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  • Writer's pictureIlona Oltuski

Leeds Competition Winner Eric Lu Unexpectedly Opens 92Y’s Streamed Summer Series

published on Classical Post

Ilona Oltuski July 31, 2020


Eric Lu. Credit Ben Ealovega

It is difficult for pianist Eric Lu to hide his disappointment about his globally cancelled concerts, and how everyone is affected by the pandemic.  A calling, rather than a job, being a concert pianist turns “playing to live,” into a “living to play” condition, and the pandemic has impacted the performing arts interface perhaps like few others. “After all,” he says, “it is not an easy career…you train all your life, and the intense preparation continues for each concert, for every program, in a particular way, and not being able to go through with planned performances is just devastating,” he explains. 


While Lu just recently finished his schooling at the Curtis Institute of Music, his mastery was rewarded with international attention early on; Lu won fourth place at the 2017 Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw, and the German Pianists’ Award the same year. The following year, when he was just twenty years old, he secured first prize at the 2018 Leeds International Piano Competition. Lu continues to stay in touch with his mentors, which include next to the eminent pianist Robert McDonald, the 1980 Chopin Gold medalist Dang Thai Son, and Jonathan Biss, renowned as a Beethoven interpreter and since 2018, Co-Director of the Marlboro Chamber Music Festival. 

Eric Lu – Prelude in D-flat major Op. 28 No. 15 (Prize-winners' Concert)


When pianist/composer Michael Brown had to cancel his opening performance slot for the 92Y streamed concert summer season, Lu was quick to respond as his replacement. Coined “Time and Other Travel,” the program lets its acclaimed recitalists transport the listener to realms and eras accessible only in the imagination. The artistic voyages presented feature notable travelers, including pianists Jeremy Denk and Inon Barnatan. The musical content of these voyages is streamed to audiences at different times, and consists of previously recorded material (presented free of charge), including some recordings, like Lu’s, made for this presentation at a studio in the vicinity of the artist’s current location. 

This is a good thing, according to the young pianist, who is not a big fan of live streaming. “I had several people approach me for different live streaming platforms, and while the spirit of it is all good and important, I can’t disregard the standard you want to put out there, and the quality of live streaming just can’t live up to the nuanced acoustics of the studio recording.” This year, Warner Classics released Eric’s first studio album of Chopin’s 24 Preludes and Schumann’s Geistervariationen to critical acclaim, including being named BBC Music Magazine’s “Instrumental Record of the Month.”

When compared to that experience, and according to his own critical stance, the limited preparation and recording time available for the spontaneous 92Y project suggested a bit of a compromise, but it was also a welcome opportunity. “After not performing for four months, I got the call on a Thursday and was recording that Saturday,” says Lu, who during the lockdown, resides near Boston with his parents. 

“This was pretty much a live recording without much editing, but rather playing in almost one take, as I only had one and a half hours at the studio,” he says. “Usually I would have been under pressure to devote much more time and really delve into the recording process, after all it is going to be out there forever,” he explains. “But it was so great to play music again, knowing that people were going to listen. It is an incentive much different than playing for yourself, “ he describes, “although I have been taking advantage of that extra time [lately], and devote a lot of time to practicing new repertoire, which is very different from the preparation for an immediate performance and difficult to do on the road,” he says, trying to explain the difference. “Before a concert, the means to prepare a piece is less about breaking it down completely, but the preparation rather happens within a wider perspective, relating it to the whole program,” he comments, hard pressed for further insight.


It seems that thinking about the lockdown from a different angle opens up a more positive outlook: “In a way, having the freedom to really delve into music, somewhat detached from its performance aspects, offers a different kind of benefit. Besides preparing for long-term planned projects that include two Mozart concerti, Beethoven III, and the Schumann concerto, I am going further down the line now than I usually would, and I am also just finding pieces for myself, really digging deeply into the music,” he asserts. 

Old-time masters such as Arthur Rubinstein, took long sabbaticals to devote themselves to the art, not the performance. Listening to Lu’s wide-ranging breath and shimmering beauty in Schubert’s Sonata in A major, D.959, as well as his superb rendition of Chopin’s Preludes No.4, E-minor and No.17, in A-flat major, it occurs that there might be something very real to take from all of this. 

There is nothing affected about Lu’s mature playing: no over-the-top ritardando, no willful accents or artificially heightened climax; there is only a beautiful, measured line of inner voices and well-proportioned, indeed perfectly calibrated, expressive increments of tonal tension that give rise to a natural expression, which is always elegant and at times reaches the realm of the poetic.

Especially in Schubert’s late sonatas, one is often reminded of his references to Beethoven, a composer whose work Schubert admired greatly. I trust that their discovery – especially under the tutelage of Biss – had to cause Lu to recognize the giant’s stylistic footprint. But beyond that, Lu’s exceptional tonal control and shading brought a most personal quality to Schubert. 

“It’s hard to describe how much I love Schubert,” says Lu. “He was an extremely introspective composer of great depth and his music is at the same time filled with the tragic element, moments of great loneliness, illness, and his understanding of his dying so young and yet it expresses so much tenderness, light-heartedness, and intimacy. The sonata I performed is part of a trilogy of his three last works in this form, strongly interconnected with each other by their structural and harmonic elements, which also connect and interrelate each of the four movements within the sonata. Composed during the very last year of his life that brought about some of his other masterpieces like Schwanengesang, Winterreise, his cello quintet…it is extremely personal, speaking to the innermost deep and complex emotions,” he describes. 

Eric Lu - Schubert 4 Impromptus, Op. 90, D. 899


With great focus and command, Lu absorbed and expressed this all-encompassing journey during his performance. 

“The deeper you enter Schubert’s world, the more things you find to be moved by,” he explains. “There is forgiveness, coming to terms with what is, but also hints of regret about what could have been. Imagery of blissful moments is to be found, but it is a glorious memory of the past, making it more heartbreaking. Such devastation is pouring into this sonata, and in Schubert everywhere, which makes the poetry of his protagonists and their journey so timeless and relatable,” he says, and it seems that to relate this timeless expression of the human condition has become even more relevant in our current global state of struggle. 

“Even with seemingly more urgent things in society going on these days,” says Lu, “when society gets polarized and countries turn more towards their own nationalism, we can’t forget the important impact of music, that transcends cultures, and its potent expression of our humanity. What makes it so rewarding as an artist is that we do not really belong to one nation but travel the globe to bring music to all cultures. People’s reaction to hearing great music is the same all over – it’s incredibly positive and hopeful, and much more needed than ever.”

The 92Y’s summer season concert series continues through August 27th. 



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