A composed, young pianist

The Baltimore Sun

You cannot imagine," Franz Liszt wrote, "how it spoils one to have been a child prodigy."

Still, Liszt turned out just fine, enjoying enormous success as a pianist and composer, the kind of dual career that may well be in store for a prodigy born 16 years ago in China. His name is Peng Peng, and he makes his Baltimore debut Saturday in a recital that includes works of Brahms and Debussy, as well as his own music.

No stranger to the concert stage - he made his recital debut at 8, his orchestral debut at 10 - Peng Peng can be heard on a just-out Naxos CD playing the heck out of Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

"I'm very pleased with that recording," the pianist says, reached on his cell phone in New York, where he attends the Juilliard School.

Slatkin, a strong advocate for the young musician, also engaged him to perform that Liszt concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra for last season's opening gala at the Kennedy Center. Peng Peng has also attracted attention for his compositions, winning an ASCAP Foundation Young Composer Award and other honors.

So what's it like being a prodigy?

"I'd rather leave that to someone else to discuss," he says. "I just feel a lot of encouragement to work harder."

Peng Peng is squeezing in as many as four concerts a month, in between his piano and composition studies. "It is not easy, of course," he says, "but it is possible if you are committed to it."

Since a tender age, his commitment has never been in doubt. Neither has his talent.

"What's special about him is that he has had his own very distinct, deeply emotional musical voice from the time he was very, very young," says Yohaved Kaplinsky, Peng Peng's teacher and chair of the piano department at Juilliard. "I met him when he was 10, and he already had the capacity of making one cry. He has a deep connection, understanding and involvement with music that most people [develop] at a much older age."

Peng Peng also expresses a healthy curiosity about the immense world of piano music.

"I have a very wide range of interest in repertoire. I don't say that I like this or I don't like that," he says. "Of course, there is some music that a young pianist does not understand fully. Take Beethoven or Brahms, for example. Even the most trained musicians are always finding new things in their music."

Peng Peng began composing shortly after he began playing the piano at age 5.

"I started by improvising on the piano," he says. "As my piano training became more serious, the writing became more serious, and, nowadays, composing is for me just as important as playing."

One thing that is clear from his work list, which already includes solo piano and chamber music pieces, is that Peng Peng doesn't think small. "I'm finishing the sketches of my second symphony, which I'm very happy with," he says.

As for the quality of his writing, Peng Peng sounds a mature note.

"I cannot say I have found my own voice yet. That takes years and years of effort," he says. "Young composers, between the ages of 12 and 20, always start with imitating past composers. And I think almost all composers in history found their own voice by first imitating others. A big part of my works are actually imitations. The biggest influences on me right now are Gustav Mahler and [Dmitri] Shostakovich."

He draws some inspiration for his approach to piano playing from others, too.

"It depends on the type of repertoire," he says. "If you are talking about Chopin, maybe Krystian Zimerman. For Beethoven, it might be Richard Goode. And from the past, pianists like Rubinstein and Horowitz."

What about the two stellar Chinese keyboard artists on the scene today, Lang Lang and Yundi Li?

"They are, of course, some of the most important influences on me," Peng Peng says. "I don't agree with everything they do, but they are extremely talented musicians."

The remarkable popularity of classical music in China today "has positive and negative values," Peng Peng says. "Western music was banned during the Cultural Revolution, so when it was allowed, its popularity rose at light-speed. But most audiences in China still watch recitals, rather than listen to recitals. Most audiences are more interested in how fast you can play and how loud you can bang. It takes time to bring more maturity and education to audiences."

Next year, he'll offer those audiences his first performance of Rachmaninoff's daunting Concerto No. 3 during an Asian tour. While preparing to tackle that warhorse and a great deal of other music, he'll be working hard on interpretive ideas.

"Right now, I can say my main focus is phrasing," he says. "I am solid enough [technically]. I have to find my own voice and style."

He's well on the way. And confident, too.

"I believe in my abilities," he says.

if you go

Peng Peng will give a recital at 3 p.m. Saturday at Evergreen House, 4545 N. Charles St. Tickets are $10 to $20. Call 410-516-0341 or go to www.museums.jhu.edu/evergreen.

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