22 November 2010

Interview with Mia Chung, pianist

This is the thirty-fifth interview in the “Where are we now?” series and consists of selections from my conversation with pianist Mia Chung. Please take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series.

Interview with Mia Chung, pianist
on the phone
24 August 2010

IA: Let’s start out with talking about your work as a pianist. I was looking up your biography, and I saw that you have studied with quite a number of famous people: Peter Serkin, Boris Berman, and others. Can you tell us about what specific techniques you learned from these teachers?

MC: When I studied with Berman I was a Master’s degree student at Yale and when I studied with Peter Serkin I was a doctoral student at Julliard, and at that point, there’s no discussion of physical technique, per se. It’s so much a discussion of nuance, perception, and what you’re listening for. It’s the refined elements of interpretation. And so that conversation is probably more specific to each piece that I played, depending on the style that the piece was written in. I would say a lot of that was focused on artistry. That isn’t to say that a lot of my training before that wasn’t focused on artistry, but there was a lot more conversation on the high school and undergraduate level about execution and how to get certain kinds of sounds and ideas across, physically.

But I think if I were to sum up: Boris Berman was a wonderful teacher in a sort of generalized sense. He gave me an appreciation for beauty and projecting my ideas and being more nuanced. Those are the qualities I remember about Boris Berman. He is a thoughtful, somewhat restrained kind of player. That came across in his teaching.

Peter Serkin has similar qualities—he’s also thoughtful—but for him there was almost this meditative quality of music. He would hear things, because he was mentally on a different wavelength, he would hear things that most people wouldn’t hear. Connections, for example; he would hear timbral connections and qualities or sound effects. He would bring them to light. I remember Schönberg Op. 19, which is a suite of six small pieces, and that really sums up his teaching strength. Those pieces are miniatures, they’re tiny; the entire collection is about four minutes. But it was almost like Peter Serkin taught best in the context of these little miniatures, because he would draw you into this tiny little world where you could marvel at little details in the music. That’s what I found most memorable in his teaching: looking at a miniature painting and picturing almost a different world through that miniature, versus a large, overwhelming canvas that envelops you. You had to peruse the small canvas and look at it with the magnifying glass.

IA: That’s a beautiful, very clear description and analogy. Maybe we could talk about a couple of pieces or a couple of composers, then, since you said those discussions happened more in specific pieces. You’ve been especially noted for performances of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. Are there specific historical performance practices that you bring to your interpretation of their works?

MC: In the purest terms, no. Because if you were to talk to someone who has a really clear, strong, particular view of what performance practice should look like in particular eras, no. I think I function with very general stylistic parameters in terms of expression that I bring out in each piece. But in the end, I do see music—and I think everyone does—through a twenty-first-century lens. There’s no way to avoid that. But I think ultimately the goal is to extract the humanity from the piece, because humans haven’t changed over time. Maybe the style has changed, but the essential desire, which is to communicate something from the mind and the soul and the heart, stays essentially the same. Our experience of life and death and joy and piece and whatever it might be, are still the same. Within a general sense, I try to be stylistically accurate, so in the Baroque era, I won’t play crescendi in the dramatic way I will in the nineteenth century pieces, or I’ll terrace dynamics more instead of sequence, or I’ll be very spare in my pedaling. So in a very generalized sense of the term “performance practice” I do observe that. But I won’t do that if it jeopardizes the sense of communication and the rapport. Because I do think you can pursue performance practice for the sake of performance practice, and then lose some of the heart communication. It’s about the balance.

IA: You’re playing on modern instruments for contemporary audiences, so you want to balance that with scholarly interest. If you were only scholarly, well, you would only play Bach on a harpsichord. But that wouldn’t be as interesting for today’s audience.

MC: That’s right. And also, in some ways, that limits the greatness of the piece. There are some things this music still communicates in spite of the change of instruments, in spite of the change of technique, in spite of our change in culture. It still connects with us. There’s a reason why, and I think that always has to be tapped into versus the more up-tight ideas of: “Don’t play Bach on anything but a harpsichord or a clavichord.”

IA: I think that answers what I was going to ask you next, because I had been reading some reviews of your performance of The Goldberg Variations. Of course, inevitably, people compare it to Glenn Gould’s recording—or his multiple recordings, over his life. One review was saying, well, essentially what you have just been expressing, that your performance was not specifically designed to be historical. You weren’t looking just at, they called it the “stylistic requirements.” So would you say that reviewer was probably accurate?

