Taking a leaf out of Rubinstein’s book

Sitting down with the Taiwan-born Ching-Yun Hu, an Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition winner who will be back in Israel next week for an intriguing recital.

Taiwan-born Ching-Yun Hu, an Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition winner (photo credit: PR)
Taiwan-born Ching-Yun Hu, an Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition winner
(photo credit: PR)
There are those who believe that the arts is the domain of the muses and of pure intent to push past boundaries into waters previously uncharted. As such, pitting creative talents against each other is simply not on. Then again, there are certain facts on the ground that have to be contended with by any budding member of the global artistic community, and putting in a creditable performance at a major classical music competition can clearly help to push your profile up a notch or two and open doors.
The latter most definitely came into play for Ching-Yun Hu. The 32-year-old Taiwan-born pianist won the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition here in 2008, when she was 26, and she was immediately catapulted onto the international center stage. “The Arthur Rubinstein Competition was very important for me,” notes Hu.
She could say that again. In double-quick time, after taking first place in the contest and also endearing herself to the audiences – she was given a rousing standing ovation after her semifinal appearance, and also garnered the Audience Favorite Prize – she was jetting around the world, displaying her prodigious talents at such glittering venues as the Wigmore Hall in London, Washington’s Kennedy Center, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Salle Cortot in Paris, the Osaka-jo Hall in Japan and the Great Hall of the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest.
Since her triumphant participation here in 2008, she has performed in Israel several times, and will be back in Tel Aviv next week when she takes part in a recital at the city’s Dan Hotel on July 7, under the auspices of the Arthur Rubinstein International Music Society. The event, which also features acclaimed Israeli pianist Andy Feldbau and competition artistic director and pianist Idith Zvi, takes in an intriguing repertoire.
The lineup includes Mozart’s “Turkish March,” Chopin’s Variations on “Là ci darem la mano,” from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, Rachmaninoff’s Romance for Six Hands – with Hu, Feldbau and Zvi joining forces – as well as readings of several George Gershwin numbers, such as the iconic “Rhapsody in Blue” and “I Got Rhythm.”
Hu says she understands the purist point of view. “[Hungarian composer Bela] Bartok said that competitions are for horses, not for musicians,” she declares with a laugh, immediately switching to the pragmatic line. “Competitions are just a way for young musicians to have a stage because, when they are very young, there are not so many opportunities to perform for an audience.”
And it is not just a matter of gaining public and, hopefully, media exposure. Hu feels that strutting your evolving stuff in what are essentially concert conditions is an important part of the learning curve, too. “I think it is important for young people to prepare for competitions, so they can learn other repertoires, and also they are put on the spot, and under pressure, and they will need to deal with that later on, if they want to be professional musicians, traveling and performing all the time. It is a way for the audience also to get to know them, and for the musicians to reach out to the world before their career starts.”
Hu knows what she is talking about. She went through plenty of challenging yet formative experiences herself, as a youngster. That included relocating from Taipei to the United States, at the tender age of 14, to attend the Juilliard School’s Pre-College Division.
That must have been tough, probably for her parents, too – they stayed behind in Taiwan – although Hu says she got through having to deal with a new language and culture, on the other side of the world, relatively seamlessly. “I think that when you are very young you don’t feel things so strongly. But my parents must have been really brave. I was excited about the new culture and being able to study with good teachers.”
Substantial educational and musical benefits notwithstanding, there were some hard times, too.
“I guess I felt lonely,” Hu recalls, “and very out of place. But I think it was good, too, for later on, because I learned to be more independent.”
While she may have felt the benefits of that adolescent baptism of fire, that may have left a permanent negative imprint on her emotional makeup. Her sister was already living in the States when Hu moved, but she was only a couple of years older and had her own problems to deal with.
That is where the young Taiwanese’s artistic endeavor came in extremely handy. “Thank God I had the music so I could express a lot of my feelings back then,” she notes. “Can you imagine [how things might have been] without music!” Hu’s first Stateside port of call was Philadelphia, and she soon found herself commuting weekly to the Big Apple to attend classes at Juilliard. That also constituted an emotional hurdle to be overcome.
