Feb 4th 2018

Pianist Ran Jia: The next superstar rising out of China?

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

Elegant, poised and deeply musical Ran Jia has brought a new freshness to the Franz Schubert piano sonatas, a phenomenal achievement considering how often they have been performed by the greatest pianists of the past 75 years. The press in Germany, where she played all eleven works in a four-day marathon last spring, christened her “the challenger” against Daniel Barenboim, who was scheduled to appear in Berlin a few weeks later. 

Ms. Jia rejects such talk of competitive striving. “My dream is simple,” she told me in an interview, “to share my musical inspiration deep down in my heart with the audience …” To her, Schubert’s music “dances between our world and heaven”. 

Her self-deprecating persona comes as a welcome change in the face of the flamboyance of other young Asian players seeking to distinguish themselves through hair-styles or piano-bench paroxysms. 

She may well be the next Chinese superstar, a versatile player who thoroughly understands her music and performs it for us without the distracting excesses of Lang Lang and Yuja Wang, among others. 

Ran Jia by the author, Michael Johnson

One American critic noted that onstage she simply and calmly “looked as though she were thoroughly enjoying herself, frequently smiling at Schubert’s more engaging nuances”. 

I asked her about the growing criticism of young pianists who place technique above musicality. Not wishing to join the polemic, she agreed however that “music is not only related to the physical action but also the knowledge, emotion and the depth of the spirit behind it”. She brings all these crucial elements to her playing. 

I have spent the past few days listening attentively to her latest CD (Ran Jia Schubert, Sony Music) a pairing of Sonata No. 19 in C Minor and Sonata No. 16 in A Minor. As a bonus, she includes “Three Preludes for Solo Piano” by her well-known composer-father (also an accomplished painter), Jai Daqun. 

Ms. Jia’s Schubert is every bit a match for the greats who preceded her. She handles the virtuoso challenges and mood changes in, for example, the four-movement No. 16 in A minor, in the most natural, effortless singing manner and delivered the full range of human emotions straight into the heart of this listener. 

In this video she discusses her love of Schubert and demonstrates her exquisite playing.

 

Ms. Jia has already built the foundations of a long-lasting career, with debuts at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York. As she explains in our interview (below) she became a multicultural musician by growing up in a musical household. Her father is Senior Professor of Composition and Theory at Shanghai Conservatory. He is regarded as China’s leading composer and has worked in various musical styles, including traditional Chinese music. 

A bonus on the new CD is the world premiere recording of his Preludes. Most captivating is his brilliant variation swirling around Schubert’s A Minor sonata and placing it very much in the 21st century. After absorbing his daughter’s pure Schubert, this contrast is chillingly beautiful. 

 

INTERVIEW WITH RAN JIA

 

Q. Your four-recital cycle of Schubert the eleven piano sonatas in Germany last spring left critics in awe. They called you an astonishing artist, a piano poet. How has that success changed you? 

A. I would say it changed me as a pianist. After this almost impossible mission, I suddenly found peace and freedom in myself as a musician. 

 

Q. You are in very good company, devoting so much of your musical talent to Schubert. The competition could not be stronger Brendel, Schiff, Perahia, Kempf, Lupu, Richter, Barenboim, among others. What drew you into this stratosphere? 

A. Schubert has been my favorite composer since I was a teenager. Ever since I played his music the first time, I have felt a unique connection. All his music has become my mission in my musical life. I dont feel there should be any competition between the interpreters as you mentioned in the question. For me, my dream is simple, to share my musical inspiration deep down in my heart with the audience, and to diligently dig into Schubert’s music as much I can.

 

Q. Will you really spend the rest of your life discovering Schubert’s “spiritual delicacy and profoundness, as you have written? Is your ambition to become the definitive interpreter of Schubert? 

A. Of course I will spend the rest of my life discovering Schuberts music.  For more than a decade I have continuously studied his pieces. I feel his music is still underrated compare to his genius -- he is so much more than just a songwriter (even though the songs are amazing!) The boldness of his  harmony is absolutely stunning and he uses music to express his philosophy of life.

 

Q. You have said that you moved from your native China to Europe to better understand the Germanic culture of Schubert. In what way did this help your interpretations?  

A. The language, the culture, the atmosphere, those are the foundations for better understanding his background. 

 

Q. What is Schuberts secret in drawing the tragic and painful strains from major rather than minor keys? 

A. True, major brings a brighter feeling than minor, but Schuberts use of the key changes make me feel that major is more sad than minor because of the way he uses the major sounds seem like a beautiful dream that will never come true.

