Who or what inspired you to take up the piano nd pursue a career in music?
I don’t recall myself the beginnings of my musical studies, but it was my parents who made the decision. They loved Classical Piano, and specifically my father, who was exposed to the rigors of Classical Piano training through his sister. She had studied seriously in NY, and turned to teaching because of a hand injury.
Playing piano was part of the process of growing up and getting education – which also included school, sports, cub scouts, etc.
The idea of pursuing a career in piano evolved steadily and slowly, but unconsciously, on my part and on the part of my parents. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20’s that I consciously made that decision. By then, of course, I had already attended two of the greatest music schools in the world (Indiana University and Juilliard), played around the world, made recordings and had management! I realized that I could pursue a number of different careers, but that, given my training, playing the piano was the most interesting and rewarding path. From that point, I doubled down on my commitments and focus. And it hasn’t stopped since!
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Having Classical music playing 24/7 in my parents’ house since before I was born made a huge difference. I still play some of those recordings virtually in my head. My brother (a 1st violinist in the Chicago Symphony) and I lived within music, not realizing how unusual it was to have that kind of upbringing.
Each of my teachers brought me an essential element at the right time. I think about their teaching regularly as I continue down my path.
In terms of icons, I was most influenced by 3 pianists: Horowitz, who taught me what the piano can do, through his amazing recordings. Richter, who taught me how to position yourself relative to the music when performing. And Glenn Gould, who taught me why one should explore music and performance.
Later, when I was in Paris, I discovered Alfred Cortot, who embodies all of that. His words about music (and I feel grateful to have learned French, if only to be able to understand Cortot in his mother tongue) are able to describe music in a way that I have not found anywhere else.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Balancing career building with other aspects of life – family, health, friends, other interests. I often leave piano playing to the end, which is both a plus and a minus. A Minus because sometimes I don’t spend the time I truly should, when I truly should, focusing on career development, piano development, etc. It’s a Plus because, coming at the end of a long to do list, my playing really becomes a receptacle for all of the thoughts and ideas that the other activities inspired. It’s where I’ve always processed all of my thoughts and feelings, and I think it has become richer for that.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
That’s like – “Which of your children are you most proud of.”!! I can say something about every album that has come out!
Transcriptions: part of the leading edge of the acceptance of Transcriptions in the repertoire.
Complete Prokofiev Sonatas: Wow, I actually recorded this!
Mendelssohn Sonatas: So happy this is one of my best-selling albums – the music is amazing, confident, historically significant AND people recognized this.
Rossini Sins of Old Age: I learned how to produce an album (under dire circumstances!) through this fun, virtuosic recording.
Chopin Etudes Opus 10 and Rondeaux: A complete change in my approach to Chopin, plus doing the 2-piano recording, playing with technology!
Liszt Annees de Pelerinage: My first big concert in Paris was playing this cycle. So moving to get to put it down for posterity.
Schubert/Liszt Schwanengesang: Intermingling one of the greatest achievements of Liszt with some of the most important personal relationships in my life.
Reflections – Ravel, Decaux, Schoenberg: I consider this my greatest contribution to the part of programming – discovering Decaux and using those pieces to bridge the chasm between impressionism and expressionism.
Chopin Complete Mazurkas: Chopin possibly used every iteration of ¾ time available somewhere in this genre. I wanted to create a CD that could be compelling but also play in the background, and I think I succeeded.
Chopin Etudes Opus 25 and late works: Making a link between works of Chopin that have not been associated before. And being able to record the great late Chopin works.
Brahms Violin Sonatas (with Pierre Amoyal): Brahms Sonatas, what more need I say?
Grieg Violin Sonatas (with Pierre Amoyal): beautiful, unrecognized pieces. Pierre and I both entered into a world of discovery with this recording and bonded in a wonderful way.
Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet: My favorite recording of my own to listen to. The rhythms and melodies are endlessly fascinating and compelling, no matter how many times I listen.
Prokofiev Volume 5, early works: Fugitive Visions and Sarcasms – love the contrast between these two early works.
Prokofiev Volume 6: middle works: Obscure sets that are never played, but which illuminate an important time of Prokofiev’s life. It’s impossible to understand his music without knowing these works.
Prokofiev Volume 7: children theme: I have always loved music for/about children, and Prokofiev has a special connection to this theme as well.
