From Warsaw to Singapore: An Interview with Chopin Competition sensation Kate Liu, Altenburg Arts director Lionel Choi and OMM Music Director Chan Tze Law
Audiences will finally get to watch Singapore-born pianist Kate Liu, Bronze medalist at the 17th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition Bronze, perform on home ground – not once but twice, thanks to a special collaboration between Altenburg Arts and Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM). Choose between a Mozart piano concerto with OMM or a recital of works by Mozart, Chopin and Brahms. Or better yet, both.
Aileen Tang talks to Kate Liu about her much-anticipated “homecoming”, and to Chan Tze Law, OMM’s Music Director, and Lionel Choi, Director of Alternburg Arts and former Singapore International Piano Festival director, about how these 2 evenings were made possible. Interview responses have been edited for publication purposes.
The Flying Inkpot: Kate, you were born in Singapore but moved to the United States when you were 8. Have you been back often since then?
Kate Liu: I haven’t been back to Singapore as much as I would have liked, unfortunately! It is a long trip from the United States, and I don’t have any relatives there. I think I have only been back once since I moved.
TFI: So casting your mind back, what are your fondest memories of Singapore?
KL: Some of my fondest memories from childhood were from the outdoor market that was next to my home in Holland Village. My sister and I used to buy snacks and other food items from there all the time.
TFI: What was the impact of your move to the United States in shaping your career?
KL: Moving to the US had a huge impact in shaping my career, just because of how big the musical scene is there. As a child growing up, I was surrounded by talented colleagues and the knowledge of great artists, which both educated and pushed me to become the musician that I am today. I was also lucky enough to have been able to study with some of the best teachers in the musical field. [Ed: her teachers include Alan Chow, Micah Yui and Emilio del Rosario at the Music Institute of Chicago]
TFI: You’ve won prizes at numerous international competitions, most notably 3rd prize – and the audience favourite – at the International Chopin Piano Competition in 2015. Can you share something particularly memorable about any of the competitions?
KL: The International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw was one of the most important events of my life, one which launched my career and status as a musician. There were so many wonderful memories from that time: meeting the other competitors, playing in the great Warsaw Philharmonic Hall, playing with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra, and so much more. One thing I will never forget — and which remains very visceral in my mind to this day — was the moment right before the finals, when I was about to step out on stage to play the concerto [Ed: Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor, Op. 11]. I was a bundle of nervousness, excitement, and nostalgia already, as I knew it was going to be my last performance of the competition. I remember thinking, “This is it. Play the music.”
TFI: How does it feel, coming back to Singapore to perform? Is it a bit of a “homecoming” for you?
KL: It is truly wonderful to be able to return to Singapore to perform! It feels indeed like a “homecoming”. I am both honored and moved to have the opportunity to play there, where I was born and spent so much of my happy childhood. I also cannot wait to visit all the places I used to love as a child, as well as discover all the changes that have been made to the city!
TFI: I have to ask OMM and Altenburg Arts – how did this wonderful collaboration to invite Kate Liu to Singapore come about?
Lionel Choi: I kind of made a call for unity between stakeholders in the arts community in a vlog I posted on social media sometime last year. Somehow, to my surprise, OMM picked it up and responded. I think we found a lot of common ground with the team at OMM, and perhaps the most important of which is this rather pure, maybe idealistic drive and passion to create interesting and meaningful live music-making experiences for ourselves and our community, without being weighed down by, shall I say, excess non-musical baggage. I think we are first and foremost music-lovers, and that was already an excellent start.
After acknowledging our shared values, we were still not sure how we should collaborate, but somehow, the stars aligned for this project. We had already scheduled Kate Liu’s recital about a year ago, and OMM happened to have on hand a date at the Esplanade around the same time. Kate happened to be available for both dates. Our border miraculously opened to Germany, where Kate now lives. And here we are.
Chan Tze Law: We are totally delighted to be collaborating with Altenburg Arts. OMM had been hoping to perform some Mozart following recent explorations of Schubert’s music. So when Altenburg suggested Kate Liu we jumped at the opportunity.
LC: I am glad we worked out a way to make this special collaboration work for both organisations, and I would say the audience is the big winner. While live events are still a bit of an endangered species, we get one of the most loved rising talents in the piano world flying in from abroad and playing a concerto and a recital over two evenings. What a treat, especially in these isolating times!
TFI: There have been several postponed concerts due to travel and border restrictions. Lionel, can you tell us a little more about the impact this has had on bringing in artists from overseas?
LC: We do not have a particular desire to bring in artists through unannounced channels for which we have to seek exceptional approval, and we are not sure if those channels even exist for us. Instead, we are working with what is available to everyone, and keeping a keen eye out for quality opportunities based on that. Our border is open to China, for instance. We invited Haiou Zhang to fly in from China in June to play the first piano recitals in Singapore by a visiting international artist since the pandemic. We have now opened our border to Germany, and, besides Kate, both pianists Chiyan Wong and Zlata Chochieva, whom we are presenting next, are based there.
But the problem with this pandemic is that the goalposts keep changing, sometimes with barely any prior notice. We were meant to present pianist Eric Lu in June this year, and he was meant to fly in from Taiwan, another territory to which we kept our border open for quite a long time. Who would have expected Taiwan to have such a sudden and spectacular outbreak less than a month before the concert, resulting in an overnight change in our border policy? Fun times…
TFI: Tze Law, What does working with Kate mean, for you personally and for OMM?
CTL: What a good question! For OMM and me, music helps to bring people (back) together. With limited woodwinds and brass now allowed in live performance, a part of the OMM family missing since the pandemic erupted is finally able to perform with us. Performing with Kate is a welcome extension of that thinking!
