When Yibing Zhang, the 2017 winner of the Dallas International Piano Competition, performs Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor on May 1 at the Moody Performance Hall in the Dallas Arts District, he will be conquering a piece he calls “a monster.”
“It’s a huge piece,” Zhang said. “Multiple times I almost gave up, it’s so difficult.”
His performance of the complicated piece with the Dallas Chamber Symphony is a culmination of a musical journey that began in his native China when he began playing the piano at three years old.His grandfather was his first piano teacher and his parents encouraged him, even when the music seemed too challenging and Zhang was frustrated with his practice sessions.
“I would try to argue that with my parents why should I keep learning that instrument. I have no feeling with that. Once I felt I hated that instrument, but since I’ve grown up a little bit and until now, I appreciate that my parents didn’t give up,” Zhang said.
In high school, he began to seriously consider music as a career because of the nurturing teaching of his high school piano teacher.
“She just gave me a lot of good suggestions and always said a good word to me. Then she dug up a lot of my talent,” Zhang said, explaining that playing music he loved offered more professional inspiration.
“That was the first time I finally realized the things I really enjoyed, that kind of music can be the official thing and that was the first sign to lead me to decide to use music on the piano in my career in the future.”
He won third prize in the China Central Television Cup Piano Competition and performed with violinist Sheng Zhongguo at the Chinese National Center for Performing Arts. Zhang has also performed with the China Philharmonic Orchestra.
After earning his bachelor’s degree from the Central Conservatory in Beijing, Zhang moved to Boston to work on his master’s degree at the New England Conservatory. He thought Boston was a beautiful but expensive place to live. When he heard Pamela Mia Paul, University of North Texas’ Regents Professor of Piano, play online, he was impressed. “I heard that and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this lady is brilliant,” Zhang said.
He decided move to Denton to pursue a graduate artist certificate, studying with Paul and refining his performance skills. Adjusting from being able to walk everywhere in Boston to needing a car in Texas was a challenge. “The first time I came to Denton, I was a little shocked. I thought, ‘Is this a good place to live?’” Zhang said.
One month after making the move, he had fallen love with Texas, its endless expanses of flat land and its abundance of musical opportunities. In Paul, he found a mentor to further cultivate his musical abilities.
“Finally, I’ve found a space. I can live here and I will stay in this state to build up my career and build up my music life in the future,” Zhang said. In September, he will attend Southern Methodist University Meadows School of the Arts on a full scholarship to earn his artist diploma.
In the United States, Zhang has participated in several competitions, winning second prize in the 2017 International Keyboard Odyssiad Competition, the Discretionary Award in the 2017 Wideman International Piano Competition, and second prize in the 2015 Young Texas Artist Competition.
After playing in so many competitions, the awards are not his priority. “Finally, I realized the result is nothing you need to care about. The most important thing is did I try my best,” Zhang said.
Zhang is eager to perform Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, a piece he first attempted at age 11. “If I had an 11-year-old child in this room, I would tell them, ‘Please don’t try that! It’s dangerous, very dangerous,'” Zhang said.
He explains the piece is great to play in competition, challenging the pianist technically and emotionally. “It needs a long time to prepare. It has a million notes and also the technique from that piece is very, very difficult. Also, the most difficult part is not only for the notes and the technique, to find out the correct way, to find out the character for this piece takes almost one year to find the correct spot,” Zhang said.
After years of studying and practicing, Zhang is ready to tame Rachmaninoff’s monster.
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