A Music@Menlo Meet the Artist interview
Music@Menlo Chamber Music Festival & Institute
July 12 – August 3
Under the artistic direction of David Finckel and Wu Han, Music@Menlo is based in Atherton, California. Each year a carefully-chosen theme forms the basis of the summer festival, comprising concerts, artist-curated recitals, lectures, a training institute, and free public events. “Incredible Decades” is the theme for 2019, tracing 300 years of musical evolution from Bach to the new millennium. For more info, visit: www.musicatmenlo.org
Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and pursue a career in music?
My mother was a violinist in the Taipei Symphony Orchestra and was my first violin teacher. My father loved classical music even though he was not a musician. I don’t remember hearing anything other than classical music in our household – everything from Tchaikovsky violin and piano concertos to the Rite of Spring to the singing of Fischer-Dieskau and Callas. My father has great taste in music and wished for both my brother and me to become music teachers as he could not imagine a more enjoyable profession. My brother eventually became a medical doctor who specializes in hearing and hopes to help musicians. To this day, both my father and my brother have an immense love and more wealth of knowledge in classical music than I do!
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I have been blessed to have great mentors in my life. I studied with both Russell Sherman and Wha-Kyung Byun (who are married) for 13 years since I was 14 at the New England Conservatory of Music. They provided me with a great foundation not only as a pianist but also as a musician and human being.
Meeting David Finckel and Wu Han at Music@Menlo in my late twenties changed the course of my career and began my love affair with chamber music. It opened up a whole new world for me with enormous possibilities not only in performing but also in teaching and presenting – all three are important facets of my life today and I cannot imagine my life without any of these roles.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Well, I don’t think of it in those terms because I believe that every challenge happens for a reason. For example, I used to wonder why I never did well in competitions. Looking back now, I would not change a thing. I would not be where I am today without those challenges – they helped define who I am.
These days there is the challenge of balancing the various aspects of my life: concertizing on the road, teaching, running three different organizations and being a mom and a wife. If anyone has an answer, please let me know!
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
If teaching/presenting count as a “performance,” then I am proudest of the work that I do with my organizations, especially involving the next generation of musicians such as the Young Performers Program at Music@Menlo where I have been the Institute Director for the last ten years. To see the sparkles in the kids’ eyes when they walk on stage and to see their growth in playing, and confidence throughout the three weeks that we are together, has been the most rewarding experience for me. It has been a privilege for me to “pass it on” and ignite the passion for chamber music in these exceptional young musicians’ lives.
At String Theory in Chattanooga, TN – the chamber music series I founded ten years ago – we have an internship program for a select group of high school students. They want to become young arts advocates who make a social impact through classical music. We give them the tools to create their own concert events, from booking the musicians, to marketing, to audience development. These students have raised thousands of dollars for our local food bank and shelters through their concerts and I am so proud of having played a small part in it. The future of classical music is bright!
Which particular works do you think you play best?
That’s a tough question as I am unable to define what is the “best.” I do know what I enjoy playing – and that is pretty much everything. I love playing the Goldberg Variations, Strauss violin sonata, Brahms piano quartets, Franck quintet, Chausson concerto, Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time, Stravinsky Rite of Spring – all of it. The beauty of chamber music is that the combinations are endless, and each experience is different – with different musicians, different pieces, different venues – all are unique!
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
It’s a combination of what I would like to present at my series/festivals and what I am invited to play for the other organizations. For pianists, the repertoire is vast and the choices are endless! So I have to be cautious not to over-commit in order to ensure the best preparation for the concerts. Again, it’s all a balancing act!
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
As you can imagine, it is always special to play at Alice Tully Hall in New York City, the home of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. But I also love playing at smaller and more unique venues such as the Hunter Museum of American Art for String Theory in Chattanooga, and at the Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival. One can feel such synergy between the performers, the music/composer, the artworks and the audience that creates such a special and memorable experience for all.
Who are your favourite musicians?
I am inspired by countless musicians, not just pianists, but also other instrumentalists, singers and conductors.I would say the two living pianists whom I admire the most are Grigory Sokolov and Krystian Zimmerman. Besides being phenomenal pianists they are two of the most imaginative musicians with the most brilliant and revelatory interpretations. Their dedication to their craft is unmatched. They have been great inspirations to me.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
There was one tour early in my days with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center where we knew the impending storm would cause major flight cancellations and result in our missing the Alice Tully Hall concert back in New York. We made the decision to leave right after our Chicago concert and drive overnight through the storm to New York. It was eye-opening for me to see the dedication and determination of the veteran musicians. We had an unforgettable time driving together – the show must go on!
Another memorable concert was last year when String Theory opened our 10th Anniversary Season presenting Leon Fleisher’s 90th birthday concert. I never thought I would be able to hear one of my musical heroes live in concert, much less present him on my series. It was quite surreal and memorable!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
If I think I am a “success” then I think I would quit! I hope I will never get there as it is a never-ending journey of searching and questing in classical music.
I will say that all of what I am doing right now in my musical life – performing, teaching and presenting – is totally beyond my wildest dreams.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Don’t be afraid to take risks when faced with uncertainties in life – the possibilities are endless!
Don’t be afraid to ask – many people want to help!
Don’t be afraid to make your own path – what awaits you on the other side will be the most rewarding!
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
What is your most treasured possession?
The answer is the same for both questions – my family and the laughter of my two, sweet, beautiful boys!
(Artist photo: T Emerson)