Though he doesn’t live in Texas any more, Chinese pianist Jie Yuan, 27, has a sturdy connection to the state. At age 18, Yuan moved from China to Fort Worth to study at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in music in 2009. Since then, he’s been at The Juilliard School in New York—but comes back to visit fairly often.
The first thing he likes to do back here? “I love driving, but the New York City traffic is terrible,” he says. “So when I go back to Fort Worth I think I would like to drive a [pickup] truck on highway 820 at midnight, to my heart’s content.”
When he first came to Texas he was lonely, he recalls: homesick, struggling to learn English and a bit scared of this new place where “everything is BIG—cars, roads, buildings, even the hamburgers!” But from the start, he was amazed by all the people who wanted to help him.
“Texas hospitality impressed me,” he remembers. “People are very generous, and their friendliness and warmth helped me break away quickly from my loneliness, and I became happy again in no time. Perhaps it is because of their deep faith in Christianity, but so many Texan people are kind and compassionate.” Texas is where Yuan decided that he wanted to become a Christian, too: he was baptized at Glory Chinese Baptist Church.
Born in Changchun, China, Yuan took second prize in the Shanghai International Piano Competition in 2007, and won fifth place in 2009 at the Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition. He has performed as a soloist with the China Philharmonic, Shenzhen Symphony, Morocco Royal Philharmonic, and the Tulsa Symphony, and has a very active schedule of solo recitals and chamber music.
Yuan’s family in China wasn’t wealthy, but they were determined to give him a musical education. One of Yuan’s happiest memories, he says, “was playing piano for my grandfather whenever I went to visit him.
“My grandfather used to serve in the Chinese army during the second World War,” says Yuan. “He had a severe wound that left him a cripple. But he loved listening to my Chopin and Schubert, which he said reminded him of his comrades who lost their lives in the battlefield against Japan’s invasion. When my grandfather was on his deathbed he had my recording of a Chopin nocturne played right next to him, to give him relief and peace.”
Chopin and Schubert are still his favorite classical composers, he adds. Why? “With Chopin, it is as if his musical language is my own language, how I would express myself. Perhaps it’s because of Poland’s sad history during the 19th century, which was very similar to what China was suffering through 100 years ago. I can very easily feel the sensitive sentiments, the sadness and pain. As for Schubert, his music is like Central Park in New York—a safe haven in the midst of the hustle and bustle of modern city life. To me his music is like an oasis in the desert.”
Though he misses friends in Texas, Yuan seems to finding creative ways to have fun in New York.
“My friends and I like to go to Times Square on New Year’s Eve for the countdown, and we go skating in Central Park during the winter months,” he says. And they’ve invented an interesting competition they might want to call “Musical Subways.”
“It’s the game we love to play best,” Yuan says. The goal is “to perform in the subway on an instrument that is not our major, and see who can earn the most money” from passers-by.
“I remember I chose the flute the first time, and only earned $1.75 in one hour. Besides my awful playing, I didn’t realize that the noisy environment in the subway was completely covering up the soft sound of my flute. Anyway, another time when I tried the clarinet I earned nine dollars, and that’s the best I’ve done so far!”
◊ Here is a video of Jie Yuan performing Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Morocco Royal Orchestra:
Jie Yuan's Van Cliburn International Piano Competition Repertoire:
Preliminary Recital, Phase I
SCHUMANN Variations on the Name "Abegg", op. 1
HAYDN Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI:50
STRAVINSKY Trois mouvements de Pétrouchka
Preliminary Recital, Phase II
LIGETI Musica Ricercata Nos. 3, 6, and 10
CHOPIN 24 Preludes, op. 28
SCHUBERT Four Impromptus, D. 935, op. 142
LISZT Spanish Rhapsody
DVOŘÁK Piano Quintet in A Major, op. 81
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, op. 37
TCHAIKOVSKY Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, op. 23
◊ To see a slideshow of all of the competitors, with bios and links to our profiles of them, click here.