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Dedicated to the keys

By WANG YUTING and HU MEIDONG | China Daily | Updated: 2023-08-30


Ni Chenzhe performs at a solo concert in Fuzhou, Fujian province, on Aug 6. [Photo provided to China Daily]

At just 15 years old, one Chinese pianist is already wowing global audiences with his impressive musical talent and emotional depth.

On Jan 12, with the lingering snow outside the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory yet to melt, 14-year-old Chinese prodigy Ni Chenzhe gently placed his hands upon the piano keys. Accompanied by the Moscow State Academic Orchestra, his performance of Symphony No 1 in G minor, Winter Dreams by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 — 1893), resonated throughout the historic hall of this century-old venue.

This extraordinary rendition, which perfectly encapsulated Moscow's crisp winter chill with a touch of romanticism, led Ni to secure the second prize in the piano category at the XI International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians, giving him even greater motivation to continue his journey along the path to piano mastery.

Influenced by his father, a music lover, Ni was exposed to a variety of musical instruments from a young age. Responding to his fervent request, Ni's parents bought him a piano when he was only six. Two years later, Ni started formal piano education under the guidance of Yang Yifu, president of the Fujian Provincial Piano Association.

Everyone who has heard Ni play, including the renowned Russian pianist Yuri Bogdanov, a recipient of the Russian National Art Medal, would readily acknowledge that the teenager's talent is dazzling. In April 2018, during a piano master lecture organized by the Department of Culture and Sports in the Gulou District of Fuzhou, Southeast China's Fujian province, Ni won over the heart of Bogdanov after just a few minutes of playing. Thus, at the age of only 10, Ni was granted direct admission to the middle school attached to the prestigious Gnesin Russian Academy of Music.


[Photo provided to China Daily]

Fueled by great dreams and determination, Ni soon embarked on a flight to Moscow, setting a course for a remarkable journey.

Studying abroad at a young age was challenging for Ni. Owing to the language barrier, in Ni's first year in Russia, he had to rely solely on English for all his coursework, not to mention every other aspect of living in a foreign country. "Upon arriving in Russia, Ni Chenzhe made tremendous breakthroughs in adapting to the environment and growing as a person. These were the biggest achievements for him," said Li Hongmei, Ni's mother.

But these challenges never hindered Ni's progress in piano. "I believe that no matter how talented someone is, once they stop learning and stop making an effort, they will become mediocre," Ni noted. "Everyone should keep pushing, striving for their own goals."

As for the technical aspect of playing the piano, the greatest difficulty for Ni lies in its complexity. How to memorize a vast sea of musical notes, how to seamlessly incorporate the piano part into an orchestral arrangement, and how to control his fingers precisely and effortlessly across keys that are only 1-2 centimeters wide — these are the daily themes of contemplation and practice for him. "Playing the piano is like conducting an orchestra: I'm the conductor, and my fingers are the orchestra members," he said.

Ni usually dedicates four hours every day to piano practice. Through continuous reflection and refinement, he has developed a set of unique methodologies.

"When I teach myself a new piece of music, I would first listen repeatedly to the master's rendition, grasping the ideas and emotions conveyed by the composition," he explained. "At the same time, I familiarize myself with its melody and technical aspects. This way, when I approach sight-reading and playing, I can quickly connect with the essence of the piece."

Like many pianists he admires, Ni holds his own aspirations for perfection and excellence. "Few performers manage to etch every single moment of their performance into people's minds. Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman is undoubtedly one of those few. He takes every facet of the musical experience to its peak, captivating the audience," he said.

In order to enhance his artistic comprehension and insight to offer a richer experience to his listeners, Ni spends his leisure time visiting art exhibitions and actively engaging with various genres of music. "I'm also very fond of traditional Chinese music. In the future, I hope to find opportunities to learn and delve into it more," he said.

In June, Ni graduated from Gnesin Russian Academy of Music Affiliated Middle School with top honors, emerging as the sole recipient of the "Best Outstanding Student" title in the school's piano major program.

For Ni, every stage he's been on, every piano piece he's played, every city he's been to, and every audience member he's ever played for brings him boundless emotions and motivation. As a member of China's Generation Z and as a musician, Ni aspires to instill confidence in his Chinese peers who are pursuing music. He wants to encourage them to relentlessly strive toward their goals. "Music represents our experiences, thoughts and wisdom. Music is life itself. Just step onto the stage and wholeheartedly showcase your passion," Ni expressed.

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