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In a gritty corner of China, maestro tutors piano prodigies

SHENZHEN, China—Just over the border from Hong Kong, the shriek of car horns and clatter of machinery fill the air of this gritty industrial city. Only inside the thick doors of the Shenzhen School of the Arts does the grating noise dissipate.

Through those doors, many young pianists have found their Mecca.

A few years back, Shenzhen lured one of China's most revered, if obscure, piano teachers to the local arts school. He, in turn, brought some promising students.

Today, Dan Zhaoyi is considered a national treasure, a maestro with a knack for catapulting young students to the highest levels of international competition. His students have chalked up an extraordinary number of prizes. At the 2000 Frederick Chopin piano competition in Warsaw, Poland, Dan had two students in the contest's final round—an almost unheard of achievement. The 18-year-old prodigy who won, Li Yundi, has gone on to play the world's great concert halls. His other finalist, Chen Sa, also is making her mark.

Dan quietly acknowledged that his students have won 27 prizes in recent international competitions, including seven first prizes. More prizes are surely in the offing. Dan's younger students hold huge promise. His bench is deep.

"He has so many students winning international competitions now that he is getting very, very famous," said Zhou Guangren, a friend who teaches at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing and often judges worldwide music competitions.

As Dan's renown spreads, requests pour in from the United States, Japan and Europe for him to sit on juries for competitions and attend international events. Often, he offers a polite refusal.

"I don't speak English. It's a language barrier. So I decline," Dan explained in Mandarin with a pronounced Sichuan province burr. "I'd rather tend to my students."

Impish and given to easy chuckling, Dan feels most at home one-on-one with his students. Once a promising pianist himself, Dan quit playing for years in the 1960s, fearful that if he even touched a keyboard, furious Red Guards would come and smash his fingers, accusing him of being a political rightist. That sort of thing happened during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.

Former students are so fond of Dan that they frequently return to his side. A recent day found Dan working with Chen Sa, one of 35 pianists selected to compete later this month in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. Chen, a former student, has gone on to live in England, then Germany, but returned for guidance from Dan in the run-up to the competition.

"He's my `forever' teacher," said Chen, 25. "As we Chinese people say, if one day he's your teacher, then he's your father forever."

Chen said teachers in the West sometimes spend little time with their students.

"They not only teach but also give master classes, sit on juries, take part in society events and perform themselves," Chen said. "It's not that they don't love music. It's just that you cannot be involved in so many things."

Dan's fame is such that he often lures students away from China's nine huge, state-run conservatories for the simple, city-run academy in Shenzhen, a booming city of 8 million people with smog so thick the sun is a dim orb in the sky.

"He's made many experiments on his students," said Zhou, a 76-year-old pianist who taught Dan for several years in the 1960s. "He's more daring than I am. If I had these students, I would go step by step. He jumps. He sometimes gives them very difficult pieces just to try out."

One of Dan's current standouts, Zuo Zhang, 17, just won best pianist under 21 at the Franz Liszt competition in Holland for her rendition of "Spanish Rhapsody."

"I listened to her playing the piece a few years earlier. Professor Dan gave it to her to play at age 14," Zhou said. "Sometimes he really pushes his students to play difficult things."

Dan, who's an energetic 65, grew up in the western hinterlands near the city of Chongqing. His music-loving physician father acquired a piano.

"We had a set time to practice. I would secretly turn the clock ahead so I could play less time," Dan said, breaking out in hearty laughter.

When the communist revolution came in 1949, his father had to sell the piano to make ends meet. Dan had become good enough, though, to enroll in a music vocational school. But difficulties worsened. During a meeting of regional cultural leaders in 1957, "we were told that pianos were not liked by peasants and workers and should be taken off the stage," Dan recalled.

By 1959, foreign music was banned, and two years later most musicians were sent to the countryside. Communist cadres at the local hospital accused Dan's father of being a rightist, almost derailing a chance for Dan to go to Beijing for training.

On his return to Sichuan province in 1964, Dan found that radical Communists had deemed the piano hopelessly bourgeois and banned playing it.

"For more than two years, we could not play," Dan said. "I was very miserable."

Partial salvation came in the form of a Peking opera, "The Red Lantern," which required a piano accompaniment. "It meant that we could play the piano without any worries," Dan recalled.

Perhaps because of the frequent interruptions in his career, Dan emphasizes continued learning, studying along with his charges, and pointing out goals and ways to achievement.

He now has 13 students—ranging in age from 10 to 18—and spends at least two classes a week with each one.

"He puts extremely strict requirements on the students during class. But in his spare time, he treats students as if they were his own children," said Zhang Xiaolu, the mother of Li Yundi, the 22-year-old Chinese pianist who became the youngest ever winner of the Chopin competition in 2000.

It was Li's triumph in Warsaw that began to bring Dan fame.

He acknowledged that many colleagues don't want to send students to so many competitions, but said it's necessary for professional development.

"In the marketplace, you have to win an international award and become well known. Only then will people pay to see you perform," Dan said. Moreover, "competition provides a platform where talented players can exhibit their abilities."

That's happening frequently to his students these days.

One of his younger students, Zhang Haochen, 14, won a first place in the Asia Chopin international piano competition in Japan last year. He's preparing to enter the renowned Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia this fall.

Dan has been guiding the youngster—and most of his students—for much of their lives, ensuring broad technical mastery, boundless vigor and a relaxed style.

"I've trained most of my students from the very beginning," Dan said. "They've been with me for a long time. I've given them a very strong foundation."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHINA-MAESTRO

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