Note: the reviewer said Mia Chung gives an “intensely personal account of the music that clearly shows no regard to the traditional stylistic requirements her predecessors strove to preserve.”

MC: I would say that. Because there are already so many recordings that try to do that. So many performances that come from that perspective. So what’s the point of recording it again if I’m just going to have the same intent? And for me there was so much more about the sense of life-maturation. There was a cycle going on: a sense of dynamic travel that happens between the first aria going through the thirty variations all the way to the last aria. Something happens. When you hear the restatement of the aria, one is changed, and one perceives the aria differently. Why this change? What I talk about in my liner notes to the recording is that in many ways, there’s an increasing emotional complexity and structural complexity that starts to take place through the cycle of the variations. The pinnacle of that is number 25, in g minor. There is where I really try to unleash some of that emotional intensity that has been building up through the course of the variations. I liken it to the life stages of youth and adulthood and then one’s late years: that kind of a journey. It does have that sense of power. It’s very moving to hear that final aria. And one has to try to figure out why that’s the case. And the fact that he precedes the aria with the Quodlibet, which quotes all these sort of crass, common tunes that one would hear on the street -- a beer song with a song of a cabbage-vendor -- but he makes a fugue out of that. His sense of humor that he closes out the thirty variations with this is phenomenal. But the humor wouldn’t have that effect if it weren’t preceded by the profundity and depth and insight on life. And then you hear the final aria and it moves you to tears. Its gives you life in a microcosm, in other words, in that one piece. So that’s what I was trying to lend to it. It’s funny, because a piece like that that’s so sacred, in many ways, to keyboardists and reviewers—I think if we’re not open to these kind of perspectives, we’re going to continue to treat them like artifacts and that’s not going to go very far. We have to, in some ways, engage listeners who would be more interested in these kinds of works not just for the sake of preserving history, but saying: “Look, this is where it connects with you.” And I’m not trying to dump down on anything, but this message I just described to you of growing maturation through life is something that really fits great playing the way I studied it. And it was something I could communicate even to the lay listener.

IA: It sounds to me like a story: that it has a narrative trajectory without words, that it has growing tension up to a climax and then this beautiful resolution. And that’s something that I think anyone can respond to. But if it were played in too much of a wooden, historical way, perhaps that would suppress the narrative.

MC: And if you just think of each variation in isolation, separate from the others, then you can come up with a relatively wooden concept. And it’s easy to do that, because the variations alternate different approaches. Every third one is a canon with increasing distance in the intervals at which the canon is introduced. And then the other variations are these bravura virtuosic variations, so you’ve got that, and then you’ve got these other miscellaneous variations that might be a fugue or a French overture. It’s a smattering, but you have that consistent: every third variation is a canon. If you start focusing on the technical aspects of that, then you can lose sight of a much bigger picture and context.

IA: That’s beautiful. So when you teach, now, either your private piano students or the courses that you’re teaching now, do you try to convey to your students this sense of the enduring relevance of music and the story that still matters today?

MC: Yes, absolutely. Interpretation is ultimately that: it’s not about merely preservation of some truth. We have that element, but that’s not the end-all and be-all, for me. If music doesn’t resonate with them experientially; if they don’t resonate with the piece on a deeper level than simply their cognitive level, then it’ll never communicate the way the composer wants it to, or the listener wants it to.

So in classes like Interpretive Analysis, we have a tonal semester and an atonal semester: it’s all about this. It’s all about studying form and studying compositional technique, but always putting it in the perspective of how is form or technique harnessed by a composer to create something more, something larger. Because it’s not the fulfillment of form that is their goal. They are using form as structure: something to give it cohesion, to give it architectural soundness so that the parts are in proportion in the piece as a free-standing entity. But there’s something even more than that. There’s a sense of the dynamic going on. They’re not static. And in my mind, that is the trademark of a great composer. We study the masters: those who have accomplished this for their purposes, and then say: OK, what does that mean for you as an interpreter? How are you going to tap into this piece with the head knowledge you have? You understand form, you understand architecture and technique, and now what is that going to mean for you as a performer? So that is what the courses are all about. And that, to me, is really where my heart resides, which is why I choose those two electives in the course curriculum at Gordon.

IA: Do you feel kind of alone in your approach to historical works, or do you think this is a growing way to approach the great masters? Is there a whole generation of pianists and piano teachers who are playing and teaching in this emotionally relevant way?

