Sunday, January 9, 2022

Talking to pianist/fortepianist Shuann Chai about her career, pianos and her thoughts on music and on performance

Ⓒ  2019 Shuann Chai


On September 15th 2021, pianist/fortepianist Shuann Chai and I spoke at her home in The Hague, Holland. The Chinese-American artist is an active and engaging performer, critically acclaimed for her interpretations on both modern and historical instruments. A soloist and chamber musician, Ms. Chai has is also increasingly in demand as a teacher:


PH: Shuann Chai, I see you started off with an undergraduate degree in both biology and piano performance at Oberlin College. Were you on your way to making a career in the sciences?


SC: Well, I was very interested in studying medicine, but also biology, anthropology, and languages! So, Oberlin was a great playground for me. I was able to take a variety of different classes, scratch all of those itches and see what I wanted to do. Gradually, I realized that, despite my fascination with other subjects, I didn't feel compelled to make a life in those fields, but did feel compelled to make a life in music. 


PH: Are you from a musical family?


SC: Both my parents are musical and love music very much, but neither are musicians. My father was a physicist and my mother a restaurateur.


PH: What were your first musical experiences?


SC: Saturday morning cartoons! I remember hearing some music on the “Smurfs” that was so exciting and my mother said it was written by a man called Beethoven. I was so impressed that someone could have a job writing music for my favourite cartoon. I think I’ve always really associated music with narrative, even if it was just an internal one. I was also lucky to have had a really wonderful piano teacher named Jack Radunsky, who was almost like a grandfather to me. My mother ran a restaurant at that time, so I brought him lunch most school days. Some days, to be honest, I never went back to school! He would play recordings and we would chat for hours. (This was back in the days before mobile phones. I don't think it I would be able to get away with it today!) I learned so much listening to Cortot, Rachmaninov, and all the ‘Golden Age’ pianists. Jack encouraged me to be a critical and open listener, and he had a lifetime full of stories to share. As a teenager he heard Ravel play in Chicago, ran into Rachmaninov on a snowy NYC street, and also once found himself seated next to Leonard Bernstein on a flight. All these things made an impression on me and gave music some three-dimensionality far beyond just sitting at the instrument and playing. It was kind of a whole-life philosophy. Those were really meaningful influences for me when I was young. 


PH: Where did you grow up?


SC: In the Cleveland (Ohio) suburbs. When I was 11, we moved to Oberlin, which was great. I was just on a bicycle in a small town and could go to the Conservatory, the library, or hear some concerts. As a young person, I had a lot of autonomy to just follow my whim. 


PH: And your higher music education?


SC: I went to Oberlin as an undergrad, and for my Master's I went to Boston - my first experience of a large city. The Boston Symphony Orchestra was right on the doorstep of the New England Conservatory and I made use of that. It was such a completely different world, to be surrounded by musicians in a conservatory setting as well as a whole community of professional musicians. It was an eye opener for me and a lot of my friendships from that time have endured.


PH: When did your interest in historic keyboards begin?


SC: I became interested in historical instruments in high school when. I attended a master class of Malcolm Bilson. I was totally hooked right away and went to his master classes as often as I could.


PH: Are you more at home with the modern piano than the fortepiano?


SC: In the beginning, I felt a lot of pressure to choose one instrument or the other, to identify myself as an early keyboard player or a modern piano player, but I stopped worrying about that a while ago. I think of pianos as more of a family tree, without a stark ‘historical/modern’ division, and I feel it is my task to get to know the piano that is in front of me and play my best on it, whatever it may be.


PH: Have you played harpsichord?


SC: Unfortunately, I was never able to make the time to do so.


PH: I understand that a major project of yours has been performing the Beethoven Sonatas on period instruments.


