Most 19-year-olds with a full scholarship at a prestigious institution of higher learning are implored to stay there no matter what. But nobody as young as Haochen Zhang ever won the career-making Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Given a choice between grabbing the brass ring and writing term papers for a Curtis Institute bachelor's degree, Zhang's answer was both.

"Concerts are important and that's what I've dreamed about since I was young. But my age is still the age of learning," he said recently at Curtis. "It's not about earning a degree. It's something that will benefit your musicianship in the long term. I'm interested in many things. They all benefit my music."

Despite opening the Philadelphia Orchestra's Mann Center season tonight, Zhang, who just turned 20, is likely to be managing independent studies at Curtis between practice and rehearsals. People in and around Curtis asked him, "Do you really want to do this?"

But for all his soft-spoken manner, the lanky Zhang quietly defies conventional wisdom. The Harmonia Mundi-label compact disc of his solo 2009 Van Cliburn Competition recital contains the kind of repertoire that's not known to win gold medals. He chose Chopin's Preludes Op. 28 - pieces that are deep, mercurial and sometimes so purposefully fragmentary that the music's unique universe has to be projected in a matter of seconds. It's best played by those over 40. His strategy was what guides nearly every decision he makes: love of music.

"I didn't see it as a risk," he said. "I loved to play the preludes in the competition so it's not a risk for me. If it's something that I don't like to do, or if I play something only to impress people . . . well, all the pieces in the competition are pieces I love to play."

Zhang's brainier repertoire may be part of a tidal shift in competition priorities. He shared the top prize with Nobuyuki Tsujii of Japan, who played Beethoven's agonizing, introspective Piano Sonata Op. 106 ("Hammerklavier"). With Zhang's Chopin, however, good-for-his-age handicapping is unnecessary. He has plunged as deeply into these pieces as anybody. The question is how.

"You just have to keep playing the music. It's very straightforward actually. . .."

His voice trails off - in just one manifestation his colleagues describe as his aura of "fragility." When talking, he gropes for words, sometimes at length, suggesting he doesn't quite know what he wants to say. Then you realize he's only struggling to externalize thoughts of great magnitude.

"He has a big range of what he does best - and he thinks a lot," says Gary Graffman, with whom he studies. "When they're very young, students, especially Asians, take a suggestion as if it's a command. But he would ask why. He would say, 'I heard Schnabel's recording or Horowitz's recording. Why this? Why that?' Which was very nice."

Thinking for himself seems to have come naturally: His mother lived with him during his first six months in Philadelphia at age 14 but was unable to renew her visa and returned home to Shanghai. Though Zhang had two official host families at Curtis, he talks about having to make friends with solitude and build small, intimate communities within the larger ones in which he moves.

The life of any concert pianist, however, isn't likely to be very social. And Zhang played his first public concert at age 5. The piano bench was the one place where he could manage to sit still for any appreciable length of time. At 12, he won the prestigious Fourth International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians in China.

Television tapes from the competition, now posted on YouTube, show a slight Zhang playing the Grieg Piano Concerto with astounding interpretive confidence. The final movement - not the animated peasant dances but the more reflective nostalgic passages - suggested that he was channeling a deeply homesick Norwegian. One of the competition judges was Graffman; no mystery that Zhang came to be at Curtis.

Such insightful performances, however, fuel paranoia among Chinese pianists, who often believe that the earlier your exposure to Western music, the further ahead you'll be when you're older. The missing factor in that theory, however, is inborn talent.

"In China now, if you ask a kid about Western music, they see it as a thing that will make them noble, successful, sophisticated. But what is Western music really about? I feel a good deal closer to it . . . after being in Europe, seeing the architecture, the Rhine River. . . . But I think that even if I'd heard Western music two years later than I did, it would be pretty much the same thing."

Even the huge precedent of Lang Lang - another Graffman- and Curtis-trained pianist - did not necessarily open doors to Chinese pianists in the West, he says, contending that that process already was well under way.

What remains to be seen is what kind of longevity these young, accomplished Chinese pianists will have. Often, they seem like Olympic athletes, sprinting from one prize to the next on what could be the road to burnout. From that perspective, Zhang's decision to stay in school seems profoundly wise. Though many talented pianists fly on instincts, Zhang's analytic side - Curtis instructors say he's a fine student - might mean everything in the long term.

At the moment, he doesn't have much life beyond pianism - Ping-Pong is one of his few hobbies - but he does have a vision for adulthood, and it's rich. An ideal day in the near future looks something like this: "Getting up not too early, watching some videos, listening to some music, chat with my closest friends, then improvise something at the piano, practice and then at nighttime read some books. But I also imagine having a family in the future and living with my kids out in the deep forest."

What a contrast that is with his current reality. But for the time being, that's fine: "What I'm doing now is facing the world, seeing people I don't know at all, performing in different places that don't feel very close to me. But the one thing that's close to me, one thing that's always there is the music. It's something that's made me better in a deep way."

Orchestra's Mann Center Concerts

All concerts are at the Mann Center, 52d and Parkside, at 8 p.m., except July 29, at 8:30. Information: philorch.org or manncenter.org.

Tuesday: Pianist Haochen Zhang, and Beethoven's 9th Symphony

Wednesday: Regis and Joy Philbin narrate Peter and the Wolf

Thursday: Trumpeter Chris Botti

June 22: Summertime Songs with Angela Brown and others

June 23: Pianist André Watts

June 24: Idina Menzel of Glee and Wicked

July 26: All-Tchaikovsky Spectacular

July 27: Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin and pianist Condi Rice

July 29: Images from BBC's Planet Earth to an original scoreEndText

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

Music

Philadelphia Orchestra

8 p.m. Tuesday, Mann Center, 52d and Parkside. $10-$50 215-893-1999 or www.manncenter.org.