Sunday, 27 February 2011


with virtuoso pianist

If you are interested in piano music, especially the byways of vast piano literature, you would be daft to miss ALBERT TIU's forthcoming recital at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory on 6 March 2011 at 7.30 pm. Intriguingly entitled CHOPIN WITHOUT CHOPIN, it is a celebration of Chopin's piano legacy without actually including a single note of Chopin. Instead, one will be enthralled by a selection of Godowsky's Chopin Études, Busoni's Chopin Variations, Skryabin's only Polonaise and Rachmaninov's ambitious Chopin Variations. Here is an interview with the intrepid Filipino master of the keyboard, exclusively on PianoMania!

You hail from the isles of Cebu in the Philippines, perhaps better known for its beaches and diving sites. What was cultural life growing up in Cebu like?

As everyone probably knows, the Filipinos are naturally musical people. Long before American Idol, amateur singing contests were very popular in the Philippines. However there was very little exposure to classical music in Cebu. Once in a while, there would be a recital by a foreign pianist, which would then attract all the classical music enthusiasts. I remember that one such recital was by Klaus Börner, who would several years later adjudicate at the Rolex International Piano Competition in Singapore!

Were your parents musical? And how did you first get involved in music and the piano in particular?

No, my parents were not musical at all, but I have an older sister who taught me the piano, as well as music theory. Lots of households had a piano, so it was kind of natural for kids to take piano lessons. But of course, no one ever dreamed of becoming a serious pianist.

Your musical studies took you to Manila, Hong Kong and onward to Boston and the Juilliard School. How did this happen?

I was studying at the University of the Philippines (Manila) when I first came to Singapore to participate in the Rolex Competition in 1989. The winner of that competition was Ma Cong, who was studying with John Winther at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. The following year, Mr Winther came to Manila to recruit singers, and I happened to be accompanying some of them. I was so delighted when he offered me a scholarship to study with him, which I accepted immediately. After Hong Kong, I went on to study with Michael Lewin at the Boston Conservatory. I am very grateful to him for guiding my path towards Juilliard, because I’ll always remember my experiences there and in New York.

Albert Tiu's Alice Tully Hall recital in 1998 (left).

With his teachers Michael Lewin (left)
and Jerome Lowenthal (right).

Who were your principal teachers for the piano, and what values with respect to piano technique and literature did they impart to you?

In Cebu, I had a very good teacher named Nelly Castro. She really opened my eyes and ears to the possibilities of the piano. When I was studying in Manila, Nita Quinto taught me economy of movement. John Winther taught me to look beyond the piano for inspiration, and to play in a stylish manner. With Michael Lewin, I learned the importance of ownership; it simply wasn’t good enough to play something well, because I had to “own” every piece I played. At Juilliard, I learned more about being an individual artist under Jerome Lowenthal, and he influenced me to approach music intellectually and intelligently. I really value this last bit, because I have learned to balance emotion with intellect.

You are a veteran in international piano competitions. One of your earliest competitions was the Rolex International Piano Competition (Singapore) in 1989, when you performed Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto with the SSO. What were you thinking performing that concerto?

I must say that the Brahms was my teacher’s choice. I very much wanted to do the Tchaikovsky First, but my teacher convinced me that Brahms had a lot more to offer. Looking back, I admit that Tchaikovsky would have been a better choice (which meant that there would have been three Tchaikovsky performances in the final!), simply because I lacked the intellectual and emotional maturity to fully understand the Brahms at that time.

First Prize at the 1996 UNISA Competition
in Pretoria, South Africa with joint runners-up
Andreas Woyke and Dmitri Teterin.

You’ve also had major prizes in competitions in Pretoria, Calgary and Helsinki. Which of these, for you, was the most memorable?

It would have to be Pretoria in 1996 (above), not just because I won 1st Prize, but also because of all the events surrounding it. South Africa seemed a really exotic destination for a piano competition, so a few of us from Juilliard went just for the sheer heck of it. When I arrived at the airport, I was whisked away by people from the Philippine Embassy. I have never in my life been treated with such amazing hospitality by people who knew nothing about me, except for my nationality. They had organised a party for me during my first night in Pretoria, and one American diplomat at the party made a random statement, “You will win 1st Prize.” Of course, I thought it was total crap, since he knew nothing about music or competitions.

The small Filipino community there was so supportive, and they came to listen whenever I played. One woman told me that she had a dream in which I won First Prize. I’m not a superstitious person, so I never thought that these were omens. So when it was announced that I had won the 2 concerto prizes (for Mozart and Romantic), I almost died onstage, because I knew by then that I had won. And to top it all, my wife Susan was there to share my joy. In fact, she came on Valentine’s Day, just in time for the finals, carrying my black tails.

