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Chopin Competition Aftermath: Breakfast with Tony Yang

The world has during October enjoyed almost one entire month of excellent Chopin performances at the 18th International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Taking place every five years, the 2020 edition was postponed one year, in order to make a live competition possible for both contestants and live audiences. Many have enjoyed the performances live and via streaming and the “now factor” has been very well provided for. But what about after-Warsaw? From this perspective Piano Street will publish some articles and interviews dealing with laureates and their life after the Grand Competition. During his visit to Warsaw, Patrick Jovell had a breakfast talk with laureate 2015 Tony Yang, the youngest prize winner ever – in the history of the competition.

Patick Jovell: You were the 5th prize laureate back in 2015 and also, at 16 the youngest ever. What have you been up to since then and what did the prize mean to your personal and professional life?

Tony Yang: My prize at the 2015 Chopin Competition came at a rather unexpected time for me. I was in my final year of high school at the time, and I had originally planned to participate in the competition with the mindset of trying to garner as much experience as possible so that I could have my aims a bit higher for the 2020/21 edition of the competition. Without a doubt, the prize from Chopin was my stepping stone into the classical music industry, and for me, this prize will always remain humbly in my heart as a symbolic figure of new beginnings in both my personal and professional life.

Since the competition, I’ve worked a lot on expanding my repertoire, I’ve performed quite a bit, and I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of interesting musicians along the way –– some of which have become my closest friends & dearest mentors. At the age of 16, I felt that there was still so much more pianistic, artistic, and personality searching to do that most of my time with music since the competition has been spent on precisely that –– exploring different schools of technique, of music-making, and of temperament.

On the other hand, I have also been very fortunate since the competition to have had the chance to pursue my undergraduate education at Harvard University. However, my major there was not music, but instead I focused on Economics and Psychology. After taking some time off school during the pandemic, I am on my way to completing my final semester there in the spring of 2022. I must say though, despite having chosen to lead a double life in university, music is and has always been the dearest love and passion for me.

PJ: You are now studying at Harvard. What can you tell me about your other interests in life besides the piano?

TY: At Harvard, my classes have been mainly centered around Economics and Psychology, though I’ve also been fortunate to have also had the chance to enroll in a wide selection of other classes such as Spanish, Incan History, Film Studies, Planetary Science, and even music improvisation since the course quantity requirements for Econ and Psych at Harvard are rather light.

In general, I’ve always seemed to enjoy exploring a wide variety of interests, and as I look back, I think it’s been quite beneficial for me personally to sometimes explore those interests. Living a diverse and (hopefully) open-minded life has, in a way, helped me develop a greater appreciation and understanding of the human life. Exploring my other interests has been helpful in enhancing the way I feel music and deepening my relationship to the art that we aim to live.

PJ: Some Chopin Competition laureates find themselves labeled as being solely Chopin pianists. Which repertoire besides Chopin interests you?

TY: It’s always changing, and I guess it really depends on the state of my mind at the moment. Each musician goes through different phases at different times, and I think it’s absolutely wonderful that there is such a significant catalogue of beautiful and profound piano repertoire that we can always find ourselves satisfied with and grateful for.

As of now, I have a deep fascination with the music of J. S. Bach. In particular, his Art of Fugue collection as well as his infamous Goldberg Variations have been staples of my classical music listening, though I have yet to play either of the two pieces. Russian piano music has also been of great interest to me — anything from Prokofiev’s eighth sonata to Shostakovich’s second sonata to Feinberg’s twelfth sonata. I recently worked on Rachmaninoff’s second piano sonata, and I recall it as being one of the most enjoyable pieces I’ve ever performed in public.

And of course, the music of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms each also have their own, special places in my heart.

PJ: What would you say characterises excellent Chopin playing?

TY: If I had to give a succinct answer, I would probably narrow it down to four key points:

1. Nobility: the understanding that Chopin was an aristocrat and led a noble, maestoso life. No gimmicks, abrupt surprises for the sake of creating contrast, or caricatures should be made of his music.

2. Nostalgia: the reason why I think Chopin’s music is so timeless (in addition to his jaw-droppingly beautiful melodies) is because it carries so much history, so many memories. In my opinion, his music is built on a perfectly balanced encounter of his current experiences at the time of writing, and his past memories/experiences, as if there was no boundary between the two. As Chopin lived in France for longer and longer, he was infamously homesick for Poland, and we must understand this especially as we interpret his later works. To me, it’s almost as if his music was a traditionally Polish dish (albeit extremely personalized) enhanced by some subtle but traditionally French flavourings.

