Pianist Ching-Yun Hu – unbiased brilliance

“The decision to make an album of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s works was made from a pure love of his music. I want to evoke from listeners the most beautiful experiences through this music that encompasses all of human emotions, of love, hope, nostalgia, loss despair…This music reminds me of my childhood struggles, and beautiful moments spent with my family. It transports me to another world.”

– Ching-Yun Hu

With these words from the liner notes accompanying her recently released Rachmaninoff recording, pianist Ching-Yun Hu’s sentiment for the Russian master reflects the emotional intensity present in each of her engaging interpretations of his music. Hu’s deep affinity for the exceedingly expressive repertoire has been recently showcased by WRTI, Philadelphia’s classical radio station, which also co-produced the album in honor of the 145th anniversary of the composer’s birth. See excerpt here. As a tribute to the label’s own 165th anniversary, New York’s Steinway Hall also celebrated the Steinway artist with a CD release performance event.

“I guess Rachmaninoff‘s works were always close to my heart,” says Hu, “there was something about the Russian sentiment I was attracted to, even when I was just twelve years old and told my parents I wanted to go study piano in Moscow.” Growing up in Taipei, Hu’s piano teacher introduced her to Russian literature and music early on. “I had always been studying with Russian teachers or teachers that came out of the Russian School of Piano, throughout my student years. …As a teen, I was reading novels by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and fell in love with the romantic melodies and lavish harmonies of Rachmaninoff. How could one resist his appeal to all of humanity, speaking directly from the heart? His music is so communicative. I can’t understand how some people find it not serious enough. To me it is [very] personal; you have to dig deep and bring your own emotions into it, and especially when recording, one needs to feel compelled to leave a bit of a personal imprint behind,” she explains.

And so she does, heightening the emotional tension of the music with newly pronounced inner voices that seem astonishingly novel at times and greatly stimulating. This is not a relaxed listening experience of a composer often misunderstood as sentimental – this is a high wire act, puzzlingly dangerous, constantly shifting between expressive up and downs. Exposing inner harmonies so prominently can easily destroy balance in relation to the melodic line, but Hu exposes both distinct parts with crystalline brilliance, never losing the context of the whole structure, compromising neither her grip on articulation nor her clarity; the result is mind-blowing musical poetry.

During her second year studying with Sergei Babayan at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Hu entered the prestigious 2008 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Tel-Aviv, winning that year’s shared top prize, along with Israeli pianist Roman Rabinovich; the win helped launch her promising career.

In describing the somewhat stressful months leading up to the competition, Hu praises Babayan as a major motivational force in preparing the demanding repertoire. She also credits Babayan as one of her biggest inspirations in music altogether, letting her in on the magic that lives in the details, and making everything come together for her during their many lessons at the piano, which would occasionally last several hours.

Coincidentally, I had been present at the competition and even then, the young pianist stood out to me for her vivacious and colorful playing facilitated by a brilliant technique. While many shared my enthusiasm for the young artist’s brilliance and range of expression – incidentally winning her the audience favorite prize – I also could not help but notice some of the voices in the audience critiquing her as “just another Asian-trained, super-fast technical player,” dismissing her skill as “robotic” after “hours in the practice room.” How unfair and undeserved this bias opinion seemed to me then. Despite the many accomplished careers of a large number of musicians of Asian heritage and training, this kind of bias skepticism still seems to prevail at times with some of today’s audience members.

Indeed China’s rapidly increasing piano boom, with approximately 40 million children studying piano actively, is certainly accompanied by its share of undistinguished talent. At some conservatories, the students are trained under extreme conditions to impress with mechanical skills like speed and accuracy in a performance culture rife with bribery and scandals. To overcome the vast devastation of the Cultural Revolution that banned the piano as a symbol of the bourgeoisie, it of course takes more than mega concert halls filled with Lang Lang fans delighting in China’s newly-esteemed socio-economic status and parents reveling in the pianistic accomplishments of their own children. The international exchange of culture, however, is rapidly increasing, and by now the Asian population in America’s conservatories – just like previous generations of immigrants hailing from Germany, Eastern Europe, and especially the former Soviet Union – provides by far the largest part of the classical music talent pool today. This also manifests itself in an exchange of increasingly fertile ties within the international music community.

With ample experience, entering Juilliard’s pre-college division at age fourteen and expanding her education after her years at Curtis with some additional years in Europe, Ching-Yun also developed her entrepreneurial skill set. Her performance at the Rubinstein left a particularly strong impression: “It felt like all participants, in spite of being at a competition, belonged to one big family. I liked the atmosphere there so much, I returned many times for performances. I even credit this experience a little with the inspiration founding my own festival in Taipei in 2012, and then PYPA, Philadelphia Young Pianists’ Academy, in 2013,” she says.

Giving back to a new generation of young pianists feels natural to her, especially showing new-comers what to expect and helping to guide them: “Growing up I did not know the right path to a professional career, I want to make it easier for them,” she explains. One member of the faculty at PYPA is Gary Graffman, mentor to superstars like Lang Lang and Yuja Wang.

“I was probably the opposite of the stereotype image of an Asian trained kid, practicing 6 hours a day for speed and perfection. Arriving at Julliard I actually struggled a bit to cope with technique, since my teacher, who came from Vienna, was after beautiful sound and developing a story line. Both aspects are important, one is nothing without the other. To have a real technique, that means to gain the technical skill not as an end but means to allow for the freedom to express oneself,” she explains. Many things go into developing that performance quality and visitors of PYPA have an opportunity to collect their own impressions, during intimate master classes with world renowned mentors.

“To be together with peers and surrounded by music is one of the most stimulating experiences there is,” Hu says about PYPA, which is now in its 6th season.

The young music talents that arrive at PYPA with differing expectations will certainly understand more about what it takes to become a true musician – and perhaps even find a little bit of a shortcut in the process, with Hu and her knowledgeable team leading them in the right direction.

Read more about the artist and PYPA

By Ilona Oltuski 

This article was sponsored by Jonathan Eifert, Public Relations