At fifteen I dreamt of three things: a hot relaxing bath after studying, a first-class grand piano, and a man who loved me infinitely, and who was an excellent musician. Today I’ve got it all.
My name is Jin Ju and I was born in Shanghai on 28thJune 1976, at 7 a.m. It was a twenty-hour labour for my mother, a strenuous woman who worked at the blast furnace of a steel plant. Straight away I showed I was capable of swinging across. But that day was beautiful and I imagine that the first thing I saw was the sunshine. In China, we think that destiny is written in the moment one is born in. I believe in this saying because anyone who knows me tells me I am sunny and bright. Suffering and light represent the seasons of life. They are both essential because suffering teaches you how to hold on, while happiness gives you the necessary urge to improve yourself.
At four, I had my first piano lesson with my father, a musician and musicologist. Since then, piano has been a dream, a primary goal for me. Also in practical terms. In fact, our family was poor and after the Cultural Revolution it was almost impossible to have or find a “capitalist” instrument. My father took me by bike to a kind of clubhouse. He had to pedal for an hour and a half to find a piano. Sometimes, to my great disappointment, it was already taken. But when I laid my hands on it, I felt I could not leave it anymore. At home I had drawn a keyboard on the table and I practiced there. These hindrances only kindled my passion. At that point, my father, supported by my mother’s will, entrusted my education to a friend, a Music Academy teacher. Her name was Jin and she taught me two fundamental things: patience and persistence. Because quality arises from hard work. Once Chopin said: “Everybody considers me as a natural-born genius, but few of them know that I study day after day, hour after hour. That is all I do”. For that matter, if a pianist gives 150 concerts a year and spends 70 days travelling, he can only devote the rest of his time to studying.
The first turning point in my life, and my first grief, was in 1983 when my father got a job at the China Art Institute in Beijing. In that period the government allowed a citizen who relocated in another community to take only another family member with him. My parents decided he would take me. You can imagine our affliction. In a oner, I would lose my mother, my brother, my grandparents and my teacher Jin, who was like a second mother to me. During our last lesson, she kissed me, an unthinkable show of affection in China, and she gave me two presents: five crayons – a luxury at that time – and a packet of round chocolate biscuits for the journey. When we arrived in Beijing, my father requisitioned the biscuits saying that he would give me them later, on my birthday. But when the day came, the biscuits were verminous. We laughed at that, but we were both sorry. To compensate this loss, my father exempted me from studying piano and sent me to play with my friends. We lived alone for two years. The rest of the family joined us in summer or during the Spring Festival.
In Beijing, I was enrolled in Madame Zhou’s class. She was head of the piano department at the Music Academy. She was born in Germany and she loved children. She made us tour in schools, factories and concert halls. I was not afraid to be on stage, I was like a calf in front of a lion: I did not fear performing because I did not know what it was. I was in her class for four years. She told me I was quick to learn and fast to play. Later, I realized that she wasn’t praising me. Once she asked me if I had ever cried for music, if I had ever seen blood coming out of my fingertips. I did not understand at once. Then, at the end of a concert, one of my fingers bled. I proudly showed it to my fourteen classmates.
In 1985, the rest of the family joined us for good, thanks to a couple who had to relocate from Beijing to Shanghai. A mere numerical exchange, because at that time you had to spend all your life in the place you were born in. In the same year, my grandparents bought me my first piano. It was small, upright, and I still remember the brand: Xing Hai. I spent two intense and happy years, and in 1987, at eleven, I entered Professor Yang’s class. Professor Yang taught me in secondary school, high school, at university and postgraduate school. During this long journey, in 1992 and in 1994, my career was enhanced by two crucial events. In 1992, at sixteen, I replaced a sick German pianist at a China-Germany show at the Temple of Heaven. The programme included Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto No. 5. I played with the Central Orchestra, later renamed China National Orchestra. In February 1994, at eighteen, I was selected for the first edition of an international competition in Beijing. I thought: life is beautiful, I am the new East star. The season of suffering was at the gates, instead.
