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Pianist Steven Lin – focus on essential music making

What does it take these days for a young pianist to survive in a talent marke t saturated with more and more prolific contenders? Given the unusually high-ranking technical, as well as musical eloquence young artists are achiev ing through training at top educational breeding hothouses, a good portion of talent and practice alone – as important as may be, will hardly suffice.And yet, while it seems harder than ever to distinguish the rays of true talent shining through a thick crust of adopted musical proficiency, the search for these pure nuggets of the golden gift forges forward as critics and connoisseurs pore over multiplying piano competitions and YouTube’s starred self-nominees – a pool ever widened by infectious viral views.

Meeting with 26–year–old Steven Lin after his captivating recital at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall this November illuminated some of the quintessentially important traits necessary to cultivate a long-lasting and impactful career.

My interviews with prodigies and hard working pianists has informed my opinion that there is one emerging determining factor common among these diverse artistic personalities – it’s all about the ability to focus with every fiber of one’s being, which seems deeply ingrained in performers’ DNA, but this must be augmented by powerful self–motivation. This kind of focus comes with a choice made out of one’s own conviction, and superceding trained facilities built to master the task at hand.

“I was so appreciative that the commitment of both, the Concert Artist Guild Viktor Elmaleh Competition and the newly established “American Friends” of the Arthur Rubinstein International Music Society made my recital at Zankel Hall possible. Of course, the timing was right, but it also goes to showing, how invested both organizations are in their promised concert arrangements for their competition finalists,” says Lin.

Lin became a gold medalist at the 2012 New York–based Concert Artist Guild (CAG) competition, an increasingly important initial stepping stone towards building a career in New York‘s competitive classical music scene. He went on to win the silver medal at Israel’s Rubinstein competition in 2014, joining the ranks of finalists with the competition’s coveted international calling card.

During these competitive proceedings, Lin worked especially close with CAG’s president Richard S. Weinert and Idith Zvi, longstanding artistic director of the Rubinstein competition’s society in Israel, who both attended his recent Zankel Hall recital. Lin seemed especially impressed that Idith Zvi was in attendance, travelling all the way from Israel; Zvi, Lin mentioned, “had such a big job in promoting the competition itself, but also devoted a lot of attention to help the finalists, and not just the first prize winners, with concerts.” After the 2014 Rubinstein competition, Zvi invited Lin to perform in Israel several times for audiences Lin felt were particularly warm and appreciative.

It was Lin himself who took matters into his own artistic hands though, when he approached both organizers with the suggestion to sync their coordinating efforts for this concert. “I was really lucky,” he comments: “their willingness to collaborate for me worked out so well; this also means a helpful step towards gaining personal management, which we (referring to his first round of management at CAG) are striving for at the moment.”

This strikes me as quite an entrepreneurial move, not uncommon within today’s young generation of aspiring performers, and perhaps a natural response to the highly competitive atmosphere in which they are working, which clearly establishes additional demands on young talent; artists are expected to show entrepreneurial initiative and self-investment tackling advancement and opportunity, yet must do so remaining decorously in tune with a traditional model of an artist’ s projected modesty.

This modesty, which Lin also personifies with his amicable demeanor, is still directed towards the music of the great composers which musicians endeavor to make their own. “Most of the great pianists of the ‘golden age of the piano did leave their teachers rather early on to develop by themselves and explore the music on their own terms,” Lin says. Rachmaninov himself, and also Joseph Hoffman, for example, received all their training until age 18, at which time they left their teachers to discover music independently. Of course, there were much fewer professional pianists at these artists’ times, and so they were perhaps able to take more time with the music and with themselves. According to Lin, “today’s training is so intricate and extended, when really, perhaps the most important effort is to spend time alone with the music, and that is pushed out further and further…” Also present at Zankel Hall was Lin’s teacher of many years at Juilliard and Curtis, Robert McDonald. They exchanged their impressions of the concert in a brief, intimate conversation as the pianist emerged from backstage after his performance, a little disheveled but gleaming with excitement.

The eminent professor with many highly gifted performers among his students observably bartered well–meaning comments with his former protégé, discussing details of the successful performance, and perhaps also the pianist’s little memory slip in his encore, one episode (Of Foreign Lands and Peoples) of Schumann’s Kinderszenen. I overheard McDonald comment on focus – surely something this pianist had brought to the stage en galore, except perhaps, when the emotional relief of having completed the mammoth program minutely marred the simple beauty of that encore.

“I have not played for him since last May,” says Lin, referring to McDonald, with whom he studied during four years at Juilliard and two additional years at Curtis, whom he also credits with a decisively important part of his musical journey. Now more than ever, though, Lin feels he must work on “finding his own voice, which is ultimately the most important thing in making music.” He says, “You can only mature when analyzing your own playing. You have to be able to listen to yourself critically but also enthusiastically. You have to be able to inspire yourself first, otherwise you can’t inspire others.”

