“Music is not an escape from life; it is a doorway into life.” ~Frederic Chiu
With a vibrant concert schedule, a legacy of 28 CDs, and a stream of superlatives from major critics around the globe, pianist Frederic Chiu occupies a special place in the world of classical music. In an eclectic career encompassing unusual collaborations and little-played repertoire, along with explorations into the psychology of performance, Chiu has demonstrated an ability to go beyond boundaries. Not coincidentally, this long-term Yamaha Artist also helped the instrument company establish its brand as one the world’s great piano makers by providing important feedback to technicians as they developed the newest models: acoustic, digital, and hybrid.
The accolades tell part of the story. Reviewers have called his recorded performances “playing on an exalted level” (Fanfare), and “stunningly virtuosic… [with a] sense of spontaneity [that] is often incandescent” (BBC Music Magazine). The New Yorker included his version of Liszt’s Années de Pélérinage, Italie among their “Best Classical Albums of 2001.” His Mendelssohn Sonatas—selected as “Record of the Year” by Stereo Review—became a best-seller in the classical piano category.
Live performances continue to play a major role in his life. Chiu has toured Europe and the U.S. with the Orchestre de Bretagne and Stefan Sanderling. He has played with the Hartford Symphony, Dayton Philharmonic, Kansas City Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony, BBC Scottish Symphony, BBC Concert Orchestra, Estonia National Symphony, China National Symphony, the FOSJE Orquesta in Ecuador, among others. In recital he performs in the world’s most prestigious halls including the Berlin Philharmonic, Kioi and Suntory Halls in Tokyo, Lincoln Center in New York and Kennedy Center in Washington DC. Chiu’s musical partners include Joshua Bell, Pierre Amoyal, Elmar Oliveira, Gary Hoffman, David Krakauer, Matt Haimovitz and the St. Lawrence, Shanghai and Daedalus string quartets. He has worked with many composers, including George Crumb, Frederick Rzewsky, Bright Sheng, Gao Ping and David Benoit.
But recordings have always represented a strikingly unique aspect of his life’s work. His most recent discs include Liszt’s arrangement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and 7, Saint-Saën’s Carnival of the Animals (with storyteller David Gonzalez), and Hymns and Dervishes—music by Gurdjieff and de Hartmann. The range of repertoire demonstrates the adventurousness that has captivated his fans.
Frederic Chiu’s early career followed traditional avenues. His awards and competition wins included the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, Juilliard’s Petschek Award, and wins at contests run by the Music Teachers National Association and the Beethoven Foundation (now the American Pianists Association). He was a “non-winner” of the 1993 Van Cliburn Competition, where his elimination from the finals caused an uproar in the press.
“They were very supportive afterward,” recalls Chiu. “They had me back in Ft. Worth every year for eight or 10 years, playing, going to schools, doing outreach. I was very happy doing that.”
Yet, being out of the competition circuit gave him the freedom to explore music that was not “the core repertoire” for those contests. That included transcriptions—his first foray into recording—and the music of Prokofiev, for which he has been acclaimed.
Another area of interest involves the intricacies of the performing experience. “In my workshops, I deal with the balance between body, mind and heart,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of thinking and analysis from a pianist’s perspective, especially using ‘affect theory,’ as developed by Dr. Silvan Tomkins.”
Chiu has been a Yamaha Artist since 1988, when he began practicing on pianos in the company’s Paris studios during his years living in France. He was one of the first people to buy a GranTouch, he reveals. “I saw a prototype made for Sviatoslav Richter, who needed a practice piano for traveling. I practiced exclusively on one for years, using it as a silent keyboard, for low-volume practicing—which pushes your muscles—and employing earphones to develop right brain/left brain coordination. Over the years, I also witnessed the development of the CFX, an amazing instrument.”
One of the fruits of that association is the first classical piano recording produced by Yamaha Entertainment Group, Frederic Chiu: Distant Voices, which brings together piano music of Claude Debussy and Gao Ping. Technological advances have been stunning, Chiu says. “In just three days we were able to produce an audio product, a video shoot, and a Disklavier program,” he says with amazement.
Playing it forwrd
What is next on the horizon? No doubt there will be ongoing collaborations, in the model of his work with Shakespearean actor Brian Bedford, hip-hop artist Socalled, and psychologist/writer/clown Howard Buten. And provocative audience-participation projects, like his ongoing Classical Smackdown series (ClassicalSmackdown.com). As always, Chiu will also find time for writing, painting and cooking, and leading activities at Beechwood Arts, an arts immersion non-profit he co-founded with his wife, Jeanine Esposito, in Connecticut, his current home. A major addition to his activities is his teaching—he is on the faculty at both Carnegie Mellon University, as well as The Hartt School. He accepts a limited number of undergraduate and graduate students, who learn the lesson that Chiu himself has learned: Music is not an escape from life; it is a doorway into life.
Frederic Chiu’s Piano
He has been a Yamaha artist for 32 years, and currently has an S4 and a DCFX at home, as well as a PSR OR700 keyboard and a GranTouch.
Frederic Chiu’s Market Place
His website store offers music scores of his arrangements, CDs, private lessons, and more.