 

Q. What are you preparing now in repertoire? Do you plan more ensemble work? 

A. I am at the moment preparing a lot of repertoire. I have some interesting projects, for example all the Beethoven concertos, and a Schubert cycle in China in the second half of the year and some trio concerts (mainly transcriptions) with piano, saxophone and violin. 

 

Q. Your father, the distinguished Professor Jia Daqun, is perhaps the ultimate cross-over East-West composer, combining some Chinese sounds with vigorous Western-style contemporary music, as he does in “Melodies from Sichuan Opera” on your new CD. Has his musical culture always combined a balance of the two?  

A. Yes, he wrote a lot of interesting chamber works with the combination of Chinese folk melody and Western modern composition technique. He has recently been commissioned by Yo-Yo Ma for a string quartet for the Silk Road Project. 

 

Q. In your own musical life, did you have to move from the Asian pentatonic to the Western heptatonic scales? If so, did you make this adjustment gradually? 

A. I never had to move because music of all kinds was always just naturally there with me I started studying piano when I was three and half years old. Because of my father, I heard a lot of music in different periods, of course including Chinese folk music. I didnt need to change anything.

 

Q. Are you still interested in Chinese music or have you definitively crossed over? 

A. I don't think you can speak of crossing over in this context. It is not a question of interest in Chinese music, because this music is a part of me. I am Chinese :).

 

Q. How should we understand the current explosion of popularity of Western music in China? Some observers think it has become a status symbol to love Western music, like the “Gucci shoes of the music world”, as one pianist has called it. How true is this? 

A. First of all, there are a lot of Chinese, so it might seem like it’s an explosion of popularity of western music. Second, the competition in the schools in China is enormous, the teenagers usually have to have several interests besides their normal subjects of study. And music became very popular because it can cultivate ones feelings. 

 

Q. What drives Asian children to over-practice, sometimes 12 hours a day. Dont their results sometimes favor technique at the expense of musical understanding? Are Asian piano students more driven to succeed or are Western children going soft? 

A. Asian children work very hard and they want to be good in any area they study, whether in music or other subjects. It’s important that at a certain age they build up a good technique through a lot of practice, but in my opinion, it has become very critical because music is not only related to the physical action but also the knowledge, emotion and the depth of the spirit behind it. I think we should not see a music career as ‘succeeding’ but rather as ‘devoting’ and growing, or we lose the essence of being a musician. 

 

