Thursday, 22 August 2013

SOME WORDS with Hong Kong pianist MARY MEI-LOC WU

Hong Kong pianist MARY WU gives her first piano recital in Singapore as part of The Asian Pianist Recital Series at the Singapore Conference Hall on Sunday 25 August 2013 at 7 pm. Her very exciting programme includes Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, Chopin's Third Sonata and works by four Chinese composers, Zhou Long, Bright Sheng, Victor Chan and Joyce Tang. PIANOMANIA is chuffed to catch up with this remarkable and totally personable artist. 

Welcome to Singapore, and it must be daunting to be the first international artist featured in The Asian Pianist Recital Series. You have offered a very varied and eclectic selection of piano repertoire for your recital.

Thank you so much for the invitation. It is my privilege indeed to be here to have this occasion to share some of my absolute favourite music with all of you! Each piece is like a personal song without words from my heart, from Europe (Germany, Poland and France), America (Gershwin) and Asia (China and Hong Kong). Some are inspired by poetry, like Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. Some are inspired by states of mind and vivid images, such Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Joyce Tang’s Splashes and Zhou Long’s Hunters' Dance. I hope there is something for everyone to enjoy.

Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit is the second work in your recital. You were a student of the legendary Vlado Perlemuter, who himself was a student and personal friend of the composer. What insights did he impart to you in the interpretation of this fiendish masterpiece?

Perlemuter worked on the imagination a lot and encouraged me to look into the poems and sense the atmosphere, the possibility of images expressed in certain musical parts. Surprisingly though, he always emphasized how much Ravel preferred to let the music speak itself rather than putting too much freedom into the music. That is always a delicate and difficult balance, something which one comes to terms with and keeps searching for after many years. The balance is difficult because the poems themselves are rhapsodic and illusionary, especially in Scarbo, the final movement which is portrayed as the ever changing being, sometimes mischievous, sometimes horrific, and always mysterious! To be honest, I have been blessed with many great teachers, whose greatness I did not appreciate enough until I looked back as the years passed.

Maurice Ravel at the piano,
with George Gershwin standing at extreme right.

It was Ravel who admitted and joked that he could take lessons from George Gershwin on how to make money! Was this the reason for including Rhapsody in Blue in your programme? More seriously, it is the rhythmic elements and interesting harmonies that unite and separate these works that is intriguing, is it not?

Ha ha! Ravel was in a way kind to refuse giving lessons to Gershwin for fear of the American deviating from his own individual style. Ravel loved jazz, just as Gershwin did, as you can see in this music. The Rhapsody was originally written for big band and piano, and played by Gershwin himself. The sunny rhythmic and harmonic elements are his forté and they always sound so fresh. As for Ravel, his harmonies and rhythms sound much more modern than Gershwin's, even though his pieces were written earlier. Harmonically, he sometimes uses similar jazz-chord formations but put in a much more traditional form that they sound otherworldly.

Chopin is ubiquitous for most piano recitals. The Third Sonata in B minor Op.58 is one of his greatest works. How does one make this overplayed and all-too-familiar music sound fresh and invigorating?

The reason why the Sonata is played so often is because it is such great music. With every great work, one discovers something new every time. Arthur Rubinstein was once asked, after playing Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu 66 times as an encore, "Don't you find it very boring to play this again?" His reply was," Why boring? Every time I play it, it is like seeing a new leaf grow on a tree, fresh and novel," or something to that effect. So in the similar psyché, reliving the progress of a piece, like retelling a story, can be different and exciting each time.

One of the pre-requisites of The Asian Pianist series is to perform music of Asian composers. You have selected not one, not two, but four Chinese works, and all Singaporean premieres. Zhou Long and Bright Sheng, both now based in USA, are fairly well-known names, but not necessarily for piano music. What are their pieces like?

I came across Zhou Long’s and Bright Sheng’s pieces more than twenty years ago first in America and then more recently in Hong Kong. In discussions, I see that these are personal statements of each composer. Zhou relived his unforgettable experiences in Manchuria and Beijing in Hunter's Dance (Wu Kui), while Sheng wrote My Song with an inner voice that he found in himself.

