Asian Invasion: The talent tsunami from the East – threat or stimulus?
Their tiny fingers fly up and down the keyboard eight hours a day and their fearsome dedication shows no sign of abating. These young piano students from China, South Korea and Japan are driven by cultural and economic forces now transforming the piano world. Laid-back Western students often cannot compete.
The result? Conservatories and university music departments are filling up with fee-paying Asians as their parents pressure them to succeed in the West. Piano competitions around the world, now numbering about 800, are open to this new wave of Asian players. They are winning top prizes and they are building careers in Europe and the U.S. Too often, according to some teachers, young Americans prefer computer games, the latest movies, rock bands, sports, or other less-demanding activities. The Asians are happy to fill the vacuum.
The new world of Asian winners abounds.
-- This year the winners at the Cliburn Junior Piano Competition were South Korea (gold) and China (runner-up).
-- Last year’s Van Cliburn International Piano Competition gold medal went to 18-year-old Korean Yunchan Lim, the youngest Cliburn gold winner ever.
-- The Busoni Competition two years ago ended with three finalists, two of whom were Koreans.
-- Chinese-Canadian Bruce Liu won the Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 2021 and the three runners-up were Asians. Japanese pianist Sorita Kyohei placed second, the first Japanese to place so highly since Mitsuko Uchida 51 years earlier.
-- Korean pianist Cho Seong-jin became the first Korean to win the Chopin first prize in 2015.
-- The Cliburn Junior Competition this year selected 23 young players to compete, of whom 21 were Asian. Watch for them to grow up.
Some teachers tell me they can already foresee an all-Chinese final event coming in the next Cliburn Competition in Texas three years hence.
Where are the Americans? “Our kids just cannot not make it,” says U.S.-born William Grant Naboré, founder of the prestigious International Piano Academy, Lake Como, Italy. “For Americans, the piano is more of a hobby, not a vocation. We are not prepared musically.” Why this seeming laziness? For one thing, says Naboré, “they all know a piano career doesn’t pay that well.”
He concludes: “The Asians are coming to Europe, in droves. The situation for Americans is tragic … tragic.”
Some of us don’t quite know what to make of all this. Is the West simply losing its ownership of the instrument and its traditional classical repertoire? Chinese players warn me not to over-dramatize. “In my opinion,” says London-based pianist-composer Ji Lui, “the success of a musician is just due to the discipline of hard work, the energy to perform well, the dream to develop further, and over-all a love of lifelong learning.”
But the drama is already there. The talent tsunami from the East is crashing into an already saturated marketplace and more pressure is building. Estimates for the number of piano students on the launching pad to achieve prominence range from 20 million to 60 million. Reliable figures are not compiled but no one doubts that the numbers are in a range never before seen. The sensational success of Lang Lang, Yuja Wang and Yundi Li on Western concert platforms serves as an inspiration for this younger cohort.
THE ASIAN INVASION
Explanations of this sudden interest in piano among the young Chinese vary widely. In percentage terms the trend is perhaps not so large. One pianist explains: “First of all, there are a lot of us.” Second, the competition in Chinese and other Asian schools is intense in all subjects, not just piano. “What’s different here is that music has become very popular because we in China have come to accept that it can cultivate one’s feelings.”
Not everyone is rolling over to accept the “Asian invasion”, as some call it. Pianist and professor Roberto Plano relocated from Italy to the United States a few years ago to teach piano at Boston University, but he resigned after a year. I asked him why. “Because 90 percent of my students were Asian,” he said. Ironically, Plano found himself on the Cliburn Junior jury this year, passing judgement on 21 more Asians.
My informal survey of piano professionals over the past several months, conducted for this article, reveals a split in two directions: Some teachers in music schools and conservatories are delighted to see this sudden demand for their precious lifelong passion. Others are frightened by the Asians who are on their way to dominating “our” piano world. A friend in Los Angeles complains openly that even private piano teaching there is now mainly in the hands of Asians.
It’s not just about quantity. The quality of Asian talent is more evident with each passing year. Some children are out-performing their elders and they are in a hurry. At the age of 12, the precocious Japanese pianist Taige Wang performed this spring in a trio with the (New York) Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center – playing his own composition. Taige is studying jointly with Juilliard piano professor Yoheved Kaplinski and Como Academy founder Naboré.