Interview with Frederic Chiu
Chuck Schiele: You have a flourishing career. You are acknowledged to be pioneering. And it looks like you’re having a blast doing it. What is your perspective and/or philosophy on the success of all this?
Frederic Chiu I started my piano life doing things the way one is supposed to, as dictated by parents, teachers, institutions, and the industry in general, and that provided me with a great foundation. Then I went through a crisis period, where I couldn’t practice regularly for seven months, and that turned me in a different direction, where I had to look inside and find my own motivations and drive. That kind of transition is something we all need to go through, and those who do, whether by guidance or by happenstance (as in my case), end up thriving. Yes, I’m having a blast doing it, because I think it is all coming from my desire to share, versus any sense of doing what’s expected. That desire is heartfelt and enthusiastic, which is why people enjoy it so much!
Chuck Schiele: You’ve spent so much of your life at the piano. How is the view from your vantage point?
Frederic Chiu: Life as a musician, and specifically as a pianist, is a completely fulfilled life. Playing the piano requires maximum training and engagement of our body, our mind, and our heart. No activity causes as much brain stimulation as making and listening to music. So, when we play fully, we’re exercising everything. In the other direction, when we exercise our body, our mind, or our heart in our day-to-day life, we are also giving our music-making more to work with. So it is a beautiful cycle, where playing better makes our life better, and living better makes our music better.
Chuck Schiele: Please tell us about the essence of Classical piano.
Frederic Chiu: Classical piano involves a complex mix of ego and sublimation, of creating and channeling. It is historical, and at the same time completely current and ephemeral. We play the same piece over and over, and we are given the opportunity to discover more and more in the piece each time. It’s like cooking—we don’t recreate a major masterpiece at every meal, but we can enjoy ourselves immensely every time we eat!
Chuck Schiele: What are the things that keep you interested and inspired as an artist?
Frederic Chiu: I work with teachers, with students, with chamber music colleagues, with composers, with non-musicians. What inspires me is a vision that is clear, a personality that is clear, and the opportunity to put that up against my own vision and personality. When the frontiers push against each other, something new forms. As my wife (an innovation specialist) says, innovation happens at the intersection of disciplines. That’s what I’m particularly interested in.
Chuck Schiele: Please tell us a bit about your piano-keyboard, and the gear associated with it.
Frederic Chiu: For many years, I did all of my practicing on a GranTouch, the precursor to Yamaha’s current AvantGrand series. This is a grand piano keyboard in a case with no strings, and sampled grand piano sound. While that does not sound like it could be an expressive instrument, I learned so much from working on it, including how much of piano expression is located in timing, dynamics, and layering, elements that any basic keyboard will provide you. Of course, my ultimate goal is an amazing acoustic grand piano, and I have a beautiful Yamaha S4 that, over the years, has been fine-tuned by a single piano tech (Eric Johnson) which has made it practically an extension of myself. I just recently started working on a Disklavier CFX which I look forward to tailoring in the same way! For special recording and performing projects, I’ve used a PSR OR700 keyboard that allows me to tune individual notes independently. I’ve used all of the various hybrid Yamaha keyboards in concert at some point or another. Particularly the Disklavier, which I’ve played in concert in a piano duo with my virtual self!
Chuck Schiele: Are there things that happen in your off-stage life that factor into your onstage world?
Frederic Chiu: Everything. What happens in my off-stage life is what makes my onstage performance as rich as it is. It’s the same body/mind/heart that I present onstage that is going through all of my off-stage experiences. They enrich each other, so I don’t see any separation there at all.
Chuck Schiele: What are your paramount thoughts as you take the stage?
Frederic Chiu: I encourage my students to go on stage with the thought “What mistakes will I make this time?” This puts you in a mindset of expecting and looking for mistakes, which dampens that reaction of surprise when mistakes do happen. Often, surprise is the first step towards a snowballing of reactions that we generally label “Stage Fright.” Looking for mistakes will nip a lot of that in the bud. The unexpected result is that you make less mistakes.
Chuck Schiele: What is the number one thing on your mind as you practice?
Frederic Chiu: I’m in the same state as when I perform. I’m constantly watching myself, looking at my body/mind/heart reactions and trying to understand them, remember them.
Chuck Schiele: What would you say to a kid interested in picking up the piano and music in general?
Frederic Chiu: I truly don’t know. Here is what I do know: I don’t believe in making it fun or enjoyable for kids at all times. I think one of the biggest lessons in classical music is learning the satisfaction of discipline, the joy of postponed satisfaction. And there is a long period of training and building that has to be accomplished while one is still too young to know what is on the other side. This is an area where I truly believe that the vision of parents and teachers is crucial. If a kid is interested, all power to him/her, while it lasts. If a kid is not interested (and the kid who is interested will eventually also lose interest), that is where the teacher/parent needs the magic touch.
Chuck Schiele: What an incredible answer… “postponed satisfaction.” Wow. I ask this all the time. I’ve never heard this insight. Thank you. On the other side of this question, please share with us your thoughts on the discipline of listening.
Frederic Chiu: The art of listening to piano music specifically is very special and important. Because it is the only instrument that can, in real time, controlled by one person, play more than one note at a time, with each note played with a different pitch, duration, dynamic, color, attack. Because of that, playing and listening to the piano takes you deeper and deeper into discernment, into layering, into nuances.