Also, during the month before the Pretoria competition, I had been in another competition in Alabama in which I played the Rachmaninov Second Concerto, and I also played the Lou Harrison First Concerto with the New Juilliard Ensemble a week later. It was such a hectic period of my life, so looking back, I don’t know how I did it.

Master of champions, with prize-winning students
Azariah Tan, Li Zhen and Maria Immaculata Setiadi
at the 2009 National Piano Competition.

Still on competitions, many of your students at the Conservatory have distinguished themselves winning top prizes in the National Piano Competition. What is your secret in excelling in concours?

There is no secret. Some people think that they can play according to the taste of the jury members, which is impossible to do, if you have three or more different individuals. Perhaps one key is to choose repertoire suitable to one’s personality and to play it really well. And it doesn’t have to be very difficult repertoire. In fact, I know one pianist, Pierre Mancinelli, who played some Bach Inventions and went on to win 3rd Prize in Helsinki. If you believe strongly in what you’re doing, that vibe usually goes through to the listener.

Having attended most of your recitals and concerto concerts, it appears that piano music of the Romantic era captivates you most. What draws you to the piano music of Chopin, Skryabin, Rachmaninov and Godowsky (above)?

One of these days, I’m going to do a recital called Mozart and Haydn on Clementi (Road)! And don’t forget the 3 B’s – Bolcom, Berio and Boulez! There are so many thematic programmes I would like to do, but haven’t gotten to them yet.

I guess I feel the closest affinity to Romantic music because of the sumptuous chromaticism and lush textures. Chopin and Skryabin, because of their lyrical treatment of the piano; Rachmaninov, because he took piano writing to stratospheric heights, even when people thought that the idiom he was writing in had already been exhausted; and Godowsky, because of the clever inventiveness with which he spun other composers’ music. Besides, who knew that one can keep adding layers and layers of counterpoint and still sound so beautiful? Some of those Chopin Studies are so deceptively difficult, because they are a bit like juggling eight balls and yet have to sound ethereally fluid.

You’ve given the Singapore premieres of Rachmaninov’s First Sonata and Barber’s Piano Concerto. You also gave possibly the world’s first piano recital for music for the right hand alone. A recent CD recording Nocturnal Fantasies (left) juxtaposes Chopin with Skryabin, and your latest recital is about Chopin, but without Chopin’s music. What influences the unique nature of your programming?

As students, we learn a diversity of music that traverses the Baroque, Classic, Romantic and Contemporary periods, so that we get a well-rounded musical education. Doing all those piano competitions, the repertoire requirements in some of them were quite specific, which I felt limited one’s potential. While I was still at Juilliard, I started to discover a wealth of seldom-performed repertoire, which really appealed to me. Not that there was anything wrong with playing Chopin’s G minor Ballade or Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, but I simply felt that I needed to explore music beyond the usual suspects.

I remember playing the Rachmaninov First Sonata in one competition, and John Browning, who was on the jury, said that it was absolutely stunning. I also played Stockhausen’s Piano Piece No.5 a lot, and members of the jury and audience would say that it was refreshing to hear something different. I did the Sweelinck Variations, the Mendelssohn Fantasie (Op.28) and the Tchaikovsky Grand Sonata, and they all served me really well. So I guess all of these experiences have stuck with me, so much so that after so long of going outside of the box, I felt that it was time to now go back inside the box!

I think it’s simply too formulaic and predictable to play a recital with a “balanced” programme, so I began to think of thematic programming. By putting a “box” on my recital programmes, I thought that it would give people something to think and talk about, instead of just another recital. My right hand recital was done out of necessity, because of my dislocated left thumb. I don’t think I’ll ever do it again, unless something happens to my left hand again (knock on wood)!

Rumour has it that you’ll be tackling Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto next. Tell us about the future.

Ha! Where did you hear that rumour? This means I have to practice eight hours a day from now on! Rach 3 is really the pinnacle of piano writing in a concerto, so I’m really looking forward to it with the Orchestra of the Music Makers on August 26th. I’ll be doing quite a bit of chamber music in the next several months: the Beethoven and Brahms Quintets in the SSO Chamber Series on April 17th, the Brahms Quintet with the Australian String Quartet in May, the Coriole Music Festival in South Australia in May, and a recital with Li-Wei Qin in Germany in July. Li-Wei and I will also be recording the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata, along with other short pieces.

Albert Tiu was interviewed by PianoManiac.

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