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: Denis Pascal, founder of the French Trio Pascal: ".....recording studios began working again. We recorded our Schubert trios at the end of September. And musicians everywhere are finding that the crisis allows time for a certain introspection and questioning into the way music is performed. Music will play a much more important role after the crisis."
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACTS: "She began her piano training rather late in life – age 8." ..... "I want to contribute a sense of joy by discovering atypical works that might surprise an educated public. I have great experience and am inclined to share them with anyone who can appreciate them, or as André Gide wrote, anyone “who has an open mind”."
Jan 31st 2021
EXTRACTS: "A new recording of Franz Liszt’s piano compositions presents ten carefully balanced pieces in a double-CD album aptly titled Between Light and Darkness, launched by Piano Classics. The pianist, the veteran French virtuoso Vincent Larderet .... Larderet opens his CD with a moving exploration of Après une Lecture de Dante with a tortured lyricism unmatched by many of his contemporaries who play it. I was stunned the first time I heard his performance. In our interview below, he describes lyricism as “an essential facet of my musical conception. The piano must be able to sing like the human voice.” "
Jan 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "Jack Kohl is an American pianist and writer with three novels and two essay collections to his credit. His new collection, From the Windows of Diligence: Essays from a Standing Pianist, has drawn critical acclaim in the U.S. and Europe. In these reflections, he examines the power of ‘hack pianism’, the metaphor of running vs. the piano, and the ‘hidden gift’ of the Covid virus pandemic on solitary practicing. Robert Beattie spoke to Kohl about his music training and how he made the transition from pianist to author. (This edited interview was first published on www.Seenandheard-international.com and is reproduced with permission.)"
Dec 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "Freedom in Beethoven’s music takes many, frequently overlapping forms. There is heroic freedom in the Eroica (1803), freedom from political oppression in the Egmont Overture (1810), artistic freedom and innovation in the Ninth Symphony (1824). Today, Beethoven’s music remains deeply connected with a true humanism, which has the principles of freedom and self-determination at its heart. The composer’s music grew out of the age of European Enlightenment, which located human reason and the self at the centre of knowledge......"
Nov 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "One of the most durable tales in Western civilization – the legend of Faust – is brilliantly rendered in a piano adaptation, performed this week by the multi-talented Australian musician of German/Slovenian parentage, Ashley Hribar. A new recording of the music, now available digitally, will appear as a CD in the New Year. Hribar calls his recording, “Faust: A Mortal’s Tale”.  It is a personal musical reflection on the Faust story, loosely based on the 1926 silent film by Wilhelm Friedrich Murnau."
Aug 6th 2020
EXTRACT: "For 60 minutes, my mind was clear, the air was clean and the sound heavenly. It was my honor and privilege to have been there."
Jul 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "Scarlatti sonatas are enjoying a popular surge in recent years, tempting pianists –Europeans, Americans, Asians -- to try to master their broad range. Margherita has some advice: “Don’t be afraid to slow down, to speed up, to play the truly singable melodies with a quasi-Romantic feeling.” "
Jul 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "The dizzying output of John Cage the musician, the poet, the writer, the thinker, the artist, was so prolific that one of his sidelines – his interests in wild mushrooms -- has been almost overlooked. A new a two-volume set of books, beautifully designed by Capucine Labarthe, packaged in an elegant slipcover, seeks to fill this gap."
Jul 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "In our chat by telephone, Paley spoke from his Paris apartment and asserted his belief that Rameau was “the greatest French composer ever. Pure genius and very special colors.” He acknowledges his extensive research into the period of Rameau’s life (1683-1764) in order to recreate the spirit of the time."
Jul 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "In A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and subsequent films, Morricone opted for an unprecedented fusion of archaic-sounding lines in the melody, reminiscent of medieval modal music. He intermixed this sound with contemporary pop touches (the Fender electric guitar), wordless choirs, unusual instruments (Jew’s harp, ocarinas, mariachi trumpets…) and ambient sounds (whip cracks, whistles, gunshot, coyote’s howls). He also infused scores with his trademark humour. This can be heard in the comedy western Il Mio Nome è Nessuno (My Name is Nobody, Tonino Valerii, 1973) where a toy trumpet toots bits of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries."
Jul 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: Are you collaborating with living composers? Answer: Yes, Scott Wollschleger sends me unfinished new works every month. Keeril Makan is working on a piano concerto. Melaine Dalibert has dedicated several recent works to me. There are more names on the horizon. But these are the three where I feel I can have a big impact on their careers, and all three write music that I feel born to play. That combination of things is important to me."
Jun 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: How do you see your musical mission today? Answer: My real passion in music is to resist popularity rankings and market forces. In my view, these currents impoverish our cultural richness........."
May 1st 2020
EXTRACT: Alessandro Deljavan: "I bought a former convent 40 kilometers from Pescara, in Villamagna. It's very important for me to breathe clean air and live as simply as possible. Life in a giant city full of cars and smog is hard for me to imagine. My perspective is always to live fully. My aspirations for the best musical experiences guides my decisions and over the past several years I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with some wonderful musicians—these experiences have brought me a sense of optimism for what might lie ahead.”
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Federico Mompou, the reclusive Catalonian composer whose calm, spare piano writing is currently enjoying a rebirth, might well look askance at any effort to pull him forward into modern mode. Such was never his genre but that’s precisely what one of his ardent admirers, pianist Maria Canyigueral, proposed to do. The result is her intriguing new CD, Avant-guarding Mompou."
Mar 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "In our interview, Prof. Réach says he cautions his students in Barcelona to approach the Variations with care, warning them “the path will be long and will require great patience”. He has personally overcome his fear of this “masterpiece of masterpieces”, having recorded them three times and performed them in about 15 countries a total of about 150 times."
Mar 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "The 88-key piano looks headed for a major transformation in the coming decades. The mechanism under the lid is based on a 130-year-old design and many specialists believe it is time to dispense with those delicate moving parts.  As innovative Australian piano builder Wayne Stuart says, “The piano has been crying out for a rethink for over a hundred years.” "
Mar 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: You have a Paris background. What do you bring to Granados to ensure Spanish flavor? Delicacy? Momentum? Singing and dancing undertones? Rubato?........Answer: First, I am profoundly European........."
Feb 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: You have said that you are plagued by doubts. Is this true?.........Answer: Of course I am plagued by doubts. This is part of the artist’s life. But I continue to work and perform. I have moments of depression but I try to transform these doubts into positives. Many artists have these doubts. Some don’t talk about it. But doubt is always there."