By the time he was three, Zhang Shengliang – who goes by the name Niu Niu – could play an entire set of foundational piano pieces. It was a skill he had learned simply by watching his father give piano lessons to students at home.
The 21-year-old – now a world-renowned classical pianist – has recently released his first classical album, Liszt · Chopin · Schubert · Mendelssohn, with Universal Music Hong Kong.
Last night, Niu Niu performed at “The World Sings Danny Chan” a concert at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre to commemorate what would have been the late Canto-pop idol’s 60th birthday.
Ahead of his performance, the piano prodigy talked to us about his musical journey and his debut album.
“I was ten the first time I played for important people. It was for Britain’s Prince Charles and some other members of the British royal family at the Royal Festive Hall in London.”
Even though Niu Niu performed for the presidents of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa at a Brics (an acronym of the five countries) summit evening gala last year, he considers his meeting with the Prince of Wales a decade ago as one of the most memorable moments of his career.
“He was very excited about my performance,” Niu Niu recalls. “He said it was really beautiful, and that he looked forward to listening to me again.”
At the time, the pianist was too young to fully understand how significant this encounter was. “His words were very encouraging … and I was just very glad to have had the opportunity to show the Western world what Chinese people are capable of achieving.”
Niu Niu told Young Post he received his first piano lesson when he was three and a half. His father was the one who taught him.
“He expected me to memorise one piano book per week when I was about four,” says Niu Niu, adding that he felt more excited than overwhelmed by this expectation. “I was fearless, and I loved challenges … and conquering them.”
His intense training, he says, is what makes him so good at reading and memorising musical scores.
In his album, Niu Niu features works from the Romantic era – “nothing too abstract” – including those by classic composers Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn, and Franz Schubert. For Niu Niu, the highlight of the album is Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor. Although the 32-minute piece is divided into three separate tracks on the album, Niu Niu says that, during the recording session, he insisted on performing the entire piece in one go.
“Unlike most sonatas, there isn’t a real movement break in this piece,” he says. “I think it should be performed as a whole.”
The physical and mental challenges of playing such a long piece, he adds, were exactly what he wanted to capture and deliver to his listeners.
“I want people to really experience the kind of journey I felt playing the piece – my musical journey all the way from when I gave my first recital at the age of six – as well as the kind of hope that the piece fills us with by the end.”
Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge