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    Q & A

    He Was China’s Greatest Concert Pianist. Then He Lost a Decade to Depression.

    Before Lang Lang, Kong Xiangdong wowed audiences with his interpretations of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Now, he has a new mission: raising awareness about mental health issues.
    Dec 08, 2023#music#health

    Sitting in his downtown Shanghai apartment overlooking the famed Wukang Building, the concert pianist Kong Xiangdong asked for a challenge. Motioning to the Steinway piano in front of him, he told me to pick four keys — two white and two black.

    After I made my choice, Kong closed his eyes in contemplation. Then he was off. Harmonies and chords cascaded over each other in a smooth and impassioned performance that lasted over six minutes. By the time he finished, the last rays of sunset were trickling through the windows. Kong lingered over the keys, smiling. “That was a musical portrait of you,” he said at last.

    In that moment, he seemed at peace, the anxieties of the past decade and a half, the debilitating depression that cost him what should have been his prime years as a performer, all momentarily forgotten.

    Before there was Lang Lang, Li Yundi, or Yuja Wang, there was Kong Xiangdong. Born in Shanghai in 1968, he was featured in the 1979 Isaac Stern film “From Mao to Mozart” before going on to win the gold medal at the 1988 Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition. Four years later, Kong again took first prize at the Sydney International Piano Competition.

    Still in his early 20s, Kong had become one of the classical music world’s biggest stars. He toured the world, recorded albums for prestigious labels like BMG/RCA Red Seal and Arcadia, and in 1997 founded the Kong Xiangdong Music Art Center, an educational organization that at its peak boasted 20 branches across China.

    Then, roughly 14 years ago, he vanished from public view. When he reemerged in 2021, he was all but unrecognizable. Gone was the striking prodigy who had wowed audiences from Sydney to New York. In his place was a bald, heavyset 55-year-old with a newfound sense of purpose: to raise awareness of depression in China.

    In addition to medication, Kong credits the kind of impromptu musical portrait he played for me with helping him overcome his mental health struggles. These improvisational sessions — he calls them “four-note compositions” — served as a lifeline, guiding him out of the shadows of depression, offering him new musical perspectives late in middle age, and allowing him to finally let go of his performance anxiety.

    But just when his longtime fans had begun to make peace with Kong’s semi-retirement, he surprised them by announcing a concert with the Shanghai Philharmonic on Oct. 13. Even more unexpected was his choice of material. Rather than take it easy in his return to the concert stage, Kong played Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 3” — known in the classical community as “Rach 3” — one of the most challenging pieces ever composed for the piano.

    After the concert, Kong sat down with Sixth Tone for a wide-ranging interview about his life in self-imposed exile, his struggles against depression, and his triumphant return to the stage. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

    Sixth Tone: First and foremost, congratulations on your return concert. You’ve been absent for quite a long time. What happened?

    Kong Xiangdong: I plunged into severe depression in September of 2008.

    Sixth Tone: Did you experience a particularly grave setback at that time?

    Kong: The truth is, my descent into depression was gradual, step by step. I was simply too engrossed in my work to notice my mental health deteriorating. In the years leading up to 2008, I dedicated almost all my time and energy to the Kong Xiangdong Music Art Center. The institution lacked shareholders, investments, or government backing. I was the sole investor and manager, and handled all aspects of the business myself. To meet the payroll for hundreds of employees, I performed constantly. I sold two apartments I owned to pay for renovations. By the time 2008 arrived, I was physically and mentally drained.

    And then another event occurred. I was collaborating with the renowned Italian composer Giorgio Moroder on the song “Forever Friends,” which I hoped would become the theme song for the Beijing Olympics. I invested over two years and a significant amount of money in that song, even going so far as to shoot a music video. Of course, in hindsight, its rejection was hardly surprising. But in that moment, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

    Sixth Tone: How severe was your condition?

    Kong: I turned down all performance opportunities and avoided meeting anyone. To prevent friends from locating me, I changed my mobile phone number 21 times. During the darkest three months, my mother would leave my meals on a chair outside my door. When my daughter returned from the United States to visit me, all I could do was look at her through the peephole.

    Sixth Tone: Did you find yourself contemplating suicide?

    Kong: Yes, for over a year, thoughts of suicide occasionally surfaced. I even practiced it, calculating the number of steps and the speed required to run from the living room to the balcony and then jump off.

    One day, Shanghai was hit by a typhoon. I stood on the balcony, wondering if the wind would blow me off. I told myself that this might be the last moment of my life. But if the wind didn’t blow me off, it meant that the heavens still had plans for me. I stood there for probably 10 minutes, but it felt like a lifetime. Many scenes flashed before my eyes: practicing the piano as a child, the sound of applause after a performance. After 10 minutes, I went back inside. I told myself that the heavens didn’t take me away, and I had to give myself a new beginning.

