Master Pianist, Tian Jiang


The Los Angeles Times once wrote:  “Tian Jiang achieved an exquisite performance of Mozart’s beloved Piano Concerto No.23.   The internationally known Jiang is a deeply persuasive Mozartean who delivers the full spectrum of the composer's virtues - wit, pathos, brilliance, and serenity in this buoyant performance ...".  Praised for his "formidable technique, shining, crisp, energetic and colorfully illuminated playing" by the New York Times, a subsequent profile on CBS "Sunday Morning" further celebrated the sweet irony of this remarkable artist's rich, imaginative interpretations: that this music he had been forbidden to hear, let alone play as a child, had become his life.

Born in Shanghai during the early days of China's Cultural Revolution, Tian's first memories resound not of Bach and Mozart, but of the boots of the Red Guard as they stomped through his home in search of cultural contraband - books and music - any vestige of Western arts.

As the child of "reactionary" parents - a Shanghai Opera tenor and a dentist - Tian had to learn his craft in secret. His father, ostracized from the opera and forbidden to sing Western music, nonetheless managed to teach his young son to play on one of the few state-owned pianos allowed in private use.   “My father taught me, in the beginning, and later when I had lessons, he would sit with me while I practiced. It wasn’t a matter of discipline because I loved to practice; he was just there with me, so important for a young child.”

That they had nothing was very good for him, he says, because it made him work.  “I put all my hope and imagination into the music.”  Tian's rapid progress through lessons, begun at age 5, and subsequent private performances signaled a talent so prodigious the authorities decided to overlook his parent's "condemned" status. By the time he turned nine, the tide of the Cultural Revolution had receded and he was admitted to the Shanghai Conservatory to pursue his insatiable interest in classical music.

Not long after he graduated from the Shanghai Conservatory, in the summer of 1980, Tian was selected to play for Vladimir Ashkenazy during the Russian virtuoso’s first visit to China with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Their immediate rapport ripened into friendship as they worked together during several master classes.

“Ashkenazy influenced me a lot, in fact, he really taught me how to perform,” Tian recalls. “He talked about how Pollini plays.  He said, ‘You know, Tian, when Pollini plays, the fingers are almost not moving, yet so much comes out, subtlety and color. The magic is in the fingertips.  Every note has to go down through the key, so you don’t have to move very much.’  It’s very interesting because Ashkenazy is of the ‘Russian School,’ and most Russian pianists raise their fingers very high, but he doesn’t.  He plays deep into the keys, fingers low, and that influenced me very much.  If the fingers are high, then you’re really hitting the keys, but the music is in the lowest 1/8 inch of the key bed.”

The two worked so well together that the Great Russian virtuoso invited Tian to appear in his BBC documentary “Ashkenazy in China”, about his historic visit. 

A year later the tide brought the American violinist Isaac Stern, preserver of Carnegie Hall, then serving as goodwill ambassador from the United States to China.  Isaac Stern was so impressed with Tian’s talent that he made arrangements with the Chinese government for Tian to study at the San Francisco Conservatory in the US.

Returning to China in 1982, he graduated from the Shanghai Conservatory with a bachelor's degree, won first prize in the National Piano Competition of China, and eventually achieved his goal of returning to the United State.  He said, “I chose to come here where I am not a star, where I’ve had to struggle to learn how to live and make my way, to understand the culture here. In the US, I have a much fuller life - and music comes from life.” 

In United States, the journey continued, borne along new waves. First prizes in the Joanna Hodges International Piano Competition and the William Kapell Piano Competition carried him to New York City, first on full scholarship to Manhattan School of Music and later The Juilliard School, where he would win a Van Cliburn Scholarship Award and graduate with an artist’s diploma in 1989.

After graduating he found himself at a crossroads; without concerts or direction, it was a time of confusion, he admits. “I still played piano, but I tried some other things.  For two weeks I worked as a piano salesman and sold 26 pianos. For me it was easy – the minute the customer came through the door, I sat down, played the piano, they fell in love with the piano, and they bought it.  Most customers couldn’t play, but they imagined sounding like me.  I was so good the manager had to fire me because the other sales people could not compete, they were very upset!”

Concerts still not forthcoming, he tried a stint in the financial world, working as a stockbroker for a time.  “I proved I could do it, but I also felt I nearly lost eight months of my life,” he recalls, “So many empty hours! I was constantly looking at my watch.   It was a trying experience but it taught me two things.  First, I realized how much I loved music, and that I have no way but music. Second, I learned persistence, which is necessary in investments, but also in music.  In making cold calls, I learned how to take rejection.  But if you’re good, it doesn’t matter when they say no because you always believe in yourself, and you try again.”

What is firmly grasped cannot slip away.  So the tide turned back to the piano, with excellent results.  A first prize in the Young Artists International Competition attracted so much critical attention that word of a remarkable talent – with a remarkable story – soon leaked to the media. His debut at Carnegie, featured in a profile aired on CBS’s popular “Sunday Morning” with Charles Kuralt, led to further publicity – and concert dates. Tian has since been interviewed and profiled extensively on radio and television, including “CBS This Morning” with Paula Zahn, “Backstage” on PBS, CNN’s “Entertainment News” and   “Show Biz,” NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and with Bob Sherman and June LaBelle on New York’s WQXR radio. *He said word about him leaked before his Carnegie Hall night, and that’s what CBS was there at all – they filmed the whole thing.  After that, he got dates.

Over time the longed-for career took flight. Now based in New York City, Tian performs regularly in prestigious venues throughout the world – in North and South America, Europe and Asia, and with some of the world’s greatest ensembles.  In recent years he has served as something of a reversible goodwill ambassador for both the East and the West.    He has toured his homeland three times.   Proudly the first Chinese pianist to tour his homeland with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s historic visit to China in 2000, he performed before packed halls of countrymen.  Tian has toured with the Chinese National Symphony and was the first Chinese pianist to have toured United States with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra as soloist on their tour of twelve major American cities.

Tian Jiang has been described by critics as being "utterly poetic and ravishingly musical... a musician of great culture."  His years of dedication and hard work, have proved that music is indeed, a universal language that draws people of different cultures together. 

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