“I think New York City is a little bit too big for a young person,” she says. “It was a little bit intimidating for me at the time.”
Naturally, there was an abundance of added value to be had, too. “It was such a center for music – so many concerts, and so many musicians working there.”
In fact, the young Taiwanese had cut her teeth, in the competitive arena, long before the big move. “I think my first competition was when I was nine or 10 years old. It was just a local competition in Taipei. Later on I took part in a national competition for Taiwan, before I even went to America.”
Once in America she quickly took her place in the scene, winning the Aspen Concerto Competition in 1997, performing Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3 with the Aspen Concert Orchestra. The same season, she won the Philadelphia Orchestra Greenfield Competition, which spawned a debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra, where she performed the Grieg Piano Concerto.
She made her debut in Europe in 1999 at the Chopin International Music Festival in Duszniki-Zdrój, Poland, following that with a recital at the Kleine Zaal of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in 2000.
The former was a good fit for Hu. “My favorite composer is Chopin, and I try to include some of his pieces in all my recital programs. There is a connection with his music that I have felt since I was very young.”
That, she says, was partly due to the therapeutic elements of the Polish Romantic composer’s oeuvre.
“At the time, I was alone in America, living by myself, and I guess his music somehow just connected with me. There is something about it that spoke to me very intimately, and ever since then I have been playing a lot of his music.”
That Chopin penchant was given a boost by Hu’s first European foray. “I had a feeling with the Polish people that they were so crazy about Chopin’s music, and I guess that stuck with me.”
Hu documented her love of the Polish composer’s genius with her debut recording Ching-Yun Hu Plays Chopin, following that with her sophomore release which featured works by Spanish composer and pianist Enrique Granados (1867-1916), Mozart and Ravel.
Hu says that from her participation in the Arthur Rubinstein Competition she gained on all kinds of levels, and that she learned to take the rough with the smooth. “You have to take it [the competition] with a very positive mental energy, and if you can do that you can have a good experience. But if you think you are going to play perfectly, you will probably be very disappointed. Oftentimes, you may play well but you get kicked out in the first round, and some people don’t recover from that.”
Thankfully, Hu survived the competition process here intact, and has gone on to achieve so much since then. “I remember I was serious about this competition when I was preparing for it. I really wanted to do well.”
It’s one thing to have good intentions, but you have to deliver on the day, too. “During the competition it was very stressful,” she recalls. “It was long – it was two weeks – and we had to play lots of different repertoires.”
That was offset by some crucial offstage support. “I had wonderful hosts in Tel Aviv who really took care of me. I was really sick before the first round. I think I couldn’t even talk.” Thankfully Hu had a breather during which she was able to recover. “My number was toward the end of the first round, so I could rest a little bit. My hosts really took care of me and we became good friends, and now they are really like my family. I go to Israel, and it is so wonderful to be with them.”
Hu hit it off with the public, too, and says she really enjoys performing for classical music fans here. “The audiences were so warm, and people even recognized me in the shopping mall,” she adds with a chuckle. “I got this warmth from the audience. They cheered me on.”
Hu says she is delighted to be returning to these shores, and to sustain close links with the competition organizers and, in particular, with Zvi. “I am very close with Idith, and we see each other all over the world. For example, I have a piano festival in Philadelphia, which Idith has visited, and she has taught young people there.”
Zvi and her cohorts recently announced they are also branching out to new cultural and geographic climes, with the first junior Arthur Rubinstein competition for young pianists, up to the age of 18, due to take place in China on September 29.
The Taiwanese pianist says the Arthur Rubinstein Competition was a turning point in her life and career, and has pride of place in her affections. “It is so special, especially because I won a prize there, and my career really took off after that. I had opportunities to play in Europe, and I became really quite famous in my home country. The prize opened many doors for me and allowed me to do many things.”
Hu says she also takes a lead from the legendary eponymous figure. “Arthur Rubinstein’s playing was always so sincere and so natural. You think that some of the things he plays are so easy, but they’re not. It comes from him, because he was such a sincere musician.”
Many would make a similar observation about Hu, too.
For tickets and more information about the concert at the Dan Hotel: *9066 and www.eventim.co.il/piano.