(Photo Credit Nate Ryan)

He affirms that each piece of music has different, subjective requirements. “Take for example the Ravel piece La Valse,” he suggests. The piece marked the finale of his grand program which spanned Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.18 in E-flat major, Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Op.13 and Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso in E major, Op. 14, as well as a world premiere of David Hertzberg’s alha – work of a fellow CAG–supported artist. “La Valse, was originally created for orchestra, so playing the piano version, one has to re-create that soundscape. But that does not necessarily mean to only imitate the different instrument’s orchestral voices, rather one has to remake a certain pianistic coloration. Also rhythmically, the subtle shifts between the theme of the underlying typical Viennese valse, composed much earlier than Ravel’s interspersing melodic constructions, demand a really calibrated balance within all that freely expressed musical pandemonium. With Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, then, the really simplistic theme gets more and more complex and creative. It’s not at all easy to find one’s approach to the whole structure when each of his variations is such an unusual image, like an unfinished thought, each with its own, distinctive character. It’s a real favorite of mine, an invitation to dig deep emotionally and so original,” he explains.

Before starting each of his programmed pieces on stage, Lin took quite a long moment to concentrate before delving into the keys. He explained these as moments of distance that he uses to gain the right perspective to approach each work’s uniquely engaging score. Meeting with Lin, I wonder: at what point in time during his intense studies, did he “get it?“

“I started the piano relatively late, at age seven, with a very passionate teacher in Taiwan for two years before I entered Juilliard’s Pre-College division…I was attending Public School in New York, taking only weekly piano lessons with Yoheved Kaplinsky. I was a devoted basketball fan with only little interest in music, at the time. All my practicing while still at school, especially in the first years, did not really mean that I fully ‘got it.‘ It’s easy to get a bit lost in New York City. I had moved from Taiwan when I was very young and had to adjust to a different kind of life.” He still managed to win two Juilliard Pre-College piano competitions, and made his debut with the New York Philharmonic, age 13. (Photo Credit Nate Ryan)

“As I matured, I also was able to take in more from my teacher, Robert McDonald. He taught me how to really listen, and hear myself. This probably was a turning point that made me truly interested in real piano playing.”

The talented young piano player had many sources of inspiration for his musicality, especially the many teachers and performers he met during his studies who furthered his understanding of performance, including his teacher Matti Raekallio, and pianists Sergey Babjan and Murray Perahia. Lin also credits his friend and colleague, Andrew Tysson, with whom he studied at Julliard. Tysson familiarized Lin with old recordings of the golden age pianists, which Lin found impact-fully inspiring.

The moment Lin, “really got it,” however, came much later. “Prior to partaking at the Rubinstein competition,” Lin says, “I entered, and was accepted to enroll with the 2013 ‘almighty‘ Van Cliburn competition. Until then, this had been my biggest goal ever. I was very ambitious, and the fact that I did not made it into the finals, which – up to this point had been all I was looking for – was devastating,” he remembers.While still receiving the special jury award (John Giordano Jury Chairman Discretionary Award)), two months after “failing,” the disappointed pianist did not practice, in fact did not touch the piano, he tells me.

“But this devastating experience also gave me a lot to think about. For the first time I had a lot of time on my hands. I used to practice 6-8 hours a day, not thinking much about anything except succeeding. When people started telling me about the Rubinstein competition, I realized that my attitude had to change in order to continue to take part in competitions, in fact to continue doing the thing I most definitely wanted to continue doing: playing piano.

“I had to realize that my attitude was not reflecting what it was really about: the long journey in music, which does not end after the competition – even if it’s won. One is in it for the long haul, and with this renewed approach – and some encouragement from my mom – I entered into the Rubinstein competition. I was really not expecting anything; I was just there to make music. Somehow in the process, I understood how much there really is to the art of the piano, and that the most important thing was to keep on learning and growing. But it had to come all together, and to me that was after the Van Cliburn experience. I was never more passionate about the process of giving yourself to the music than I am now. For me, it finally happened when I did not feel I have to prove something to someone, as one tries to please the parents, the teacher, or someone all the time in school.”

Today, Lin feels lucky to have experienced some degree of defeat, to help him understand that it takes more than chops. “I realize more and more what a great gift music is, and how lucky I am to appreciate its full potential. It’s almost a bit dangerous, when success and a huge career come too fast,” he adds, “at least I need time and a bit of space to think and process.”

March 6th Lin will return to Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1, op.23 with the New York Youth Symphony .

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