Interview with Classical Pianist Fang Yuan

Fang Yuan, concert pianist in NYC (photo courtesy of JC Lee)

Fang Yuan, concert pianist in NYC (photo courtesy of JC Lee)

On Friday, February 26th, I interviewed classical pianist Fang Yuan, whose concert the previous evening I really enjoyed – I’m looking forward to a return visit! Joining our conversation was Joanna C. Lee, of Museworks.  (I had previously recorded a  podcast  with Joanna and her husband about the Pocket Chinese Almanac)  Below is a transcript of my conversation with Fang and Joanna.

What brought you to New York for the week?

I came to New York just for my solo recital at Carnegie Hall.  I arrived on Monday (4 days ago) from China, and I’ll leave this afternoon (Friday) to go to Berlin.  However, I came to the US about 7 years ago, and played in New York and Baltimore, as part of a student cultural exchange program. But this is my professional debut in the US!

You began your music studies when you were quite young – are there other musicians in your family?

I come from a musical family; my grandmother and aunts on my father’s side were all amateur musicians, playing different instruments, especially the accordion.    My mother learned piano in middle school and later on taught music at middle school.  When I was four years old, I started studying piano with my mother.  My father also loved classical music very much, and wanted me to go into the musical world.

JCL:  The accordion was very popular, as you can play both melody and harmony on it.  It’s also a portable instrument, and this was the time when Chairman Mao was sending everyone all around the country.

You’ve studied at music schools in China and Germany.  What differences did you note in their teaching style, their curricula?

One of the obvious differences is that in China, we learn Chinese music; one of our exams each semester is on a Chinese piece.  There is also a different pedagogical style;  in China, because the prestige of the school is tied to the achievements of their students, students are taught what they need to be successful, to win competitions.  In Germany, there’s more attention to what’s inside [the student and the music].  Technique is also very important -– but we studied the compositions a lot.  The teachers also tell you what they think, and teach you about life. They help you understand the connection between music and life.

What attracted you to the music of Central Europe:  Haydn, Chopin, Beethoven?

I grew up with the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn,  and other classical composers.   I felt an especially strong connection with Brahms, which is why I went to Germany (most of the other students went to the USA).  I think after several years in Munich, classical music changed me, how I think, even my character and direction – it taught me to really love the music world. 

When you studied at the Munich Hochschule fuer Muzik und Theater, you were a double major in Piano and Chamber music – why these two areas of study?

Chamber music was part of our regular course work.   In my first semester, I scored high marks in my chamber music class.  I enjoy working with other people, and thought that later on I might want to be a chamber musician.  I worked with a very good group of people; one of them, Noah Bendix-Balgley, is now the first concert master at the Berlin Philharmonic.

I like to play different forms of music, and the last three years I have had more opportunities to play with orchestras. I would like to have more opportunities to play with different musicians.   I also want to continue as a solo pianist – the repertoire is so vast! 

But chamber music makes me very happy and I find it very relaxing.

You are a professor of piano at the China Central Conservatory of Music – can you tell me a bit about that?

Since I was young, I have wanted to be a teacher, to teach at the middle school level, and especially at my school.  My goal was to return to China after my studies in Europe and bring back what I had learned abroad.  I was very lucky and I am very happy I was was able to do that. 

I like teaching, but I’ve actually stopped as of this January, so I can concentrate on my playing;  there are things that I would like to do as a performer, and now, while I’m still young, is the time to do them.

People in China want to understand and learn more about classical music, and I want to help them.  Being in the classroom is not the only way to do that. 

At Carnegie Hall you premiered  your “Yellow River Rhapsody.”   Could you tell me about how you developed this piece?  Do you think you’ll be adding more Chinese music to your repertoire?  

Last year I did a lot of touring in China, performing with orchestras.  When I played the Yellow River Concerto, the audiences loved it.  When I play it, I can feel its importance, and how it brings out the good, human character of the Chinese, even when they are suffering.  But I think this piece relates to all cultures, and all people, to human suffering and struggle in general, like great literature does.  The audience as well as the musicians relate to this piece. The third movement is quite melodic; when I play it I think of the typical, modest, hard-working Chinese women.

I arranged my solo piano version (Yellow River Rhapsody) by ear; my goal was to have people hear the orchestral parts even though I’m playing solo piano.  This also lets me play it wherever I go, since I don’t always play with an orchestra.  I hope more people will hear this piece.

JCL:  This piece was composed by Xian Xinghai in 1939 as an eight-movement Yellow River Cantata, using folk songs and evoking the river as an emblem of resistance to the Japanese invasion.  Fang’s version eliminates the final movement; however it captures the concerto’s orchestration in purely pianistic terms.

Are there other styles of music you might like to play, like jazz, opera, rock’n’ roll?

I enjoy all types of music, but classical music is near to my heart.  I would like to play Pi-Huang by Zhang Zhao; it is the essence of Peking opera.  The music is very dramatic; it contains one of the most patriotic  poems from the Song Dynasty.  The music has deep ideas.

JCL:  This is a modern piece from the 1970‘s. In it are musical gestures from Peking opera, including a classic excerpt from “Night Flight of Lin Chong” (from the epic Water Margin) as well as quotations from the poem Full River Red by Song Dynasty hero Yue Fei. 

Is Peking opera still popular with the general population in China?

Not with my generation – Chinese pop is very popular.  I listen to all types of music, but classical music is my world.

You have a daughter – does she also play the piano?

She’s only 3-1/2, so she just fools around on the piano.  She is very musical, and loves to sing and dance; she’s very good. She reminds me of myself when I was the same age!  When I was about nine, I wanted to be a professional dancer, but my father wouldn’t allow me, because he thought dancers had a very short professional life.

You’ve toured extensively in China and Europe.  What other places would you like to visit?

I think music is for everybody.  I would like to go where people want to know more about the music I play.

Fang Yuan:  Now may I ask you a question?  What did you think of the concert?

Liz Daly:  I enjoyed it very much, especially the Haydn piece (Sonata in C Major, Hob XVI: No. 50);  it made me think of water, so it was a perfect piece to be on the program with the Yellow River Rhapsody, which I especially enjoyed – it captured the essence of the river.

FY:  Thank you.  The piano is a very sensitive instrument, especially the one I played last night.  When I played the Haydn piece, I could really feel the music.

JCL:  Fang is a Bösendorfer artist, which means that wherever she plays, it is on a Bösendorfer piano, which the company supplies.  After she arrived on Monday, Fang went to their studio, and picked out the piano she wanted to play.  This is a very high level of service for the artist. In fact, Fang is the only Bösendorfer artist from China!

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