    Sixth Tone: Did things improve after that?

    Kong: Actually, the improvement in my condition was due to medication. I later discovered that my mother had been secretly putting antidepressants into my meals and soup for over a year. Thus, the main credit for my recovery belongs to my dear mother.

    When my condition slightly improved, I became willing to see friends again. However, I still wasn’t comfortable chatting, so I played the piano for them instead.

    Sixth Tone: So, your depression didn’t impact your ability to play?

    Kong: No, it didn’t. In fact, during the darkest days, the only companions I had were those 88 piano keys. And when I started reconnecting with the outside world, playing the piano became my sole means of expression.

    Initially, I played classical pieces like Beethoven and Chopin, which brought joy to my friends, but didn’t satisfy my need for genuine connection. Later, I began experimenting with improvisation. Just as I did with you earlier, I would ask visitors to choose two white keys and two black keys, then I would spontaneously create something based on those four keys. Many people were deeply moved by the music; some even shed tears. Their emotions touched me and provided solace.

    After finally overcoming depression, I took various steps to restart my life. I lost some weight and gradually closed down all the branches of the Kong Xiangdong Music Art Center. However, my attachment to improvisational composition remained. I even consider it a parting gift from my depression.

    Sixth Tone: Is that because it enables you to establish a more profound connection with listeners?

    Kong: That’s certainly one aspect of it. Besides that, I also discovered the joy of improvisational playing. I first heard about this concept in 1985 in a class by pianist Liu Shikun, but I spent most of my career playing by sheet music. These experiments allowed me to truly experience the pleasure of improvisational composition. Playing by sheet music, my brain was always running ahead of my fingers, regardless of how well I knew the score. In improvisational composition, my fingers are in charge, allowing me to capture fleeting inspiration from people and events and the emotions of the present moment.

    Sixth Tone: Would you say improvisation deepened your appreciation for music?

    Kong: It enabled me to see music from a new perspective. It’s challenging to articulate, but a recent book I read on musicians’ brains shed light on the matter. According to the book, “Le cerveau et la musique,” neuroscientists conducted experiments and found that brain functioning is different when pianists improvise compared to when they play by sheet music. There are three areas of the prefrontal cortex; two of these, associated with vigilance, activate during sheet music performance. In improvisational playing, these two areas temporarily deactivate, while another area, one linked to hypnosis, meditation, and daydreaming, suddenly becomes active. Furthermore, the regions in the temporal lobe responsible for both sensation and movement become notably active.

    I’m thrilled that I now possess the capacity for both sheet music play and improvisation. I consider it the A and B sides of my musical self.

    Sixth Tone: Speaking of sheet music performance, let’s discuss your solo concert in October, which was the subject of much excitement among your fans. However, some expressed concerns, suggesting that, coming off a long hiatus, your choice of Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 3” might be overly ambitious. Was that a concern for you?

    Kong: My decision to perform Rachmaninoff’s piece stems from this year being the 150th anniversary of the piano master’s birth. Moreover, Rachmaninoff himself grappled with depression. By choosing this composition for my comeback, I wanted to send a message: I, Kong Xiangdong, weathered the storm of depression, and now I’m back.

    Initially, I intended to showcase “Piano Concerto No. 2,” which is comparatively easier. But several close friends persuaded me to embrace the challenge of “Piano Concerto No. 3.” As for the difficulty, I’ve never been a confident individual…

    Sixth Tone: Seriously?

    Kong: [Laughs] It’s true. Back when I was learning the piano, I felt like many of my classmates, such as Xu Zhong, Wang Jian, and Qian Zhou, had more inherent talent. I relied on relentless practice, often putting in 15 to 16 hours a day. Even after becoming a professional pianist, I needed constant practice to keep my confidence up.

    For this concert, I practiced the piano for six to eight hours every day. I also started an intensive workout regimen. It’s a piece that requires high physical, mental, and emotional endurance.

    Sixth Tone: Despite the challenges, it seems like the performance was a tremendous success. Do you plan to continue performing on stage?

    Kong: Yes. If possible, I’m planning to hold another concert in January, featuring Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1” and Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2.”

    However, I no longer want solo concerts to dominate my life. Over the past two years, I’ve been frequently visiting hospitals, schools, and communities, hoping to use music as a medium for interaction. Additionally, I’m planning to work with the Shanghai Mental Health Center next spring to organize a “Healing Music Festival.”

    Music has been pivotal in every facet of my life. Ultimately, it was the beauty within music that pulled me back from the edge of despair. I hope to make more people realize that music is not merely art, but also medicine. Music soothes the soul.

    In China, the Shanghai Suicide Prevention hotline can be reached for free at 400-1619995. A fuller list of prevention services by country can be found here.

    (Header image: Kong Xiangdong during a performance. Courtesy of Kong Xiangdong)