catch-up from its darker era, she says.

"During the Cultural Revolution, everything Western [in China] was destroyed," True says. "So I imagine that when it was over, they were even more motivated since it had been forbidden for 10 years, that it was even more attractive to them. And there are literally millions of piano students in China. So just the sheer numbers would lead to their becoming more prominent."

Chinese children like Zhao, True says, will succeed in the classical music world because of the disciplined upbringing: "It's not like the United States because, first of all, the young ones who are gifted are identified early and they go to special schools, just like in Russia, and of course we don't do that. And that's one of the reasons that their technical proficiency is so high, because there's a real focus."

In addition to that, True says China is welcoming every teacher who shows an interest: "They bring in lots of people to teach their students; they're very receptive to all of us who come in and give master classes, but they also themselves have wonderful teachers."

And while classical music attracts a more mature audience in America, Chinese citizens of all ages are fascinated by classical music. "I think it's only going to get more prominent as the years go by, because there's such a strong interest in classical music from children on through the elderly," says True. "When you perform in China, it's so gratifying to look out in the audience and see young children, teenagers, college-age students, middle-aged people and the elderly. The love of the piano is pretty pervasive."

Here in America, True says Asian students are snapping up spots in conservatories and music departments across the country. "Our school and every other major school would close down if it weren't for the Asian students. I'm not exaggerating," True says. "We estimate between 70 and 80 percent of the piano students at Eastman are foreign and most of them are Asian, and it's true in the violin, also."

Zhao says he's been happy studying under Georgian pianist Alexander Korsantia, though the American system seemed very relaxed after the Shanghai Conservatory. "Here (in the United States) you have a choice," he says. "You can choose to work hard, to work really hard, and you can also choose not to work hard. So there's no pressure here, it's all you, what you want. It's just because of me that when I was in Shanghai, the pressure from parents was a very big factor in my early years."

Zhao continues to practice hard in the United States, rarely going home to China due to the enormous cost and because of a tenuous visa situation. He's also eschewed competitions and touring until now, so he could be sure he was ready. "I've been practicing, basically, kind of been preparing myself for my career, and now I think it's about time to launch my career, and so that's why I started applying for a lot of competitions." Chosen as one of the final 16 competitors in the New Orleans International Piano Competition isn't a bad way to start.

click to enlarge The keys to life: Twenty-five-year-old Dizhou Zhao says - that, after six years at the New England Conservatory - School (and years before that in Shanghai), he's finally - ready to test his competitive fire.
  • The keys to life: Twenty-five-year-old Dizhou Zhao says that, after six years at the New England Conservatory School (and years before that in Shanghai), he's finally ready to test his competitive fire.
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