Prokofiev Volume 8: a kind of wrap-up of the complete set, but includes the Choses en soi, which exemplify the turmoil within Prokofiev that eventually led him to return to the Soviet Union.
Prokofiev Volume 9: transcriptions: Includes my complete Lt Kije Suite, as well as the Divertissement – never played and beautifully complex.
Prokofiev Volume 10: Violin Sonatas: an important annex to the three “war sonatas” that tell an important part of the Prokofiev life journey in music.
Beethoven Symphony V – My first independently produced album, working with the great Judy Sherman. I felt great putting this together from A to Z.
Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals – so wonderfully fun working with David Gonzalez, story-teller.
Distant Voices – truly a revolutionary recording, using Disklavier technology to be able to produce a great audio CD AND an incredible video DVD and DisklavierTV show. This is the future!
Hymns & Dervishes: A successful Kickstarter project, this recording has been maturing in my mind for over 15 years, and will finally be out in 2016. The fundraising and recording processes have brought incredible depth and richness to the project, and to me in general.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I love Prokofiev, and feel I’ve aptly demonstrated how diverse and richly nuanced his music actually is, compared to the cliches that surround him and his work. In particular, perhaps the Toccata, Fugitive Visions, Sixth Sonata and Seventh Sonatas have most benefited from that. I would love to present the 4th Concerto more often. It’s not just a work for left-handed or Russian pianists!
I love Mendelssohn’s Opus 6 Sonata, and no one plays it, for some reason.
I love transcriptions, and hope I bring a special attention and passion for them in concert. I’m especially proud of my Lt Kije transcriptions.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I have some recurring themes and ideas – Prokofiev, Classical Smackdown, French impressionists, Transcriptions, unusual collaborations. I have the luxury of following my sense of where I am and where the world is. From the time I decided to forgo the competition circuit, the freedom of exploring and presenting repertoire has been wonderfully inspiring. That inspiration has continued to this day (almost 30 years). My choices almost always come from taking the perspective of the open but untrained listener, willing to take a chance with a new musical experience. This has a huge influence on my choice of repertoire and the structure of the programs that I put together.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
My nostalgic favorite is the Salle Cortot, in the Ecole Normale of Paris 17th. I played there the first time in Paris, and have since played there over 20 times. It is a beautiful wooden hall that seats 440, designed by the same architect who went on to build the Theatre des Champs Elysées.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
I love to listen to jazz and Middle Eastern music. Things with a strong rhythmic element and an improvisational aspect. I relate to rhythm deeply, and I am terrible at improvising, so that is kind of aspirational to me! It puts together my best and my worst qualities in playing!
Who are your favourite musicians?
My favorite musicians today? I think that I’m not that inspired by musicians in general. I feel much more like a conduit of other kinds of perspectives and thinking, and channeling them into my own music-making as a communication tool. I’m not a big concert-goer, but when I do go, it’s usually for friends, and I’m totally connected with them and the music-making experience.
If I had to name names, I would include Valery Gergiev.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
One striking memory is my first exposure to Horowitz at Carnegie Hall. It was the premier screening of “The Last Romantic,” a concert filmed in his NY apartment, and a prelude to (one of) his return to the stage the following year. I remember the visual experience resonating with the sonic experience to make something so compelling, so hallucinating. It was my first time in Carnegie Hall. Everything came together that evening.
Soon after, I bought the soundtrack, and realized that, without the visual element, the performance was actually quite lacking in some ways. It was a ground-breaking discovery on my part.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Be sure of your vision first, and then be open to others’ ideas. Bring your vision to others, but be ready to interact with their ideas. Not having your own values and vision means you have no convictions, an unclear profile. Not being open others’ ideas means you are just barrelling through life and not relevant.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Moving around the world, doing residencies that allow building musical relationships and programs with roots.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Being with my wife with a group of friends.
What is your most treasured possession?
None. I could see giving up anything as long as I’m healthy.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Reading and thinking.
What is your present state of mind?
Frederic Chiu’s intriguing piano-playing and teaching springs from a diverse set of experiences and interests: his Asian/American/European background, his musical training, and an early and ongoing exploration of artificial intelligence and human psychology, especially the body-mind-heart connection.
Find out more here