TFI: And what do you most look forward to out of this collaboration?
CTL: Well, Kate is of course very well known as a Chopin interpreter, but this Mozart Concerto is also on her repertoire list. We also know that this particular concerto was thought of very highly by Beethoven, himself a pivotal composer of later piano concertos. So we are very much looking forward to Kate’s take on such an important work in the piano concerto repertoire.
TFI: Can you tell us a little about the decision to programme Stravinsky and Weill alongside the Mozart Piano Concerto?
CTL: Gradual opening up of concert activity notwithstanding, artistic planning and programming is still very much restricted by the prevailing Covid safety protocols. So it’s challenging for the OMM artistic planning team to meet these requirements, both in rehearsal and concert. However, the wish to celebrate the return of the family of musicians from the wind family, the allowable compact size of the orchestra, Altenburg’s wonderful suggestion of collaborating with Kate Liu, and support from the Kurt Weill Foundation all helped our team come up with a very compelling programme of works that broke new ground for their composers, at a time where orchestras are also forced to break new ground and potentially depart from their established programming practices.
TFI: While we have seen the arts sector slowly opening up, how has COVID-19 permanently changed the nature, practice and appreciation of the arts – for artists and patrons?
LC: Musicians have had to learn to be creative under atypical circumstances. I saw recent videos of opera singers in the US having to sing with a mask on. Many of us can barely spend half a day speaking through a mask, imagine having to sing, project and emote through it! Many performers have had to adjust to playing for an online audience in atypical spaces, and to imagine the applause that follows one’s final note. I don’t think any orchestra has fully gotten used to playing in their pandemic configurations and produced work at a level of a good pre-Covid day. Patrons may have had to adjust their expectations.
I certainly hope none of these things are permanent! The online platforms are good to have and are here to stay, but again, I hope they do not result in a permanent mindset change by audiences thinking it is as good as the real thing. We do what we do at Altenburg Arts, because we are of the firm belief that nothing can replace the live music-making experience in the concert hall. The visceral energy and tension in a performing space. The genuine exchange, mostly inaudible and wordless, between an attentive, reacting audience and the performers. The spontaneity, the ephemeral, the thrills – and spills – of playing it live to an audience you can actually see and whose energy you can feel.
What I hope will be permanent, however, is this raised awareness, appreciation and respect for music-making in more intimate forms. Covid has certainly favoured recitals and chamber music. A heaven-storming performance of a Mahler Symphony is inspiring stuff, but this ‘intimacy’ in performer numbers in chamber music is by no means a less profound, less enjoyable experience.
That, and needless coughing in the concert hall!
TFI: Kate, what is a typical day for you like, if you are not preparing for a concert engagement?
KL: A typical day for me is actually quite boring! But at least when I am not preparing for a concert engagement, I try to spend more time outdoors visiting places I have never been to in the city, finding activities to do, or just taking nice walks around the nature areas.
TFI: Kate will be performing 2 nights – tell us why we should watch both concerts!
CTL: Because there can’t be too much of a good thing nowadays, to enjoy the contrasting concert settings of both a very spacious Esplanade Concert Hall and the intimate Victoria Concert Hall with significant but appropriately sized repertoire.
KL: The two concerts will be completely different! The first one will be Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor with orchestra, and the second will be a solo recital with works by Mozart, Chopin and Brahms.
LC: Because both concerts will give you a more complete, comprehensive portrait of an incredibly talented pianist we have waited long enough to hear in Singapore. With OMM, you will hear Kate the concerto soloist asserting herself in the spotlight, retreating purposefully when taking a backseat, and always having delightful repartee with the orchestra. It is a collaborative effort to deliver the musical experience.
In the solo recital, the entire experience rests on Kate alone and her instrument, and part of the fun is to take in the sheer level of virtuosity, vision and stamina to convey (among other things) as strong a narrative and as varied a palette of tone colours to make the artistic experience of the listener as completely satisfying as in an orchestral concert. It is a huge responsibility to play a solo recital and to keep an audience deeply engaged. Kate has demonstrated time and again that she is perfectly capable of discharging that responsibility with aplomb. Her enormous brilliance, superbly sensitive lyrical gifts, composure even at full power, and all-round respectful music-making will be on full display for all to enjoy.
And of course, the music itself is going to be incredible. Mozart’s D minor Concerto is one of his most popular and one of his richest in terms of dramatic and narrative quality, almost as if it could pass off as middle-period Beethoven. The same can be said of his A minor sonata that opens the recital, which is a whirlwind of energy and drama. The Chopin Ballade No.1 has all of the composer’s well-loved qualities, rich in melodic content as well as youthful exuberance. And finally, Brahms’ huge Third Sonata, monumental in design and Romantic expression. It so impressed Schumann at the time that he greeted it with such gushing praise, like an Olympian fanfare!
KL: All of the pieces I have to play for these concerts are works that I dearly love, and that are great masterpieces of the piano literature. I hope to see everyone there!
Tickets for Kate Liu’s concerts are available from SISTIC
From Warsaw to Singapore: Two Evenings with Kate Liu https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/kateliu1021
Symphonic Fantasies . Kate Liu Plays Mozart (with OMM)
From Warsaw to Singapore: Two Evenings with Kate Liu
Kate Liu plays Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466 with OMM and Chan Tze Law on 16 Oct 2021, 7:30pm at the Esplanade Concert Hall. She will also play a solo recital featuring Mozart Piano Sonata in A minor, K. 310, Brahms Sonata No.3 in F minor, Op.5 and Chopin Ballade No.1 at the Victoria Concert Hall on 21 October 2021, 7:30pm.
Drama and Passion: Solo Piano Recital by Kate Liu
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