A pianist reaches Lincoln Center – the hard way

Updated: 2014-02-14 05:36

By HU HAIDAN in New York (China Daily USA)

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As if playing for sophisticated, critical New Yorkers weren't tough enough, pianist Tian Jiaxin gave herself an extra challenge when she performed at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

A highlight of Tian's performance – following up her triumphant Carnegie Hall solo debut last year – was her rendition of Chopin's Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35. Tian said performing this piece has always been difficult for her, because it requires the artist to smoothly present four different emotional personalities – one from each movement.

By evening's end, Tian had left her mark, prompting a standing ovation from the audience.

"I am so excited. I played very well," she said after the concert. Comparing her effort with the February 2013 Carnegie Hall recital, she said, "I had more connection with the audience this time."

She credited Philippe Entremont, a French pianist, conductor and teacher with helping her to rise to the occasion. "He inspired me and taught me how to express my emotion while he traveled to New York last October," Tian said.

Tian and her parents sat down with China Daily after the Feb 8 concert to talk about the young pianist's musical journey. "We (her mother and I) are so proud of her," said Tian's father, Tian Di, a composer and conductor from the General Political Department of the People's Liberation Army. "She worked so hard to reach the level she was at today."

Born into a family of professional musicians in Beijing, Tian began playing piano at age 3. But unlike other Chinese prodigies who might embark on a musical path that includes intensive conservatory training, Tian followed a more ordinary path – attending elementary school, middle school and high school.

Tian's father said he and Tian's mother wanted their daughter to receive a comprehensive education at an early age, so she would be able to choose what she wanted to do when she grew up.

He said he didn't want Tian's being from a musical family to be the only reason she might choose to become a professional pianist.

"We found her a great piano teacher, and we were able to help her with her practice," he said.

"We believed that academic studies would not stop her from becoming a professional piano player if she enjoys playing. On the contrary, the experience and the knowledge helped her."

Tian said she enjoyed her time in academic schools. "I experienced a lot of things which I may not have been able to experience if I went to music conservatories," she said. "My performance is based on those experiences."

Tian's mother, Wang Yueying, a retired soprano with the Opera Troupe of the General Political Department of the People's Liberation Army, said in her last year of high school, Tian had to choose whether to study at an academic college or to play piano professionally.

"She told us she enjoys playing piano so much," Wang said. "Her father and I then gave her our full support."

Wang said Tian practiced at least four hours a day after school during the week, and even more on weekends. She had to stop by 10 p.m., "because the apartment building we lived in did not allow music after that," Wang said. Her father helped her to train her ear and to understand musical theory.

At Shenyang Conservatory of Music – gaining admission with relatively high scores – she dreamed of making it big as a pianist, Wang said.

In 2010, she left China to attend Manhattan School of Music on a scholarship under faculty member and critically acclaimed pianist Jeffrey Cohen.

"I dreamed of performing on stage and dedicating myself to connecting Eastern and Western music," Tian said. "So after I graduated from Manhattan School of Music in May 2012, I worked hard to achieve my dream."

On Tian's performance calendar is playing a duet with Entremont at China's National Grand Theater in April to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishing of diplomatic relations between China and France.

In addition to performing, Tian also has begun to explore music pedagogy. Since 2011, she has taught master classes in different cities in China. She said she is drawn to the idea of helping Chinese piano students connect Eastern and Western music. "I can play famous pieces for them and I would like to share my experience," she said. This summer, she plans to teach master classes in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.