SC: Indeed. Well, that has been a big stop-and-start thing. I started having the idea in 2012 and was hoping to finish all 32 of the sonatas around mid-2020. (That was, of course, derailed by the corona crisis.) It has been a fantastic journey for me because this repertoire and Beethoven's life just happen to span the development of the piano from an early five-octave instrument to a six/six-and-a-half octave instrument at the dawn of the Romantic Age. By the end of Beethoven's lifetime, the piano was going in all sorts of directions. He couldn't hear these last steps, but he could feel them. I think that's a powerful statement and we're so lucky to have one repertoire that encompasses the gestation and the growth of our instrument in this way.


PH: On what pianos have you been playing them?


SC: I’ve been able to perform many of the sonatas on the 6-octave Rosenberger piano (1820) that I’m fortunate to have on loan. Some other excellent instruments I’ve been lucky to play on have been 5-octave originals from the collection of Edwin Beunk in Enschede as well as a 5.5-octave Broadwood piano that was the direct predecessor of Beethoven’s Broadwood at the Cobbe Collection in England. Recently, I made a video recording of the “Appassionata” on a Broadwood from 1808; what a wonderful sound, so illuminating! (I’ve also performed the sonatas on modern pianos, of course.) Every fortepiano is so different, depending on the maker, the geographical origin, whether it is original or a copy. It's a little like chemistry - that you have to calibrate and re-calibrate every time you meet a new instrument; there are things that they teach you. For example, with the five-octave pianos you really get the sense that Beethoven is trying to push through a sound barrier, an instrument barrier, an aesthetic barrier. The excitement generated by this tension often gets lost on the modern piano, because, of course, the modern piano can do anything, mechanically; and our 21st-century ears have been challenged by plenty in the meantime. But I think if you are clear about that sense of challenge, of trying to break through boundaries, you can bring that idea to any instrument.  


PH: Would you like to mention the keyboard instruments you have?


SC: Sure. The earliest one is a 5-octave Stein copy made by Philip Belt.  It is a delightful, crunchy instrument, fantastic for C.P.E. Bach and Haydn. The 6-octave instrument is an original built by Michael Rosenberger (Vienna, c.1820) and restored by Edwin Beunk This piano is on loan to me from the National Music Instruments Foundation here in the Netherlands. It's a very lyrical instrument with a deep bass tone, a beautiful, silvery top register and a Turkish stop. Then I have a lovely French Erard (1862) and my New York Steinway D, which has been with me the longest. A big family of pianos! I’m incredibly lucky.


PH: Would you like to speak about your chamber music activity and collaborations?


SC: Yes. I have so many wonderful colleagues and very different ones, as well. It's inspiring. My husband is a violinist, so we do a fair bit together and that's always a pleasure. I am also very fond of playing piano four hands and two-piano repertoire, which is something I think pianists should do more often. We can learn so much from each other.


PH: I read that you have collaborated with dancers.


SC: I have, yes! One was with the music of John Cage; I hear so much movement and physicality in his music, even in his silences. I also put together a project around the music of Prokofiev, whose music I find uniquely narrative. With both pieces it was important to me that the musicians were a dynamic, interactive part of the show and not just accompanying the dancers from the side wings of the stage. Both experiences were fantastic fun and I learned so much. I really hope to do it again. 


PH: Do you engage in much modern/new music?


SC: Well, in my Boston days, I did a lot. There were so many universities in Boston with Composition departments and there was always new music to play. I have done less of that since coming to the Netherlands, but my chamber music connections bring me in contact with modern programming and that's wonderful. I love to swim around in new sounds, looking for that personal connection, that personal “way in”. That's important to me, whether it is music from a classical- or contemporary era. 


PH: Let's go back to early music. Where do you personally stand as regards the Authentic Performance Movement of the mid-20th century?


