Philip Chiu, acclaimed for his collaborative piano work with Jonathan Crow, Janelle Fung, James Ehnes, Andrew Wan and Raphael Wallfisch among many others, makes his Toronto recital debut for Music Toronto on November 28.
In a mid-October email exchange, the talented and personable Hong Kong-born pianist told me that he was excited to come back to Toronto, “very much my hometown and place of musical birth.” He left when he completed his studies at the Glenn Gould School in 2006 and has returned many times for concerts and recitals (most recently with Jonathan Crow at Toronto Summer Music) “but this feels like a real homecoming artistically, especially since it’s a return to form as a soloist.”
WN: Who was the first composer you fell in love with as a child?
Who were the first performers you fell in love with?
PC: I like this pair of questions because I can answer them with the same story: In brief, 1) Mendelssohn 2) Jon Kimura Parker. I forget exactly how old I was, maybe 14 or 15, when I was studying Mendelssohn’s G Minor Piano Concerto. Between working feverishly on that piece (so many arpeggios!) and constant exposure to the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, I had completely succumbed to the infectious effervescence of Mendelssohn’s writing. Up until this point in our story, I never really listened to much classical music, so after years of taking me to classical music concerts and trying to keep me awake, my parents must’ve been totally confused to be hearing orchestral music coming from my room... I’m sure they thought I was hiding something! Suffice it to say, I was not your classic case of a young pianist dreaming of being the next Rubinstein or Horowitz.
One day I happened to catch a performance of that same concerto on CBC, and I was so thrilled to hear someone playing it the way I hoped I could play it! I caught the name of the pianist (Jackie Parker) and tried locating a recording to purchase. Sadly, his website revealed no such recording. In mild distress, I wrote to the email address on his website expressing my admiration for the recording I had heard and asked if it was available for purchase (expecting an efficient, dismissive reply from his agent).
I was totally floored when I received a reply from Jackie just a few days later. He had written an explanation of the recording (a live CBC recording that was not available for purchase) and excitedly asked about my progress with the concerto and shared his thoughts on the piece. He finished by saying that he would ask his father to search for the recording in his archives and to send me a copy (on cassette tape, of course) as soon as possible. I received the recording with another kind letter from his father within a short period.
This tiny, personal moment has stayed with me these last 15 years; among other things, it has shaped my idea of what it means to have success and to encourage those coming up (in my case, from very, very far away) behind you.
You’re known as a top collaborative pianist. What are the challenges of a solo recital?
Going solo involves an interesting mix of challenges and rewards. First and foremost, the memory component of the solo piano recital requires its own special mention: No thanks to Liszt for creating an expectation of pianists that far exceeds those of any other instrument. I am not one of those musicians with a prodigious mind that memorizes music the first time they hear it on the radio; it was one thing when I was a teenager and my brain was a soft, malleable mass, but now, trying to find the time to memorize about 85 minutes of music (for one program!) is not particularly easy nor, frankly, the most rewarding part of music-making. I am buoyed by more and more famous pianists (e.g. Alexandre Theraud, Gilbert Kalish) having scores on stage, but it’s still quite hard to shake the stigma associated with doing so.
Another challenging aspect of performing solo, as someone who has found some degree of success as a “very sociable pianist,” is convincing the established musical community that a pianist can be many things and, shockingly, even perform all roles extremely well. There is little doubt that collaborative pianism and solo pianism have some stark differences in their skillsets, but there is a surprising amount of bias (from all sides) about the ability of one to perform the other.
I absolutely love the thrill of having the stage to myself; the not-inconsiderable allocation of brain power dedicated to playing with others is now freed up for... anything! Even the finest of collaborations have some limitations to how far one can stretch timing/phrasing or introduce new ideas on the fly (of course, one of the joys of chamber music is pushing that boundary and being amazed by the results), but when I’m alone on stage, I have only to answer to the composer, the audience, and myself.
What went into choosing the repertoire for your Music Toronto recital? Please give us a snapshot of each of the works you’ve chosen.
“Stories & Legends” is a program I created specially for my Music Toronto debut. I would like to add how grateful I am to be performing in this longstanding series in the city where the majority of my education took place. I have many fond memories of attending great piano and chamber music recitals hosted by Music Toronto, so I was ecstatic when I heard from my agent Andrew Kwan that they had gotten in touch. When choosing the program, it was vitally important to me to share something of myself and not only to present A Good Piano Recital Program.
Our evening starts with The Mother Goose Suite. It is a brilliantly simple work that showcases Ravel’s uncanny ability to channel innocent wonder into song. It is a work I came to know intimately through my work with Janelle Fung (as part of the Fung-Chiu Duo), and is also, in a small way, my homage to our musical partnership. Fairy tale after fairy tale, Ravel gifts us beautifully rendered, first-person perspectives from these stories. I present it here in its solo arrangement by Ravel’s friend Jacques Chariot.
The companion work I’ve chosen for the first half is a personal selection of Rachmaninoff
Preludes. I find they are not unlike the Mother Goose Suite; self-contained tales that evoke diverse images and emotions. I’ve chosen five for five, five preludes that loosely match, in sense and style, the five movements of the Ravel suite.
Schubert. Yikes. The Wanderer Fantasy. Double yikes. This is a beautiful, impressive (every piano program needs some fireworks) piece that strays fairly far from its source material, at least in character. Save for the second movement, which quotes the original Der Wanderer lied almost directly, the remaining three movements present this melancholic song in a more jubilant, high-spirited manner. Twenty minutes of keyboard intensity with plenty of Schubertian modulations, melodies, and mood-changes.
Our night concludes with Liszt’s Deux Légendes; epic storytelling at its very epic-est. Liszt uses all his tricks in the piano-writing book to vividly illustrate two biblical stories (St. Francis’ Sermon to the Birds, and St. Francis of Assisi Walking on the Waves). You will hear birds, you will hear undulating waves, you will hear quiet, awestruck wonder and also very loud wonder.
Two years ago you were the first recipient of the Prix Goyer, an award so covert that the performers in the running for it don’t even know they’re being considered. Now that you’ve had time to digest it, what has winning the prize meant to you?
I can’t say I’ve really taken much time to digest it, haha. I was obviously flabbergasted to know I was the first recipient of the Prix Goyer, but my next reaction was to think of all the other more-deserving musicians I know who should have received it. Honestly, I think I’ve spent most time trying to find ways to justify (to myself) having been awarded this prize.
In another way, I took winning that prize as a message that it was time to change direction. It felt really, really good to be recognized for my work as a collaborative artist, but it was also a sign to myself that it was time to take stock of what I had accomplished thus far and consider where I wanted to go next. It’s a big part of the reason I’m answering your questions today: I knew that it was time to set aside the collaborative hat for a moment and show everyone a lesser-worn, but much-beloved hat: Solo Phil.
Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.