In fact, in April, while I was coming back home, a drunk driver knocked me down on a pedestrian crossing. The collision was awful, I was hit squarely and I landed five meters off the car. I fell on my left arm, I felt a crack and an excruciating pain. I did not faint, and luckily the driver did not flee. He took me to an orthopaedic clinic. The fracture was multiple and the bone was partly shattered, the humeral head had slipped out of the rotator cuff. Some doctors favoured amputation, but in the end they decided to perform an operation, making it clear that I had a 70% chance to have my limb back. My father started to say: “Don’t worry, you can still be a teacher, or a composer…”. I shouted no, I wanted to be a pianist, I wanted to go home and see my piano again. My mother opposed to the operation and one night, after six days on morphine, she took me home by bike. When I saw my little 115-centimeters tall piano, I felt that instrument was the breath of my life. I raised the lid, I played a C major chord and the notes sounded like a heavenly voice. A voice telling me to hold on.
Through some friends, I met doctor Yu Tao. He replaced my homer with tractions and manipulation, he re-aligned the bone and he immobilized it with three small boards that he tightened every other day. My fingers were swollen, but after six weeks the most damaged part had consolidated in the soft callus. In this period I kept practising with my right hand, which did not work as it should have. It seemed to be waiting for the left one. In mid June, the doctor took away the boards and I started studying with both hands and much pain. Those were hard months, but in September I managed to take part in the competition. I played Chopin’s “Études”, Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” and Bach’s Preludes and Fugue. Everybody hailed it as a miracle. Nobody thought I could make it.
In 1995 I won a France-China competition in the “teenagers” category, and Yuja Wang won the “children” prize. I was nineteen, she was ten. We spent ten days in France together and we gave three concerts in Paris. She’s wonderfully talented. Perhaps the world-dominating American music scene staked on her technical perfection, but I remember that, listening to her when she was a child, I was struck by her sensitivity and musicality. In the same year, in Beijing, I attended Maestro Michele Campanella’s masterclass with Lang Lang. He was about thirteen and I knew him well. He’s always been enthusiastic and communicative. I remember that the year before he had performed Chopin’s 24 “Études” and that his concert had been an international success.
In May 1996, the government selected me to go to Bucharest to represent my country. It was an international competition consisting of three tests, the last of which was a performance with the orchestra. I played Beethoven “Piano Concerto No. 3” and the Western press was surprised that an Eastern pianist could interpret a piece so detached from her tradition. My career started then. I travelled a lot. The Chinese Ministry of Culture treated me as a sort of ambassador. Three years later, in April, the Italian Institute in Beijing offered me, as the best young pianist in China, a fellowship including travelling expenses, board and lodging at the Chigiana Academy in Siena. I was 23 and Siena was a great opportunity for me.
I arrived two days after the July Palio and obviously I couldn’t speak a word of Italian. I only knew a little English then; I would learn it later. I landed at Milan airport at night with a heavy suitcase, and I foolishly thought that someone would be pick me up. No way. Luckily there were many kind and thoughtful Italians who protected me. The next day, I still wonder how, I managed to get to Siena by train. Second damper: I had to find a house. A Japanese violinist from the Academy saved me and hosted me in her house: a two-bedroom apartment. Ten days later she left and I found another violinist to share the rent with. We still keep in touch on social medias. At the Chigiana Academy, Maestro Campanella, whom I had already met in Beijing, held the summer course. His teaching was hard and personal. If you didn’t do what he asked, he would get very angry. I accepted his directions only if I thought they were right, otherwise I followed my own ideas. But in the end I received the best-student Golden Diploma and he was very happy. Moreover, the Chigiana Academy asked me to give a concert in summer, and I came back from China on purpose. Before leaving Siena, I remember that one night I went out with my friends in Piazza del Campo. I overcame my strict Chinese education and I lied on the warm pavement. While I was watching the stars above, I heard a voice inside of me saying: “You will spend a lot of time in this country”. I winced: “You’re crazy”.
On the contrary, the long and windy road that would lead me to Europe and Italy was slowly taking shape. In November 2000, during a competition in Taiwan, I met Jörg Demus. He was so impressed by my talent that he asked me to record some of his compositions and he also invited me in Salzburg to take part in his masterclass. Shortly afterwards I left for South Africa: the country had finally acknowledged the People’s Republic of China (until then it had only borne a relationship to Taiwan) and the Ministry selected me to play with Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra under a Chinese conductor’s baton: En Shao. He lived in England and he suggested me to study and live in Europe. So he introduced me to Martin Roscoe, head of piano department at the Royal North Music College of Manchester.
