Her full name is Fei-Fei Dong, but after her multiple audience- and judge-pleasing performances at last summer’s Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, she quickly became known by her catchy hyphenate: Fei-Fei.
Ever since the 23-year-old native of Shenzhen, China, nabbed one of six prized Cliburn finalist spots, Dong has been one of the competition’s most active musical performers and an exuberant goodwill musical ambassador.
The Cliburn has commenced three years of concert management by sending Dong to perform in a variety of cities and venues — from the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra, in Ohio, to the University of New Orleans’ Musical Excursions series.
Now Dong is returning to Fort Worth for her first post-Cliburn engagement. Wednesday, she will help open the new Piano Pavilion at the Kimbell Art Museum.
“I’m particularly excited to be coming back to Fort Worth,” says Dong, whose 30-minute Kimbell recital will reprise parts of her Cliburn repertory.
The first half of next year will see Dong on a mini tour of Texas, with concerts in Allen, Sherman, San Antonio and Big Spring, along with West Palm Beach, Fla.; La Jolla, Calif.; and Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Rather than becoming overwhelmed by the travel-filled concert schedule, which she b alances with working on her master’s in piano performance at the Juilliard School, Dong revels in the opportunity to bring her music to a variety of big cities and small hamlets across the country.
“All this travel just feels so exciting, especially as all the audiences I’ve played for have been very enthusiastic,” she says. “It gives me such a good taste of what it will be like to be a full-time, touring pianist. It’s a life I definitely want to lead — a life I always dreamed I would lead.”
Dong’s voice sags a bit as she admits her schedule doesn’t permit her to get to explore the new destinations on her Cliburn itinerary.
“I don’t get much of a chance to see the places,” she says, “because I’m spending all my time preparing for the concert.”
Dong uses some of her rare idle time on the road to reflect back on her Cliburn experience. She acknowledges that she found it to be one of the most intense, even grueling, musical experiences of her young life.
“Yet, I still don’t remember how nervous I was,” she says.
Another Cliburn souvenir the pianist totes with her is the memory of the pep-talk phrase that her Fort Worth host mom, Becky Brooks, always repeated in her ear before each of her Bass Hall performances.
“She always told me to ‘kick a--,’” Dong says with a giggle.
From California to China
Following Dong’s last performance at the Cliburn, a concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, she squeezed in two months of taking lessons and giving informal concerts at the renowned Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara.
“While in California, it was so much fun just to go to the beach,” she says.
She also carved out three weeks from her busy schedule to visit her family in China.
“It was nice to catch up with them,” she says. “My parents were totally up to date on what I did at the Cliburn, as they watched me playing online, so they lived through the competition with me.”
John Giordano, chairman of the Cliburn competition jury, recently conducted Dong playing Chopin’s second piano concerto with the Corpus Christi Symphony Orchestra.
“Musically, she is so poetic, graceful, while never being showy,” Giordano says. “Not only does she play beautifully, but she’s a beautiful woman with a wonderful stage presence.”
During the concert, she shared the stage with Cliburn gold medalist Vadym Kholodenko and Crystal Award winner Sean Chen.
“Corpus Christi was a lot of fun,” she says. “I think a lot of people from Fort Worth made the trip down there.
“We even played a six-handed encore, which was fun for us and the audience.”
Randall Fleischer, who conducted her in a performance of Grieg’s piano concerto with the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra in October, wrote in an email that the audience there was equally entranced.
She was “A star!” Fleischer wrote. “Everybody was quite smitten with her.”
Plans in Fort Worth
While in town for her Piano Pavilion recital, Dong will stay at the home of her Cliburn host family, Becky Brooks and Tom Kees.
Brooks has a big Thanksgiving Day planned, including running the Turkey Trot, brunch and a full-on, traditional Thanksgiving meal featuring that Southern classic: deep-fried turkey.
“I’ve never celebrated Thanksgiving in a real American home,” Dong says. “It will probably remind me a bit of the Chinese moon festival where you eat, eat and eat, as part of an endless feast and family reunion.”
On Dong’s first post-Cliburn visit to Fort Worth, she has plenty of other plans, some of which involve even more culinary indulgences and visiting one of the city’s favorite attractions.
“I didn’t get to see the zoo the last time I was here, so I’m thinking strongly about that,” Dong says. “But I will also want to eat more steak and shrimp. My host family barbecues so well but during the competition I was so nervous I couldn’t enjoy it as much. Now I will make up for that.”