And separately, the London critics went wild over teen-aged wonderboy Shinto Morimoto’s Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 (Shinto is a Naboré student). Wrote one respected London critic, “How is it possible that an 18-year-old can play like a mature adult at the peak of his career?” After the performance, members of the London Philharmonic wrote the pianist-composer a congratulatory note saying they were “proud” to have performed with him. No one can remember such a glowing endorsement ever coming from a London orchestra, especially not for a Japanese teen-ager.
A disconcerting fact is that the Asians often perform the traditional classical repertoire – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, Schumann, Prokofiev – better than we do. Example: Yuja Wang doing Rachmaninov’s showpiece “Flight of the Bumblebee”.
FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN
A third impression is that some prominent private teachers seem afraid to take a position. About half of those I approached for their take on the tsunami refused to talk about or even confirm the phenomenon just over the horizon. Some fear loss of their lucrative income. Others are so flummoxed by the squeeze that they prefer to lie low and keep their options open. One professor at a leading New York conservatory has a teaching schedule loaded exclusively with Asians. He flatly refused to be interviewed although his perspective might have been invaluable.
The medium-term future is dark for U.S. and European players because of the work ethic imbedded in Asian family values. Young Asians are more motivated to plunge intensely into repertoire, performance, stage presence, and background knowledge. Their parents are behind them financially but not necessarily dictating their future. The pressure is broader than that. Says Chinese-born Ji Liu, now a London-based music professor, musicologist and concert performer, “My mother always said that whatever profession I chose, I must do it with full effort and dedication.”
And after facing criticism for their over-emphasis on blindingly fingerwork, the current generation of Asian students is making “soul” and background knowledge their priorities. This change in emphasis is overdue. Anecdotes from just a few years ago left some professionals shaking their heads. One Juilliard professor was taken aback after his technically perfect Chinese student mastered Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, in record time. The professor told him, okay now let’s do Book 2. “Oh, there is a second book?” the student asked. “Nobody told me.”
U.S. and European music critics see the downside of Asian players grabbing conservatory and music school places, but they are bound to acknowledge the qualities of the best of them. Even the acerbic London critic Bryce Morrison, reviewing a January recital at Wigmore Hall, let himself be transported by last year’s Cliburn winner Lim. He praised Lim’s “ever-astonishing verve and brilliance (that) were unmatched by a no less astonishing confidentiality”. Noting his “rare and unwavering musical engagement”, Morrison added a rare personal endorsement: “I can only join others and celebrate this one-in-a-million talent,” he wrote in International Piano magazine. The other review on the same page was an admiring account of Japanese Mitsuko Uchida’s interpretation of Schoenberg’ Piano Concerto. Critic Jonathan Brown wrote that the audience was “dazzled with the intricacies of her involvement with this music”.
Even the British weekly magazine The Economist, written for a business readership, is swept up in the phenomenon, recently publishing six pages headlined “How China made the piano its own”.
FILTERING IN and OUT
Cross-fertilization is now becoming commonplace, and it takes many forms. One pedagogue of my acquaintance has been invited several times to come to China for a string of recitals and master classes. He says the financial package is “astronomical”. The reverse is becoming just as common. One Chinese conductor, Jindong Cai, pursued a career at home and in the U.S., then recently accepted a permanent faculty position at Bard College Conservatory of Music, at Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.
And in the other direction: Schubert star performer Ran Jia, after a successful career in Europe, has recently been appointed assistant professor of piano at Shanghai Conservatory of Music. She is taking home with her the lessons mastered in Europe. She rejects pure technique as the aim of piano study, advising her students to avoid the trap of technique over art, and she diplomatically gets her message across. “Music is not only related to the physical action,” she told me, “ but also the knowledge, emotion and the depth of the spirit behind it.”
Her own Chinese training has been international, following in the footsteps of her composer-father Jia Daqun, who ensured that the Jia household in Shanghai was filled with a range of styles, including traditional music, as she grew up. Ran would agree with Ji Lui, who believes that international study allows us to transcend cultural boundaries. “Learning from each other is the best way forward,” she said. “We have only one planet.”
And in perhaps the most important cross-fertilization initiative yet, Juilliard has just created its first overseas campus in Tainjin, 100 kilometers north of Beijing.
TRACING THE ORIGINS
Why this sudden burst of piano activity? “First of all,” Ran said, “there are a lot of Chinese (1.4 billion -- ed.)”. Second, the competition in Chinese schools is intense in all subjects, not just piano. “What’s different here is that music has become very popular because it can cultivate one’s feelings.”