MC: I don’t necessarily think so. There is a smattering of individuals who might be interested in that. One of the things I’ve always pursued in my work, and it has to do with my experience as a student, is this idea of bringing knowledge together with practice. But in a way that really excites listeners and that excites the performer. I think in the American academy, there is so much of a division between theory and practice. And those who study psychology and theory kind of look down on the performer and say, “Oh, they’re just practitioners.” And the practitioners are saying, “No, we’re bringing life to this music; you guys can’t play ‘Come to Jesus’ in whole notes.” So there’s this tension between these two halves of music. And really, neither of them is right. You have to understand both! You have to put both together. But that’s something that the American academy doesn’t do very well. I’m not going to say that doesn’t happen in Europe, because I think to a large extent in Russia and Western Europe, they’re more successful at doing this. There are all these prejudices and bias when it comes to how to approach music. There are pianists who will only deal with teaching music from the perspective of technique and fingering and hand position and arm position. That’s fine, that’s something a performer needs, but you have to have a vision guiding your technique. And to me, this makes the most sense. If they have the knowledge, if they can understand form and technique, they can apply that to any piece. The problem with most music students is that they study a piece and they bring it to a level of refinement and performability, then they start a new piece and they don’t know what to do! They’re at a loss. There’s no vision guiding it. They don’t know what to do. No hooks to hang their hat on.

IA: So who are some other pianists who might be in that smattering that you think might be taking a holistic approach?

MC: I’m a little hard-pressed to name people in this generation, and I’ll tell you why. Artur Schnabel, for instance, came from an earlier generation when there was a kind of license. Where there was a freedom of individuality layered upon the truth of what the composer wrote was expected and encouraged. And now, because you have many performances that are perfect: technically adapt and stunning in that way, but a little more sterile when it comes to individual perspective, and more conservative. Now, you can branch out and go to more radical players, and there are certainly those who do totally think outside the box. Awadagin Pratt is someone who—it’s all individual. It’s about his ability to think outside the box. Now, the performances are compelling, but there I think it has shifted too far towards the individual. So you have that, or you have rather sterile performances. So, I don’t know: a compelling balance of the two? I think is a little more difficult to find now-a-days. There are poetic pianists, for example, like Yundi Lee, a young pianist who plays a lot of Chopin and is very poetic and very sensitive to text. There are folks like Mitsuko Uchida. I love her Mozart, for example, there’s a tremendous personal element to it. And her Schubert as well: really fabulous. So these are the sorts of players that I resonate with.

IA: Now, you have tried a few other ways to bring your integrated vision to a larger audience: you give lecture recitals; you’ve produced one DVD and you talk on public radio. Are these sort of emerging venues for classical music to reach a larger audience? Are there other media opportunities that classical performers and teachers should take to promote their work? And how have these venues been working for you?

MC: Well, I have to say that there are perhaps ways I haven’t pursued that would serve my purposes even better, such as use of the internet, for example. That’s a sign of my age and my lack of adaptability when it comes to technology! But I think that there’s a lot of effort in this direction. There are a lot of musicians who are interested in talking about music; To take a commercial example: Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops are on WGBH radio, which is an all-Classical public station, and they’ll talk about music. His point of interest tends to be more biographical or personal and not so much about a sense of the structure or what’s written, the specifics. There’s a lot of effort in that direction. There’s also folks like Michael Tilson Thomas who does these DVD performances on which he talks about the music and he performs with examples of what makes it great. He covers Stravinsky and Beethoven and Copeland.

So, I do think there’s effort in this direction, but I almost feel as if the efforts come a little bit late. It’s kind of a response to a condition in society which is this waning interest in Classical music and increasing interest in technology. So we’ve never been very good at projecting and saying, “How can we stay ahead of these cultural tides? Let’s project and set out a vision for how we’re going to educate or how we’re going to inform and engage listeners, who are usually responding to something that’s taking place in culture.”

IA: Maybe we could finish up with talking a little bit about more contemporary music, because you usually record classic works, but have also done a little bit with contemporary composers, notably Lee Hyla. Would you want to describe your work with that piece or any other contemporary pieces you’ve performed? Have you premiered any works?