In 2001, when I completed my studies in Beijing, I got a teaching post. In the meanwhile, the prospect of moving to Manchester came true. I could not do it without the Chinese authorities’ consent, which came at the end of August. I was not lazy while I was waiting. First I gave a concert in the Brahms Hall in Vienna and then, on 19thAugust, I played Mozart in Salzburg, within Jörg Demus’s masterclass programme. On that occasion I met my husband, Stefano Fiuzzi. It was love at first sight. We were both staying at the Austrian pianist’s castle in Gaberg, so we scrutinized and sniffed each other for six days. We talked about music and opera while we listened to the cows’ bellowing, like kids. The masterclass ended and Stefano had to go back to Italy, while I had to stay behind for some recordings. I was so sad that I often cried. It had never happened to me, so I understood I was in love. Demus was a bit jealous, but at last he told me that there were only two pianists in the world who were able to play Brahms: Stefano and me.
I came back to China with a sad heart and I bought the tickets to England. At least I would be closer to my future husband. I had to board on the 12thSeptember but after the Twin Towers attack all the flights were cancelled for three days. I left on the 16th, calling at Copenhagen. I was the best also in Manchester and got a “Professional Performance” Golden Diploma. Martin Roscoe and Kathryne Stott did not consider me as a student, but a fully-developed artist who just needed an opportunity to stand out. In that period, I stopped being ashamed of my real feelings and emotions. It may seem impossible, but I had never told my mother that I loved her, despite the deep affection and gratitude I felt for her. I called her and I told her so. She fell silent and started to cry. Europe had taught me something important. Orientals are too reserved. There is nothing bad in opening up, as long as you don’t pretend feeling what you don’t actually feel.
In June 2002 I obtained my first important award: the 3rdprize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Only other two Chinese pianists, forty years before, had won this prestigious competition. Since then, my career has been a succession of international awards, recording hits for the German MDG company – much appreciated by critics –, TV shows dedicated to my life and my concerts (see awards and events page). Today, what I love, nearly as much as the thunderous applause at the end of my performance, is my willingness and my ability to teach the art of piano to children and teenagers. I think Tolstoy wrote the best words about it: “If a teacher has only love for the cause, it will be a good teacher. If a teacher has only love for student, he will be a better teacher. If the teacher combines love to the cause and to his disciples, he is the perfect teacher”. This devotion is maybe an expression of gratitude to those who took part in my education: my first teacher Jin, Madame Zhou, Professor Yang, who taught me that a great pianist does not perform technical miracles but places himself at the composer’s service, and my husband Stefano Fiuzzi who, through the Bartolomeo Cristofori Academy and the use of fortepiano, helped me to approach the greatest composers’ scores and to understand the original sound that Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert heard.
Finally, I cannot put an end to this short biography without mentioning Imola Academy and its director, Maestro Franco Scala. I came to Imola for a masterclass in 2002, introduced by Stefano, who already taught there. Franco asked me to play “August” and “October” from Tchaikovsky’s “Seasons” and his comment, loud and eloquent, was: “Why is she here if she plays better than any of us?”. Anyway I followed his courses as a student and, since none of us spoke a word of English, we communicated through music, having a lot of fun together. In 2006, I became his assistant and in 2009 I taught my first class. 2009, both for Imola and me, was a crucial year. I was overjoyed when, in front of Pope Benedict XVI in Paul VI Audience Hall, I played seven different instruments contemporary to composers: from Bach and Scarlatti to Liszt, Chopin and Debussy. There were 5,000 people in the audience and the concert was broadcast worldwide.
Imola has an excellent reputation in the world and in China, as well. This allowed me to become the artistic director of the “Imola Summer Festival” China Project, through which I invite young Chinese talents in Italy so that they can improve their skills and technique. This is easy because I am also a teacher at the Central Music School in Beijing. My renewed commitment to teaching is not a coincidence, it rather seems the perfect conclusion of a life cycle, the appropriate ending to my story as a child: poor and constantly looking for a piano to play. From now on there will be other seasons. With less suffering, I hope, and loads of triumphs.