A pianist at one expensive and exclusive conservatory says the influx of Asians has the corridors buzzing over the motivations of some students. Some are basic careerists. Some are trying to find their way. But the girls who work hardest and play well are often not there to become professional pianists but to enhance their marriage credentials for their return to Korea. A music diploma from Europe or the U.S. can qualify girls to marry upward in Korean society. Juilliard, he tells me, “has essentially become a Korean girls’ finishing school”.
The New England Conservatory prompts similar unintended consequences. At a Boston recital recently by pianist-professor Russell Sherman and his Korean wife Wha-Kyung Byun, the audience was delirious over their two-piano performances. Most of the screaming and stomping came from excited young Korean girls, at least a hundred of whom lined up to pay homage to the mixed couple after the recital. One critic called it a “love-fest” between the Shermans and the Korean girls.
TRAINING of ASIANS
It is no surprise that piano training in different in Asia, and particularly China, where it is based on practice, practice, practice. It’s better now but Chinese youngsters in the 1960s remember going through piano hell. In her memoir “The Secret Piano”, Zhu Xiao-Mei describes the rigors of life at the Beijing Conservatory. Reading her story, one cannot avoid welling up. She survived five years in a labor camp required by Mao Tse Dong’s Red Guards until she made a daring escape. Her classical training had been forbidden in favor of proletarian propaganda songs.
Now based in Paris, she recalls her early training there. “We were locked in a little closed room where the doors were fitted with a small round window for monitors to check on us … The best students had access to more classes and to better food.” Ms. Zhu managed to escape to Europe where she first studied under Gabriel Chodos at the New England Conservatory.
In her book, she recalls suffering so badly under Chodos’ strict tutoring that she “wanted to quit piano” after every lesson with him. Gradually she adapted and went on to become known in Europe for her extraordinary interpretation of the Goldberg Variations. “The Goldbergs took over my existence,” she writes. “They contain all one needs to live.”
As Ji Lui told me, when he studied in China, emphasis was also on very strong finger training. “I am grateful for my Chinese roots,” he says. “Yes, technique in general is important, but only as a tool. He is so respected in London that he was hand-picked recently to record “The Richter Scale”, a new one-hour piano dramatization of an earthquake and its aftermath. He was recruited because the composer, German pianist Boris Bergmann, felt he could not do it justice, his score is so difficult. Playing four-hand music with only two hands, Ji learned to merge the primo score with the Steinway Spiro player piano software producing the secondo part. His job was to overlay the two, and he managed it seamlessly.
The tsunami phenomenon has created a feeling of anxiety but the Chinese seem to relish studying and playing professionally in the West. Breaking into mainstream concertizing is a struggle even for them but they do not shrink from the challenges. I asked Ji how he sees the future as the influx continues. “It’s wonderful,” he said. “I don’t see us as a threat. I just want to bring more joy to more people.” He says he hears about the anxiety but it has never been raised with him face-to-face.
In another case of cross-fertilization, French concert pianist and recording artist Lydia Jardon founded and manages a leading Paris piano school specifically catering to Asian children. She named it the Yaya-Lydia Jardon Piano School, one of many such private institutions in Paris. Her teaching puts her in close touch with young Asian students looking for a Western music education. I asked her in what way Chinese students need to be coached differently from Western pianists. The young Asians must learn to think in terms of phrases, she says, and adapting pedaling from one composer to another. In sum, they need guidance in the sculpting of sound, and learning that the real instrument is the player’s body, not a wooden box of strings.
How does she evaluate the basic motivations that help the Asians excel? “It’s in the virtues of self-denial, of pitiless, colossal dedication to hard work, which are inherent in Eastern civilization … In Asia the young are trained early in life to acquire a steely mindset similar to that of athletes of a high standard.”
I asked her if the West could absorb the coming tsunami. What will become of the crowded piano world as the Asians flood in? “There are many forms of career possible,” she said. “If they continue to reinvent themselves and to progress musically, the level of pianism will be raised, and there will be room for everyone.”
LEADERS IN THE NEW WORLD
The Chinese are proud to be recognized as leaders in the reshaping of the piano world. But the undeclared rivalry among nationalities for piano success is leading one influential figure to put a stop to what he considers an unhealthy outcome. Peter Paul Kainrath, president of the World Federation of International Music Competitions and artistic director of the Busoni, sees a future in which contestants will no longer fly the flag of their national origin, allowing themselves instead to be judged only on the merits of the music they make. “We have started a six-month pilot project,” he says. “Nationalities are not mentioned any more in any of our communications. It may take a while to get used to it, but we believe it is the right thing to do.”
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