Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Pianist Susan Chan plays Beethoven with the Columbia Symphony

This Friday and Sunday, Susan Chan, who teaches at PSU, will play Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. I asked Professor Chan a few questions via email and am including her responses in this posting:

How long have you been practicing this concerto?

I did my initial learning of the piece last fall, from around late September. Then because of solo recitals in December in Portland and in Asia, I put the concerto aside for a few weeks and picked it up again from around mid-January. I find it helpful in this way as it lets the music settle in me, and I approached it again with a fresh mind.

What is the hardest thing about this piece?

Every piece has its challenges and lovely parts. There are a couple of passages in the first movement that are tricky to play technically, when one hand is playing soft and fast sixteenth notes in an intricate pattern while the other hand is playing a completely different rhythm
that includes a dotted rhythm. Then the materials are switched between the hands. When I was studying Liszt's Mephisto Waltz, I said to my teacher of the time, Mr. Gyorgy Sebok, that it was a difficult piece. He responded with deep wisdom and a smile, "It will become easy." It was a little hard to believe it at the time, but of course he was right. The same applies to these tricky passages in the Beethoven concerto, that they have become easier over time. In general, the piece is pretty accessible. We'll see how it goes when rehearsing with the orchestra!

Do you like playing with orchestras more than recitals?

There is a certain excitement about playing with an orchestra that comes from the elements of unpredictability and spontaneity, something that is different from solo recitals. When performing with other musicians it sometimes feels a bit like playing a friendly tennis match with a crowd watching you. You are very prepared but need to flexible and respond spontaneously to what comes to you. Having said that, although one has more control when playing recitals, there are often surprises whether we like them or not! Whether it's playing with an orchestra or playing a recital, every performance is a different experience, as Heraclitus the Greek philosopher said, "You cannot step into the same river twice."

Anything else about the emotional content or background of the Beethoven concerto?

The concerto was first written as early as in the late 1780s, when Beethoven was a young composer; in fact, this was actually the first concerto he wrote but was published after the C major 'Concerto No. 1'.

There is a certain freshness and youthfulness about the work. Rather light hearted and elegant the first movement is Mozartean in character, although Beethoven's 'fingerprints' are already clearly found. For example, the piece opens with a forte blocked chord followed by a broken chord, something that is a very Beethovenian statement. The listeners may discover some stylistic differences in the cadenza, which Beethoven wrote in around 1809 for his pupil, Archduke Rudolph of Austria. This middle-period cadenza starts in fugato style, uses much counterpoint, and has an extended trill section. All these characteristics actually foreshadow his writing style in the late period. The gorgeous second movement is profound and prayerful. The finale is a witty rondo where the main theme has syncopated sforzandi.

Thanks Susan!

Susan Chan makes her debut with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra on a program that includes Brahm's Tragic Overture and Sibelius' 5th Symphony. For more information about this concert see, the Columbia Symphony's website.

Also, you can hear Professor Chan on a outstanding recording called East West Encounter. She plays the following pieces on a Fazioli piano:

- Ning-Chi Chen's "Cherishing Thoughts of Red Cliff"
- Alexina Louie's "Warrior" movement from "Scenes from a Jade Terrace"
- Ludwig van Beethoven's Sonata in E minor
- Franz Liszt's "Mephisto Waltz No. 1
- Cesar Franck's Prelude, Fuge et Variation
- Frederic Chopin's Sonata No. 3 in B minor

I know that Classical Millennium has this CD for sale.

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