Pianist Haiou Zhang performs in Richmond Hill on Wednesday.

Young Chinese pianist Haiou Zhang, who has been based in Hannover, Germany for most of the past decade, is no stranger to Toronto. Discovered by conductor Kerry Stratton during one of his many working visits to central Europe, Zhang has performed here with orchestra, and even gave a classical piano recital two years ago at the Bovine Sex Club, on Queen St. W.

But the pianist, who turns 28 this year, has waited to perform a classic, concert-hall recital in the GTA until Wednesday, when he presents an all-Liszt programme at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts.

This is Zhang’s first all-Liszt concert in North America — and he’s well prepared. “I’ve played nearly 60 Liszt recitals in Europe,” he says of the programme he put together on disc and for live performance in honour of the 200th anniversary of Franz Liszt’s birth, last year.

While Toronto has been waiting for Zhang’s return, he’s been busy carving out a niche for himself in Germany — including founding a music festival in the picturesque north German town of Buxtehude that will celebrate its third anniversary in July.

The Haiou Zhang International Music Festival was founded on the premise of making classical music more approachable. Zhang has done this without compromising quality, as he brings young competition winners as well as colleagues from China to Germany.

“Last year, we had 5,000 visitors,” says Zhang. “That is a lot of people for a town that has a population of only 50,000.”

Initially set up to last more or less a long weekend, the 2012 festival will run for 10 days, and will include an open-air performance of Peter Ilytch Tchaikovsky’s warhorse Piano Concerto No. 1, by Zhang.

While enjoying doing such large-scale performance, Zhang has also discovered the joys of more intimate concerts through forays into collaborative piano playing in recent years. “I started to do chamber music in 2009, and realised that this is really important.”

So, this summer, Zhang is starting up another festival near Hannover, focused on chamber music. “In the future, I expect to do even more chamber music.”

“I know I’m totally insane,” he says, laughing about his workload. Zhang says the real impetus for the new festival was the ability to participate in Germany’s “China Year,” which commemorates the opening of diplomatic ties between China and Germany in 1972.

“This gave me the opportunity to invite a Chinese erhu player, for example, to come from Beijing,” Zhang explains.

Although he has studied and now worked in Germany for 10 years, Zhang’s parents live in China, and his home country is very much part of his world. “For example, I can’t play the music of Chopin without thinking of some ancient Chinese poems,” he says.

“Culturally, I’m very interested in what’s happening today in China,” he continues. “This year, I’ve prepared a special Chinese music program in Germany, to introduce Chinese traditional culture, landscape painting and music. I’ve also prepared an interesting chamber music programme, with very good Chinese musicians, including a violin player who won first prize at the Paganini competition two years ago.”

On new Chinese music, written in the Western idiom, Zhang says, “There’s a large amount of good Chinese piano music, but introducing it takes time. It needs a platform to get introduced.” So that, too, is part of his new German festival.

“I’m curious to see the result and the reaction of the audience to Westerners playing Chinese piano music,” he adds.

If his experiment goes well, he will consider returning to Toronto with a similar programme. But, for the time being, it’s all about the unstoppable, cross-cultural appeal of the music of Franz Liszt.

For tickets and all the details on Wednesday’s concert, click here.

Here is a two-part promotional video made last year by the music festival, which features Zhang playing Liszt, among other things:

John Terauds

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