Chinese Piano Prodigy Niu Niu Reveals How Music Isn’t Just About Making A Mark But A Difference
At the age of three, he could play an entire book of fundamental piano music without mistakes or prior training. At age nine, he became the youngest pianist signed to EMI Classics, an international classical label. Now at 24, Zhang Shengliang, who goes by Niu Niu, has released eight albums, including “Fate and Hope”, a new album where he interpreted Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, released on May 7. This year, in conjunction with Le French May, the pianist will perform at Hope and Harmony: An Evening with Celebrated Musician Niu Niu and French cellist Laurent Perrin.
Hope and Harmony is a dinner and concert event supported by First Initiative Foundation (FIF), a charity that organises local initiatives to benefit the arts, education and community founded by director and creative head of Carnet Jewellery Michelle Ong. The concert will be co-performed by Hong Kong Sinfonietta’s assistant principal cellist Laurent Perrin. The programme will feature Gabriel Fauré’s four most famous pieces: Élégie in C Minor Op. 24, Sicilienne in G Minor Op. 78, Romance in A Major Op. 69 and Après un rêve in C Minor Op. 7; Chinese folk music Colourful Clouds Chasing the Moon, which has been re-arranged by Niu Niu for the cello and piano; and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, which Niu Niu adapted for the piano. Moreover, Niu Niu will also debut his own work, Impromptu No. 1 “Hope”.
“[Hope] was composed around the first half of last year when everyone was devastated [by the pandemic],” Niu Niu says. “It’s the same for me. I just kept getting messages about the cancellation of concerts. It’s like you’ve been doing something continuously for 15 years, and then suddenly it changed. What else I could do if I couldn’t be on the stage? Then I saw how everyone was courageous in fighting this situation. I was very inspired by that, and I wanted to create music that could encourage everyone in the world and bring reassurance and comfort to all the people during the difficult times."
While the programme at first glance may seem mixed, Niu Niu explains that the music the German, French and Chinese pieces are all familiar to most people around the world and will help connect people across cultures together. “Beethoven’s music gives us so much strength, and every repertoire conveys a lot of emotions. Commencing the concert with my Hope and ending it with Colourful Clouds Chasing the Moon envelopes the concert title ‘Hope and Harmony’,” he says. “You don’t need to understand the music to enjoy it. I hope everyone will walk out of this concert feeling rejuvenated. I want to convey a very strong positive message that as long as we have hope, we will always have a better tomorrow.”
Niu Niu’s love of music goes way back, even before he was born. “My mother is a profound music lover. She listened to Mozart during pregnancy,” he recalls. Born in Xiamen, Niu Niu, who got his stage name from his birth zodiac (the ox in Mandarin), was discovered by his father, who was a piano teacher. One day, his father found his three-year-old son climbing on to his bench and playing the piano with perfect pitch. His father provided him with professional training, and Niu Niu’s had his first solo recital at age six in his hometown. Two years later, he became the youngest person to be enrolled in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Since then, Niu Niu has travelled around the world to perform at a young age, including a piano concerto when he was nine in the Royal Festive Hall in London where Prince Charles was in the audience. In 2014, he was admitted by Juilliard School in New York with full scholarship.
Being a prodigy didn’t mean it was a bed of roses. “No matter how talented you are, you must go through a process of boredom,” Niu Niu explains. “There are certain things that must be repeatedly practised. I came to a stage where I just thought that music wasn’t what I first thought it was. My mother quit her job and went to Shanghai with me when I was eight. In our apartment, my piano was placed right next to the window, where I was able to look outside when I was practising. There was a huge playground with kids playing around. I asked my mom why I was different, why everybody else could go to play after school whereas I needed to go back home to practise. I wanted to give up. She gave me three days to think about it. During those three days, I didn’t touch the piano. I went to the playground like a normal kid. But I felt very empty after all the fun. A big part of being a professional musician is that you really need to devote your life and time.”
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It was then that Niu Niu realised the piano was his calling. “There’s this very strong connection between me and the piano, especially when I started travelling around the world. When people listened to my music and came up to me after the concerts to tell me they felt refreshed or touched, it brought so much energy to me,” he says. “I wasn’t a talkative person when I was really young, so music helped me ‘talk’ to people. Music can express a much more complex emotion. It’s is not just a career or profession. To me, it’s more like a huge part of my life. It transcends religion and politics. It’s a universal language we all share and don’t need to explain. I think that’s the magic of music, and that’s why music will and must exist in this world.”
Today, after reaching a professional level of piano playing, Niu Niu has the new goal of working on composing music and adapting pieces to collaborate with other musicians. To do so, he has to learn about the natures of different orchestra instruments. Still, the piano remains his favourite, as he explains, “the piano is called the king of all instruments for a reason. When I’m transcribing the symphony on the piano, I’m also aiming to produce the different kinds of sounds on this keyboard with 88 keys, which is possible. I think we all defend our own instruments, but the one thing that is very special about the piano is its range. The dynamic sounds it can produce is enormous."
There’s nowhere better to further this goal than Hong Kong. “Hong Kong is a great place to develop a career, because I could feel this enthusiasm for music when I talk to people or perform,” he comments. “The art and music environment in Hong Kong is already very profound. For example, the Hong Kong Philharmonics is one of the best in Asia. There’s an enormous amount of possibility here. It is only a matter of whether you’re up for it and prepared for all the exciting events.” The concert by Le French May and FIF, no doubt, will be one of many.
Hope and Harmony will take place on May 27. Find out more at frenchmay.com