3. Drama: just because Chopin was small in physical stature and could not produce a particularly loud sound didn’t mean his heart or his will was any smaller than anyone else. His works such as Fantasy, the Second & Third Sonatas, the Preludes, and the Revolutionary Etude are, in my opinion, among a few of piano literature’s most dramatic and passionate works, and while it is important to never have a bangy sound, one should never hold back in sections which require this kind of insurmountable energy. In other words, it’s important to let free sometimes and to not be too careful.

4. Simplicity: as they say, simplicity is the final achievement. By this, it’s important not to perceive it as a passive behavior, but rather, think of it as a blanket term for honest & sincere playing. Narrative playing that comes straight from the heart without any mental or physical barriers. No effects for the sake of having effects and creating contrasts. All rubato, phrasings… natural, subtle, and never overdone.

If the Chopin playing at hand is able to find a tasteful balance of these four points, it would be excellent Chopin playing in my opinion.


Hear Tony Yang’s performance of the Barcarolle in F sharp major Op. 60 during the 2015 Prize-winners’ Concert:

PJ: You are also an Artist-in-Residence at Ingesund Piano Center in Arvika, Sweden, which offers young world-class pianists the support to cultivate international, sustainable and high-profile performing careers. What can you tell me about your experiences there?

TY: The Ingesund Piano Center in Arvika, Sweden has been a home base of mine since September of 2020. Led by the incomparably amazing Prof. Julia Mustonen-Dahlkvist, the Ingesund Piano Center provides all of its Artists-in-Residence with top-class training, practice facilities, and most importantly, an incredibly supportive, open-minded, and generous environment in which we have the total freedom to explore and be ourselves.

Having been a city person for the vast majority of my life, relocating to a small town void of traffic lights in the middle of the Swedish forest has definitely been a huge change for me, but the fact that it is this place in the middle of nowhere has also helped me find greater peace and focus in my life. But despite it being a smaller place, we are constantly given many opportunities to perform for the surrounding community, take part in recording projects, and much more that serves as great ground for adventure, pumping out new repertoire, and preparing for major events.

PJ: What advice would you give to those thinking about entering the Chopin Competition in Warsaw?

TY: The Chopin Competition is certainly unlike any other competition out there. Most obviously, everyone is more or less playing the same repertoire. The level of exposure one gets from taking part in this competition is also quite incomparable. But because everyone is playing the same repertoire, I feel like the Chopin Competition is so much more about artistry or interpretation than any other competition. I’ve been to some other competitions where I’ve heard people told off just because of their repertoire choice. For example, “you shouldn’t have programmed so many unknown pieces” or “you would have been more impressive have you programmed that instead of the piece that you did”. At Chopin, there isn’t really much choice to the diversity of repertoire one can select, so things like the aforementioned don’t really matter. One doesn’t have to worry about their Beethoven concerto being uncompetitive to someone else’s Rach 3 just because of the piece itself. So in this way, the focus on tasteful music making and sheer artistry tends to be so much clearer at the Chopin Competition, so it would be good to keep that in mind when making preparations.

But in general, I’d say that as with participation in any competition, it’s important always to be able to step back sometimes from the heat of competing and view things from a grander perspective. The purpose of competing at any competition should be so much greater than just that competition alone. I truly believe that love and passion are the greatest guiders in life, and if you truly love the music that you’re playing and the work that you’re doing, it’s so important to hold those feelings and thoughts dear to you, and to not get too lost in the competitive mindset/environment. If the true purpose and intentions of your music-making are pure & clear, it will shine unavoidably bright and beautifully in your playing.


/patrick

  1. Camille Says:

    Studying at Harvard while also studying piano and performing at an international standard?? Amazing! It’s these super human talents who can do everything who win prizes at the Chopin Competition!! Us normal mortals can only dream ;)

  2. Kamil K. Says:

    Very interesting interview.

  3. Karl Schutz Says:

    I didn’t know there were places for international standard pianists to do a piano retreat in Sweden… I don’t know of any high profile pianists coming from Sweden? Isn’t Germany or France better?

  4. John Says:

    Dude, how does this guy have time for everything? Like it sounds like he does everything at the same time. I struggle to even have time to cook myself a meal with college and all lol

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