“I enjoy playing a variety of music, but my all-time favorite has always been Chopin,” says 22-year-old Fei-Fei Dong. (Her name is pronounced “fee-fee.”) “I feel emotionally very connected to his musical language. It feels very intimate to me. When I play or listen to [Chopin’s] music, it moves me to tears. It reaches down to the softest place in my heart and soul.”
Fei-Fei Dong was born in the Chinese city of Shenzhen, a port city and financial center just north of Hong Kong. She gave her first recital at age 10, followed three years later by a debut with the Macau Youth Symphony Orchestra. She swept up first-place awards in a number of competitions in China, including the Schumann International Piano Competition for Young Musicians, and the Asia-Pacific International Chopin Piano Competition. In 2010, she was a semifinalist in the International Chopin Piano Competition. And though she’s certainly been on the piano fast track since she was very young, she says “my parents were never forceful or coercive to me about practicing. My memories of playing the piano are all very happy.”
Since 2008, she has been a student at The Juilliard School, where she is pursuing her Master of Music—and she’s won first prize both at The Juilliard School Piano Competition (2011) and in the school’s Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition (2012).
And she’s learned to like New York.
“There’s so much to explore,” she says. “I love to hunt good food with friends! Whenever we have time, we go to Flushing Chinatown [in Queens] to have all-you-can-eat hotpot buffet. Such fun! I never feel not like exploding when I leave the restaurant—the double negative is to emphasize just how full I get!”
Other favorite New York haunts, she adds, are MoMA—the Museum of Modern Art—and two particular parts of the Metropolitan Museum as well. “I like the Chinese garden—of course,” she says. And she loves to wander through “the musical instruments section” looking at instruments from other times and places.
Most recently, Dong took a jazz class at Juilliard and says she “found it very intriguing. Jazz is not about following what is written on the score. It is so different from what I practice every day. The score is only a lead sheet that guides you and gives a general harmonic picture of the song. But there is a lot of freedom to improvise, and to express emotions in a totally distinct way.” She says she’s always enjoyed listening to jazz, and would like to “learn to improvise” like the classic jazz musicians.
Dong is excited about “exploring lots in Texas” on her first-ever visit. Is she nervous about the competition? If she is, she doesn’t let on.
“I always feel really happy and excited to play, no matter if it is a concert or a competition. The occasions might change, but the joy of making good music and sharing it with people is the same.”
◊ Here is a video of Fei-Fei Dong performing a Chopin waltz at the International Chopin Piano Competition in 2010:
Fei-Fei Dong's Van Cliburn International Piano Competition Repertoire:
Preliminary Recital, Phase I
CLEMENTI Sonata in F-sharp Minor, op. 25, no. 5
SCHUMANN Novelette in F-sharp Minor, op. 21, no. 8
CHOPIN Rondo in E-flat Major, op. 16
LIEBERMANN Gargoyles, op. 29
Preliminary Recital, Phase II
SCARLATTI Sonata in D Major, K. 96
SCARLATTI Sonata in F Minor, K. 466
LISZT Sonata in B Minor
MOZART Sonata in D Major, K. 576
CHOPIN 24 Preludes, op. 28
BRAHMS Piano Quintet in F Minor, op. 34
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, op. 58
RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, op. 30
◊ To see a slideshow of all of the competitors, with bios and links to our profiles of them, click here.