MC: All right, well, “Riff and Transfiguration,” which was composed by Lee Hyla about a decade ago, probably even a bit more than that, was written for me. So I had the joy of working with Lee, shaping the piece, creating that large concept for what the piece would be. It’s a seven-movement dance form. I did give him a passage from II Samuel, in the Bible, about David dancing furiously without any regard for those around him watching him. It was this authentic and feverish display of worship, praise, to his Maker. And so I just set that context for him and then he wrote this seven-movement piece. His style is not only influenced by rigorous classical training, but also by jazz and rock elements. So you will hear rhythms that are very propulsive and exciting, and then you’ll hear also beautiful colors. It’s meditative music as well. He just covers an emotional span. He’s one of those composers who captured my attention. I went through about a hundred and twenty composers, trying to figure it out, listening to tapes and works of theirs before I decided to ask Lee to write this piece.

But I also very much enjoy the music of others. For me, the single greatest point of interest in terms of the twentieth century hasn’t necessarily been American, but it has been the Second Viennese School. And that sounds old; at this point, that’s been on the shelf for a long time. But for me, it provides endless possibility in terms of color and nuance. And I do love those aspects of the Second Viennese School. For the ordinary listener it’s not as palatable because of the atonality. But as a performer, I find it captivating. I try to teach my students that as well: they are reluctant to take on that music, but hopefully as we cover it in History and Interpretive Analysis, they’ll have a healthy respect for it. So I feel like the Second Viennese School was, in many ways, what launched us into the second half of the twentieth century and set the ball rolling that is relevant to many composers in the U. S. in the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s.

Peter Liebersonis a professor at Harvard who lived in Nova Scotia, Canada, for a while; he was also a Buddhist monk for a while and used to teach in a monastery in Nova Scotia. But his writing, to me, is very engaging. He’s an example of someone who was influenced by that Second Viennese School.

And there are others. There is Alexander Goehr, who is British. Wonderful. Again, very rigorous writing, but highly expressive. He has a piece called “Nonomiya” which is very electric. Elliott Carter is wonderful. The difficult of that is, of course, just the complexity of the writing. And in some ways I think that composers like Carter appeal to the performers and to a very, very narrow elite of listeners. Far more difficult to engage the layperson. But, you can talk about things like metrical modulation, tinkering with rhythm and meter, which would get people fascinated with that parameter of music-making. So there are still ways to bring people in. I don’t know if that answers your question, but I do love 20th-century music. Recently I haven’t had as much time to perform it, because it does take a long time to learn; way longer than any tonal piece. And that’s time that I don’t have at this point. I’m just trying to keep myself technically and musically in the game. But it is something that I do look forward to returning to. I would love to commission a set of works and get back into that and be a champion for works that are being written now. But, sorry to say this: I do think that our audience for music from the past, for the classics, is waning, so that jeopardizes listenership for contemporary works. If they can’t understand older works, works of the “Western Canon,” then we’re going to be hard-pressed to do that successfully with newer pieces.

IA: OK. Well, that’s kind of a depressing note to end on, but that’s everything I wanted to ask!

MC: Well, Sorina, I don’t want to end on that note. It’s in times of desperation when it seems like everything is so bleak, that you end up raising a generation of stalwart visionaries who have the means to bring it back. You do have to meet times before desperate action is taken. It also promises, in the end, in the future, that there will be better times.

IA: And isn’t that what your approach to Beethoven was, in “The Composer’s Response to Crisis”; he had a personal end-of-the-world experience, and then look what came out of it. It could be the same socially, as a whole: if we have a musical crisis going on in the entire culture, well, we’ll rise to the occasion and something totally new and astonishing could come out of it.

MC: Right. And I think what it is, is that the artists have to take charge of this. What has really stunk in the Classical industry is that it’s been the financial end of it that’s driven everything, so we’re constantly shaping ourselves according to what the market demand is and what’s going to sell recordings or what’s going to sell tickets. And we can’t do that, because then we’re not shaping, we’re responding. Every time we’re put in that position, where we’re responding, we’re moving aimlessly and we don’t have direction or vision about where we’ll be in twenty years with Classical music. But then I think we’ll get to a point where it’s so bad that we’ll get people who are true visionaries who say, “We can’t keep doing this.” I think we have people who are doing it in isolation: like Yo-Yo Ma. He works with students in New York City, or he gives benefit concerts, or he talks about music. He’s very engaging. There’s needs to be a solid movement, almost holding hands together and doing this as an entire industry: a cooperative effort to set vision for our discipline, our art. We can’t allow the producers and the record companies to do that, because they have a different agenda in mind, a different goal, which is the dollar. Yes, so, we need visionary artistic leaders. And that will come about. But we’re going to hit some hard times. We’re already there, but I think it is going to get worse before it gets better.

IA: Well, we’ll buckle our seatbelts and hold on!

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