A native of Guangzhou, China, pianist Cong Bi has appeared as a soloist with orchestras such as Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra, Toulon Symphony Orchestra of Poland at prestigious concert halls in Europe and China.
Hailed as a child prodigy, Cong gave his first piano recital at the age of six and entered the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing at the age of nine. At the age of fifteen, upon invitation from Maestro Long Yu, he performed the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto with the China Philharmonic Orchestra at Forbidden City Concert Hall in Beijing. He went on to further his studies at the Juilliard Pre-College and Mannes College of Music in New York City where he studied with Matti Raekallio and Pavlina Dokovska.
In 2012, he was invited again by Maestro Long Yu to tour Germany with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra performing a piano concerto by composer Chen Qigang at the 27th German Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, the largest music festival in Europe. In 2015, Cong was invited to accompany German conductor Guido Johannes Rumstadt and Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra at the opening concert of the 3rd Shenzhen Piano Festival in Shenzhen Concert Hall. He makes his residence in the United States.
How did you get started with piano?
Both of my parents are musicians—my mother a violinist, my father a composer—so I likely received exposure to classical music while still in my mother’s womb. Playing piano was my choice, a choice I made at the tender age of three. I gave my first solo recital at six. When I was nine, I began more intense studies at the Central Conservatory in Beijing. At fifteen, I performed a Rachmaninov piano concerto with the China Philharmonic Orchestra. It was this experience that solidified my vocational commitment to the piano and led directly to my decision to study piano in the U.S.
Who are some of your favorite composers and pianists?
All glory, honor and praise to the patron saints of our field, Beethoven and Bach! We can know them as composers but only imagine what heights they achieved as improvisers. I consider Schnabel to be one of the great performers of Beethoven, as he brings a sense of improvisation to all of his interpretations. And in that same vein, I deeply admire contemporary improvisers such as Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea.
You performed both the Tchaikovsky 1st and Prokofiev 3rd piano concerts in China last year. Can you tell us more about this?
I had the pleasure of touring with one of the finest orchestras in northern China. For this tour, I felt it was important for the program to combine one of the most standard pieces of the piano repertoire with another very important, though perhaps less well-known selection. Prokofiev 3rd Piano Concerto strikes me as a visionary piece—that is, forward-thinking.
How many hours a day do you practice on average?
Some days I might not even touch the piano. Others, I’ll spend the entire day on the piano—more than 10 hours. I think it’s important that one be in the right place to be able to put one’s whole heart into the work one does. That way you’ll know the work will be truly productive. Approaching a recital, however, it’s rare that I miss a day.
How do you feel about performing on stage for a large audience?
Personally, I feel very natural performing in that setting. With a large audience, the energy is truly palpable. Performance is all about the energy exchange that occurs between the performer and the listener.
When one performs, the more energy you put into the music, the more energy is reflected back from the audience. The larger the audience, the more energy. Of course, there’s also all the more pressure. So one must practice hard!
How do you prepare for a solo recital? Can you take us through your process of getting a recital program concert ready?
Knowing your music thoroughly is probably the most important part of preparing a recital. As a recital date draws nearer, I spend more time with the score, looking it over, reading through passages, getting it deep in the mind’s eye. I believe this helps one better convey the composer’s intent.
If it had not been for piano, what do you think you would have been?
I think would have liked to be a graphic artist, a painter or a cellist.
What role do you think classical pianists play in today’s world?
Obviously, it’s in our hands to keep the tradition alive and at a high level because hey, who else is going to do it? Besides that, to the extent possible, we must reach out to younger audiences and cultivate an awareness of, hopefully an appreciation for, our art form, ensuring that there will be any audience to speak of in the future. I think it’s an appreciation of the experience of a live performance as much as it is of classical music that must be kept alive.
Do you have any advice to give to those wishing to become concert pianists?
This is one of the most difficult musical fields to get involved in. You must know, deep in your heart, that this is what you want to devote your life to.
Can you name three ingredients for success as a concert pianist?
Strong work ethic (self-discipline), a wealth of musical knowledge, both historical and repertoire, and an abundance of love in one’s heart, for this will provide the fuel for a long and successful career.