Stylistically they are very different. Zhou's dance is based on three notes, used in all different ways throughout the piece. He mentioned how much he regarded the piano as a percussive instrument and incorporated the Chinese instruments such as the guzheng and pipa sounds in the music. What impressed me most was its middle section. It was for him the memory of seeing, while farming in the fields, fire suddenly break out in a forest, and how herds of deer panted and ran for their lives. It is a very dramatic piece. Incidentally, Zhou Long was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for composition last year.

Sheng's My Song is in four movements: slow, fast, fast and slow. These are like photographs of state of minds: living in the past (a romantic-sounding melody from Qinghai), joyfulness set in a folk dance, a metamorphosis of a simple two-note motif (transforming from mysterious to bombastic) and the last, a nostalgic retrospection.

About the Hong Kong composers, Victor Chan’s Passion Within came about as a response to the 2003 SARS tragedy that almost paralysed Hong Kong and Asia. How does that translate to music?

The very fact that he wrote it just after the fearful and emotional siege of the city, where everybody's lives, rich or poor, was on the line (and some failed to make it through), meant that there is some kind of struggling resolution and relief in the music. The piece is perhaps the most Romantic in style of the four Chinese works. There are many questioning moments, statements of anxiety and sighs. However these are interspersed with really relaxed music, sometimes even salon-like improvisations, casual and free.

We are honoured that you have chosen Singapore to be venue for the World Premiere of Joyce Tang’s Images, Colours, which was dedicated to you. The title of this 3-movement work sounds impressionist, and how does the music move you?

The music is simple yet captivating, especially the first two movements. The Flowing Streams and Song of Crystal Light suggest a transparent texture, and yet the momentum and pace sees choreography and flow to these elegant dance-like pieces. The third piece Splashes is the newest movement. The style is a lot bolder, and if it were calligraphy, the strokes are thicker and perhaps more predictable. It incorporates some Spanish rhythms, some improvisational moments as well as special chosen scales.

Q: The art of the piano recital is in some risk of dying out, judging by concert attendances around the work (excepting events by Lang Lang and Yundi, which have a popstar aura about them). What can artists do to keep this hallowed tradition alive?

Piano music is part of art that is food for the soul, and a transcendental means to reaching another dimension of being. Many popular composers such as Bach and Beethoven strived to attain that. It is certainly not dying out in Hong Kong. Here, and in China, students now learn music and instruments at an early age. They also play and sometimes compete in annual music festivals. Some are required to write concert reports and reviews. There are also many more talks about music, pre- and post-concert discussions. There are many returnees from universities overseas and many international level concerts are created. The atmosphere is pretty vibrant and great musicians are welcomed for their art whatever the repertoire. Government funding is certainly playing a big part in this development.

Ultimately, it is up to the individual to persevere and sustain their choice of passion, and the teachers and educators can help to guide their students to appreciate music more and discover the treasures to enrich their lives.

Did you know that the title of your recital RESPLENDANT HARMONIES was a rough translation of your Chinese name Mei Loc, which essentially means "beautiful music" in Cantonese?

I think that my father must have had fun playing a pun with our names. All five daughters have Loc has our second character-name (San Loc, Gar Loc et al). He loved music but was not allowed to take it as a first study, instead he was made to study Law.

As you know, the Cantonese word loc means “happiness”, and when pronounced ngog, means “music”. So he hoped we would find both happiness and also music in our lives, I think! He also avoided using Ng in our Cantonese surname, and adopted the Mandarin version Wu instead, just as he would avoid ngog. This is so that our names would be more easily pronounced by people. [Mary’s name would have been Ng Mei Ngoc if Cantonese was strictly enforced!] At that time, my oldest sister was named Enloc (which means grace and happiness, or grace and music), when she was born in Shanghai. The rest of us, born in Hong Kong, just followed suit!

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