SC: I think the word "authenticity" has been applied in many different ways since the movement for historically-informed performance first began, but it has recently become a catch-all for performances on any historical instrument. When a concert is advertised, for example, with the tag line "This is authentic Beethoven”, I wonder what that’s supposed to mean. Authentic to whom, exactly?" A music critic, a teacher, a connoisseur in the audience, one’s own colleagues, perhaps? The only certainty is that all of those people will have their own views and standards of ‘authenticity’, which turns out to be yet another subjective label. On the other hand, the authenticity of one’s Self, when expressed in performance, is something that every musician can develop and aspire to. In this case, an authentic performance is an informed one, and the performer has to do the groundwork. That means that you have to think about the composer and his or her intentions, and there are many aspects to consider - the instrument, the aesthetics of the time, articulation, expression, rhetoric...all of these things.  And then, informed by all of this, the score becomes a message from the composer to you, which you then have to relay to an audience in your own voice, in your own sound. This is the process of interpretation. I am always mystified when people say the performer has to "stay out of it" or when a performer says "I don't want to get in between a composer and the audience." I suppose I understand the intention of a statement like that, but I feel it's my responsibility, my duty, to "join the hands" of the composer and the public. And then, to think about authenticity, you have to take a risk and there will be people who are going to say this isn't authentic. And I think: "If it isn't authentic to you, if it doesn't jibe with your vision of how Chopin should sound or whatever, that's absolutely fine." That's actually necessary. We don't have to like- or agree with everything we hear. But I think, as an interpreter, you have to put your foot down and you have to say: "This is my interpretation. I have done the groundwork to the best of my ability." And every performer also has to say: "As I grow and change, as I learn more and hear more, so will my interpretations of pieces change.”  I hope they do. I hope they grow. I think that's what we can best hope for ourselves, that, as musicians and artists, we continue to grow, that we continue to change, that we continue to learn from the composers, from the generations before us, from our colleagues. All these things can shape authenticity. The short version of that is that I believe authenticity should come from yourself and not from the idea that a performer cannot hope to meet some external standard of authenticity, because, frankly, I have no idea what that means, as it means something different to everybody. 


PH: Would you like to talk about your work in education?


SC: I love teaching. I absolutely love it. I think it is amazing that someone comes to play for you, that they open themselves to your musicianship in such a trusting way. Teaching is a synthesis that you make. I try never to come and say "This is the way I think this piece should go and here’s how you should play it." Rather, I try to hear what someone is offering and where they want to go with it and then I think of a lesson as a dynamic interface, of where your aesthetic and their intentions meet. I also find it interesting when students ask me for tips on practising or something and, after helping them, I go to the piano and realize that I haven't even taken my own advice! That can be very confronting, but I love moments like that and I have to ask myself: "Why haven't I done it?” I love seeing that the tradition of teaching and learning still goes on and seeing the energy and enthusiasm of young musicians who are really stepping onto the stage and putting themselves out there out of love for this craft and the love for music. I think it is so moving and I absolutely love being a part of that process. 


PH: And your future plans?


SC:  I have several some recordings that have been rescheduled multiple times because of the corona crisis, but I hope they will come around: Songs by Alban Berg, chamber music of Brahms, and a couple of solo recordings - the Schubert Impromptus and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”. And, of course, Beethoven is always on the radar!


PH: How has the corona pandemic influenced your thinking?


SC: It has been a really challenging time for everyone, and for the arts, globally, it has forced us to reckon with the fact that the place of arts in society is not where we would like it to be. It makes a lot of us question our place in society, which is painful, but personally it has forced me to focus and not just go through my agenda on autopilot. I’m much more intentional now. It's a silver lining for me and I think we have to try to find something positive in all of this, because positivity keeps our hearts open and open hearts are what arts need in order to thrive and grow. 


PH: When it's not music, what interests you?


SC: I love to cook; I love to eat. I love to read and I'm fascinated by my daughter, who is seven. I'm such a lucky mother (not that it is easy all the time) but I find her, and children in general, amazing. And I'm grateful for friends and the community that I have...also family. So, when it's not music, I'm wondering if there is someone I would like to call. Sometimes people just need a little lift, and I feel good about reaching out and letting friends and family know that I think of them and that they're loved. Keeping friendships and connections alive is really important to me...recommending books to each other, passing on recipes… It's all a part of enjoying life and finding your enthusiasm and just hoping for the best for everyone. 


PH: Shuann Chai, many thanks for your time and for sharing your thoughts and experience.